The loss highlights cracks at the top of the club, as chronic mismanagement sends them spiralling towards relegation.
A packed Ostkurve at the Berlin Olympiastadion shows Hertha BSC fans beneath a banner that reads 'Windhorst and Gegenbauer out' in the derby defeat by Union Berlin on April 9, 2022. The huge banner revealed by the Hertha Berlin ultras said it all: "Windhorst and Gegenbauer out!"
After a third derby defeat of the season, this time a 4-1 thumping at the hands of neighbors Union, patience at Hertha Berlin is starting to wear thin. Despite spending an eye-watering €375million ($408m) on the team in the last three years, Hertha's club hierarchy only have only two mid-table finishes and now a looming relegation to show for it.
Lars Windhorst, the German entrepreneur behind the huge investment since July 2019, had pledged to transform Hertha into the 'Big City Club' that he believes Berlin deserves. He now owns a 66.6% stake in the club's professional football division - although majority voting rights remain with the club and its members, in accordance with the 50+1 rule.
Windhorst was once described as a business "wunderkind" by then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl back in 1997, but 25 years on, Hertha are yet to see the sharp end of Windhorst's business acumen.
The cold reality is that, under the 45-year-old's watch, the club have become a circus. Player turnover has been huge with 29 incomings and 41 outgoings since 2019, net spend on transfers is up at $95.65million, and Windhorst has already burned through six permanent coaches in 34 months.
Add to that the club's absence of a footballing identity and lack of direction or strategy in the boardroom, and you have a perfect storm of failure. Union Berlin fans release pyrotechnics and fireworks in the away end of the Berlin Olympic Stadium as the game plays out in the foreground. Union Berlin were literally on fire in the derby against Hertha, as their 12,000 supporters demonstrated. The "Irons" are 7th in the Bundesliga and chasing European football, while Hertha are 17th and facing relegation.
Five games to survive
Saturday's crushing derby defeat leaves Hertha with just one win in their last 12 league games, having conceded 31 goals during that period. They are second bottom of the Bundesliga and, as things stand, are on course for their third relegation since 2010. They've now lost three Berlin derbies in one season – two in the Bundesliga, one in the Cup. Hertha have also shipped nine goals to their city rivals in those three games.
"We played against a better team, they were more engaged and showed from the start why they are ahead of us in the table," said Felix Magath, Hertha's third coach this season and Windhorst's latest appointment after Ante Covic, Jürgen Klinsmann, Bruno Labbadia, Pal Dardai and Tayfun Korkut.
"They were more robust than us and we couldn't stamp our mark on the game. The opponents we have coming up aren't quite on Union's level, so hopefully we'll have a chance against them. We understand that the fans are bitterly disappointed to lose a derby like this. but it's not as if the players aren't trying. Today, they just played against a better team and lost."
Magath's insistence that his players haven't given up fails to conceal the concerning manner of the defeat by Union. Hertha have five games to save their season, the next three of which against the three teams immediately above them: Augsburg, Stuttgart and Arminia Bielefeld. Three finals before closing the season against Mainz and a trip to Dortmund. Even for a coach with a wealth of experience, Magath has his work cut out to keep Hertha alive.
Furious Hertha ultras demand players' shirts
Hertha's unacceptable form on the field has revealed splits at the top of the club, with Windhorst effectively blaming the club's president, Werner Gegenbauer, for mismanaging the club. He recently called on the club's members to vote out Gegenbauer, but the fans seem to want both men gone.
Angry Hertha Berlin ultras confront the players after the derby defeat to Union. A banner reads: More football - less business. "More football - less business" - Hertha Berlin's ultras were furious at their players and their club. But sporting director Fredi Bobic said they "crossed a line" by demanding the players surrender their shirts.
"Our club is turning itself into a public laughing stock," wrote the ultra group "Harlekins Berlin" in a furious statement on Monday morning, turning their attention first to investor Windhorst, who they accused of following "personal interests" and his "image": "Though financial ill-discipine, delusions of grandeur and catastrophic squad planning, Hertha still had to apply for €7m of state coronavirus aid [during the pandemic], despite the sums invested ... The investor is now shamelessly exploiting this emergency to exert political power within the club. It's been clear that Lars Windhorst can't keep himself out of sporting decisions since the appointment of Jürgen Klinsmann ... Right from the start, he's made no secret of the fact that he's only interested in power."
Then, it was club president Gegenbauer's turn: "Werner Gegenbauer has been club president seeminly for an eternity [since 2008 - ed.]. In all this time, he has never managed to ensure that Hertha BSC has been seen in any way positively in Berlin," the Harlekins wrote, also criticizing the ongoing saga over a planned move away from the Olympic Stadium.
"There can be no 'carry on as you are' at Hertha BSC," the ultras concluded. "There has to be a comprehensive process of renewal - starting at the top. Two demands are essential for a meaningful change of course: Windhorst and Gegenbauer out!" With tensions running high at full time on Saturday, the ultras - back at a home game for the first time since the start of the pandemic - appeared to demand that the players surrender their shirts to them, which many did.
"We're sorry for the fans, for the club. It was just a gesture, taking off our kits. It's obvious that the fans are angry after a game like that, their first game back in the stadium, and against Union," said Hertha's Maximilian Mittelstädt, who approached the ultras after the game. "Whether it's a humiliation for us [players] or not, I don't know, I just don't want a conflict."
Asked whether he would have removed his shirt, sporting director Fredi Bobic, a Hertha player himself from 2003-05, said the ultras had "crossed a line." "No I wouldn't have done it," he said. "I wore the shirt with pride. I understand the anger at losing three derbies, but we are athletes, and that's sport."
Close up of Hertha Berlin's sporting director Fredi Bobic. 'It's a defeat, a bitter defeat' — Hertha's sporting director Fredi Bobic tried to put a brave face on another loss.
Berlin power shift
After three straight losses to their city rivals, the power shift in Berlin from blue to red is complete. During the period of Windhorst's chaotic tenure at Hertha, Union have had one coach, one sporting director and one president – and that stability has given the club a platform to enjoy steady progress.
But Bobic, in his current role since July 2021, wouldn't entertain any talk of power shifts or humiliations: "We lost a game," he told Sky. "It's a defeat, a bitter defeat, and it means we won no points. But nothing more, so stop trying to make something bigger out of it. That's sport. Union are better than us at the moment, we have to recognize that. "We're in a relegation battle with important games coming up. Have you ever seen an easy relegation battle? It's a fight. It might seem illogical, but the table situation hasn't actually changed. Last week we beat Hoffenheim and everyone celebrated, but so what? We won one game."
The problem is, that win against Hoffenheim was their only win in 2022. Whether it's catgeorized as a "humiliation" or a "power shift" or both, things could be about to get a lot worse for the beleaguered Big City Club.
Edited by James Thorogood
Author Michael Da Silva, Lolade Adewuyi (Berlin), Matt Ford
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