BERLIN (AP) — Though it had long seemed likely, Hertha Berlin’s relegation from the Bundesliga still felt like a blow out of nowhere when it came.
The “Old Lady” was leading against Bochum deep into injury time on Saturday — in a game it had to win — and hopes of another dramatic escape were rising. Hertha’s fans were already celebrating the chance to fight again on the last day of the season.
Then Keven Schlotterbeck — a former Union Berlin player — scored Bochum’s equalizer for 1-1. There was no time for a response.
Hertha was relegated after a 10-year stint in the top division and, all around Olympiastadion, the club’s fans stood in stunned silence with their hands on their heads.
But Hertha’s downfall arguably started years earlier, when billionaire Lars Windhorst started backing the team in 2019 and declared it a “big city club” that could challenge the traditional giants.
Windhorst invested 374 million euros ($405 million) in Hertha, fueling a spending spree and prompting a managerial merry-go-round that started badly when the inexperienced Ante Čović was fired and his replacement, Jurgen Klinsmann, quit after seven games.
Klinsmann had said Hertha was the “most exciting soccer project in Europe.”
Coaches came and went, managing directors departed, sporting directors and chief executive officers, too. There were scandals and renewed low points, and Hertha never came close to Windhorst’s dream of challenging Europe’s best.
Instead, the team found itself fighting relegation every season, and the “big city club” moniker became a term of derision.
Windhorst’s money dried up during the coronavirus pandemic, when restrictions impacted ticket sales, and suddenly Hertha found it needed to cut costs. A team that was already struggling was progressively weakened. Hertha stayed up only after a playoff last year. Then it got rid of more players.
Windhorst sold his stake to American investors 777 Partners in March.
“We weren’t relegated today,” Hertha coach Pál Dárdai said, referring to the reasons for the team’s demise. “We have to cross it off, analyze it, learn from the mistakes, everyone, including myself, very important, and then we can be proud again.”
Dárdai, who was brought back for his third stint as coach to save the team from relegation, might yet stay on to oversee its rebuilding in the second division. Hertha president Kay Bernstein, sporting director Benjamin Weber and academy director Andreas “Zecke” Neuendorf all want the Hungarian to stay.
“We have super fans, a super city, super grounds, and it pays off to work here,” Dárdai said. “I’ll use the word again – work. Not just to be here, happy, but to work, and then it will be a promising future.”
Some Hertha fans showed up to applaud the players as they trained on Sunday. Hertha visits Wolfsburg for its last Bundesliga game on Saturday and then the breakup of the squad will begin.
Hertha managing director Thomas E. Herrich previously said it needs to reduce squad costs by 30% – the club’s license from the German soccer league (DFL) is on the line. New majority stake-holder 777 has committed to providing 100 million euros ($108 million) but Herrich said more is needed to show the DFL that Hertha is financially secure for next season.
On Monday, Hertha said it started an application to postpone the repayment of a 40-million-euro ($43.2 million) bond due in November by two years. Club members have until June 19 to approve or reject the application.
“We’d be able to stabilize and improve Hertha BSC’s financial situation next season with this extension,” Herrich said. “It would also be an important and central building block in the DFL’s licensing process. That’s why quick approval and support would mean a lot to us.”
The contracts of Prince Boateng, Marvin Plattenhardt and Stevan Jovetic are up at the end of the season, and the likes of Dodi Lukebakio, Lucas Tousart, Suat Serdar, Wilfried Kanga and others are all likely to leave.
Hertha will hope to make up for the shortfall through its own academy players, with Derry Scherhant (20), Pascal Klemens (18) and Ibrahim Maza (17) given more playing time.
Weber, who will oversee Hertha’s transfer activity, faces a busy summer ahead.
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