A team based in one of Europe’s biggest capital cities, playing their home games at an Olympic Stadium with a capacity of over 70,000, yet still managing to under-achieve with recent and regular relegations and subsequent promotions. No, this is not a grim prediction for West Ham’s future, but rather a look at Hertha Berlin, a club that manages to maintain passionate support throughout Berlin and remains the city’s biggest club by a long distance.
Last season the team achieved their best finish for seven years, coming 7th in the Bundesliga, and thus gained entry into the third qualifying round of the 2016/17 Europa League, where they would face Danish side Brondby IF. Many clubs, particularly in England, view the Europa League as a chore which only serves to bring fixture congestion. But based on the atmosphere I witnessed from both sets of fans throughout Berlin on match day, I could tell there was excitement and respect for Europe’s second competition.
The first thing to note: this home game was a rare event as it was not played at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium due to an event clash, so instead, the venue was moved to the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Stadion, a stadium with a capacity of under 20,000 which harks back to football stadiums of a bygone error and a venue Hertha Berlin hardly ever have to play at.
Long fences are erected in front of fan seats, meaning the majority of fans choose to stand rather than sit. This claustrophobic environment is heightened by the powerful, adrenalin-fuelled chants coming from both sets of fans, and the sweltering heat of a July evening adds to the cauldron-like effect of the stadium. Yet the character of the stadium is alluring and I am glad that I’m getting to watch a match here rather than at a massive, potentially characterless Olympic Stadium.
Second thing to note: All the beer served at the game was non-alcoholic, as a steward was quick to inform me upon seeing my suspicious reaction to the cheap 3 Euro price for a pint of ‘’beer’’. Whether this ‘’beer’’ has a placebo effect on fans cannot be confirmed.
Hertha Berlin opt for a conventional 4-2-3-1 formation. Former Chelsea stalwart Salomon Kalou is deployed on the left-wing, while Bosnian Vedad Ibisevic lines up as the lone striker. Brondby are looking to contain the game as the away team and go for a lesser used 4-1-2-1-2 setup, Teemu Pukki being their key man as the number 9 striker. The game starts off an edgy affair, with Berlin holding possession but not creating much. Brondby look happy to sit back and absorb the pressure early on. Yet all that changes on the 28th minute when Ibisevic scores a wonderful overhead bicycle kick from the middle of the box, which crashes into the corner of the net. The stadium erupts, and justifiably so – this was a goal of real quality.
Brondby did not react to the goal as the game wore on: they were fluent in their passing yet never really pressed the Berlin goal. It seemed they were happy to take a 1-0 loss back to Brondby for the second leg, yet that plan almost backfired as first Kalou was denied by a wonderful save from Brondby keeper Frederik Ronnow before Ibisevic almost bagged a second goal in the 81st minute, before being judged to have handled the ball as it went in.
Other notable observations included seeing former Leeds midfielder Rodolph Austin come on for Brondby late in the second half. Austin, who is Jamaican, was essentially kicked out of England a few seasons ago due to work permit regulations despite having a deal lined up with Sheffield Wednesday, so it was good to see him feature in the Europa League for a notable club.
During the second half flares began to arise at both ends. First the home fans lit fireworks, before the Brondby fans, who remained in cheerful spirits despite their team losing, turned their small section of the stadium into a sea of red as flares lit up the area, causing a pause in the action for a minute or two. The general atmosphere of the game however, was very friendly and both sets of fans mingled with each other – there was no hostility.
With the second leg on Thursday, Brondby should consider themselves favourites to progress, taking back a 1-0 deficit to their home stadium in front of their own crowd. They will be confident of scoring a few goals against a Berlin side aggrieved not to have scored more at home. Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable game to attend, more so for the atmosphere and positivity of the crowd than for the action in game itself. We wait with eager anticipation ahead of the return fixture.