Well it’s happened again. Not even a full season back in top flight football and the “old dame” Hertha has been embroiled in a soap opera of daytime TV proportions, where nobody ends up looking good. Manager Markus Babbel and Sport Director Michael Preetz were entangled in a war of words where one was trying to paint the other as a liar and claiming who did or did not say what, when. Markus Babbel, for reasons known only to him, did not want to extend his contract and the club did not want to continue with a manager that was not committed to them in the long run. What could have been resolved quietly and without both parties acting like petulant children, instead exploded into a battle fought in the media. So what was the end result? Hertha ousted Babbel after the 17th match day, but before the cup match against Kaiserslautern. Not allowing Markus Babbel the dignity of at least managing the cup match smacked of vindictiveness and immaturity. A quiet parting of the ways during the current winter break would have been the more elegant solution. Luckily for Hertha, they beat up on a lowly Kaiserslautern team, winning 3-1 and moving on to the quarterfinals where they get to tussle with Marco Reus and Borussia Mönchengladbach.
So what is next? As with any messy divorce, those left paying the price are the innocent bystanders, or in this case the fans and the team. Not only has the club been largely ridiculed in the German press and in talk shows, since Markus Babbel is generally quite well liked, they have decided to bring on a new manager who is anything but a top candidate for any serious Bundesliga club these days; or so I thought. The knight in shining armor is none less than Michael Skibbe, returning from what can only be described as football exile. After famously leading a safely positioned Eintracht Frankfurt team from 7th in the table at the winter break (with 6 points more than Hertha have now) to an unprecedented negative streak that saw 2 points out of 8 matches and only 1 goal scored. How did that nightmare end? Well, Skibbe got sacked and Frankfurt was relegated. After that disaster, the great hope for Hertha has spent the last few months as the manager for Turkish side Eskisehirspor, a team that reportedly has had issues paying its staff and players on a regular basis.
Michael Skibbe has been a mediocre manager at best, with poor leadership and motivational skills, despite a good tactical background. As a young manager he failed at Borussia Dortmund, was part of the coaching staff for the disastrous Germany squad during Euro 2004 and had no true success with a loaded Bayer Leverkusen squad either, missing both the Champions League and Uefa Cup places after a horrible second round of matches following the winter break. His biggest success; he won the Turkish Super Cup with Galatasaray, but was later sacked due to not qualifying for the Champions League.
If I were a Hertha Berlin supporter I would be very worried. Not only have 1 ½ years of hard rebuilding work been tarnished and a popular manager given an unceremonious exit, but his replacement cannot instill any sort of confidence in squad or fans. In fact, the latest troubling occurrence is that Markus Babbel’s assistant, Rainer Widmayer, has no interest in staying at the club, but will instead wait for Babbel to receive a new job and work for him then. This raises the greater and much more troubling question that has to be asked: What is wrong at Hertha? What has driven a popular young manager and his assistant to prefer temporary unemployment over continuing the good work they had started in the German capitol?
Hertha is the biggest football show in town. Union Berlin is in the 2nd Bundesliga and most likely won’t see top flight football anytime soon. With success, Markus Babbel could have been the talk of the town, especially after working together with the not so easy to work with Preetz in rebuilding the club’s fan base and local reputation. Despite some financial constraints from being in second tier football for a season, the club’s infrastructure is decent and the relatively young squad has plenty of potential and talent. Part of the reason for Markus Babbel’s unwillingness to extend his contract is the fact that he never truly felt at home in Berlin, travelling back to Munich every week he could, to spend time with his family. Fact is that club hero, Michael Preetz is known to be a bit difficult, which certainly grated on Babbel. Another downside is the fact that the club, tight on cash, seems to not be in a position to make many higher priced investments in the squad and instead had to settle for raw talents and cast-offs, e.g. Thomas Kraft, Tunay Torun, Andreas Ottl, etc.
At the end of the day though, only Markus Babbel himself knows why he chose to leave what seemed like a good situation. Those closest to him and former teammates commented that it is in his nature to be completely honest and not want to stay in a hopeless situation where the future would not reflect his visions or expectations, because after all, Markus Babbel was a winner as a player coming from Bayern and certainly has the same drive and commitment to success as a manager. It is just a shame that it had to have such an acrimonious ending in Berlin for him.
With a new year upon them, Hertha BSC Berlin is looking into an uncertain future. Will a young squad work through the drama and prove resilient? Possibly. Will the new manager inspire them to end the season well clear of the relegation zone? Unlikely. Will more drama and frustration haunt the supporters? Most certainly. All in all, Hertha Berlin is back to its roots of drama, instability and frustration. The good thing is that Hertha has a few weeks to get used to a new manager, who can hopefully prepare them for a turbulent second half of the season.