King Otto’s reign wasn’t supposed to be like this. When he returned to Hertha BSC he was going to be the hero of the hour- the wise old man, whose depth of experience and total respect for (and from) the game would pull them out of the clutches of a possible relegation, and bring back a little bit of self respect for the increasingly desparate fans who continue to turn up in droves to the Olympiastadion.
Otto Rehhagel hadn’t had his coronation as he first played for Hertha in a 1-1 draw with Nürnberg back on August the 24th, 1964. He was still plain old Otto and A hard days night was still filling the cinemas. Hertha fans didn’t even really hate Schalke at the time, and the popular image of royalty was still yet to become one of inbred halfwits damned to eternal regattas in the company of horse-faced women and fawning, servile nonentities. It was, needless to say, a very long time ago.
He became known as King Otto years later after he had worked miracles with Werder Bremen, with Kaiserslautern and, most impressively of all, with the Greek national team.
It was as a King he would finally come back to the capital city, and it is as King that he seems to be set to leave- but as the modern interpretation, out of date, out of style and out of touch with a game that has moved on while he has been dining out on old stories and the tales of great battles won in a past that is rapidly becoming more distant.
I, for one, was completely sucked in by his return. It a calculated gamble from the beleaguered manager, Michael Preetz, for sure, but it was, in many ways, a PR masterstroke. Maybe people would stop laughing at Hertha BSC again after all.
But last night, as Hertha capitulated flabbily, shabbily and worst of all spinelessly, against a Freiburg side that know all too well the tenets of all of Otto’s mantras about the collective being greater than the individual, it seemed that the old man had run out of ideas.
He had resorted to the talk of decisive battles to be won. He had drawn the curtains on training and emphasised the work ethic that would get them out of this mess. Hertha had been excellent at times in getting pasted by Wolfsburg, just as they had been resolute and solid in the goalless draw with Mönchengladbach last week, but where before they had shown guts and patience- the tales of missed chances overshadowing the morale-sapping points tally- last night they showed precious little.
Balls were hit over the top to players who weren’t there. One winger, Anis Ben-Hatira, would roar down the flank and fail to get in a decent cross. The other was anonymous in the extreme. The central defenders, Roman Hubnik and Christian Lell could only watch impassively as a ball was delivered from the oppositions goalkeeper, to Sebastian Freis, and into the net past a despairing Thomas Kraft- a man whose sainted outstretched boot had saved them once before already in this game and a thousand more times before it this season.
It was Hubnik who will remember the game more than most- and not for the goal he headed in which, all too briefly, almost led to a fightback for the home side. It was Hubnik who scored the own goal which (if Hertha do get relegated) will be remembered in the same way that poor Sascha Burchert is remembered for his spectacularly unwise diving headers against Hamburg in a different relegation battle two years previously.
He was in his own six yard box, happily holding the line as a Freiburg throw in from the right hand side petered out into blessed oblivion. There were defenders here there and everywhere, but Garra Dembelé contrived to sneak an inch of space and sent a wildly speculative ball along the line- straight to him.
It was the reaction of a lifetime spent kicking balls around for fun, a thoughtless, instinctive, act that had the most hideous of outcomes- Roman Hubnik’s left leg jutted out like a flamingo’s in piranha infested waters, the ball took the deftest of dinks off his knee and it flew gracefully in slow motion, dropping onto, and finally inside, the far post onto which 50,000 disbelieving eyes were now fixed.
To blame Hubnik for the own goal would be callous when he had numerous other mistakes which were far from being as costly. To blame Rehhagel for a catastrophic accident would be pointless when his lack of tactical flexibility seemed so pronounced on a disappointing and dispiriting evening when the sun set on the Olympiastadion with a beautiful hue, but it may just have set on Hertha’s season too.
It is not over yet for Hertha BSC this year, but the loss against Freiburg may have been the final nail in the coffin for their fans’ belief in their constitutional monarchy.