Letter From Berlin: Berlin now dreams of a big Hertha

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HISTORY HAS made Berlin a city of under-achievers. The people here have low expectations from life: too many dreams have turned in the past into nightmares.

Take football. This is a city of three and a half million inhabitants. Munich, a provincial town half Berlin's size, currently has three clubs in the top division of the Bundesliga, against one from Berlin. And Hertha, nicknamed "the Old Lady," has not exactly covered itself in glory. Champions in 1930 and 31 - that's about all, and the current season is only their third in German football's top rung after many years in the wilderness.

Suddenly, they find themselves in the Champions' League, entertaining Chelsea tomorrow and Milan soon after. Berlin is terrified. Last season, the fans would have settled for a safe berth in mid-table, and few believed that the management's goal of a place in the Uefa competition was realistic. They ended up third, partly by fluke, as several bigger clubs hit a losing streak in the spring, while Hertha kept their nerve.

The big time came too early. Hertha's stadium had only benches, and no numbered seats, and the management were slow to understand that Uefa rules applied to them, too, not only to the likes of the Armenian champions. They sought special dispensation - pleading penury - but failed, and the seats were grudgingly installed in the last weeks of August. The argument about who should pay for them is still raging.

Their home venue, the Olympic stadium built by Hitler for the 1936 Games, is bleeding the club dry. Nothing much has been done to it since the Nazi emblems were chiselled off the facade after the war. The city government runs the complex, but cannot afford to pay maintenance, and looks to Hertha and the federal government for big contributions.

A complete refurbishment is needed, costing at the latest estimates some pounds 80m. But no funds will be forthcoming until Fifa decides which nation will stage the 2006 World Cup. Berlin's Olympic stadium is earmarked for the final, if Germany wins the right to stage it.

The stadium hangs like a millstone around Hertha`s neck. Although 50,000 or more spectators are not uncommon on a Saturday, the costs of maintenance are eating up receipts. Yet potentially this club is a gold mine. With the exception of Hansa Rostock - a strong bet for relegation this year - there is no other First Division team in eastern Germany.

Hertha have suddenly become fashionable, the fans are flocking through the turnstiles, but the huge overheads leave little money for buying players. To be fit for the Champions' League, Hertha was able to spend a total of DM18m (pounds 6.7m) on new players, less than what other Bundesliga clubs forked out on just one of their promising South American signings. It would be foolish to expect too much from their encounter with star-studded Chelsea and Milan.

But try telling that to the fans. Jurgen Rober, the 45-year old coach who brought them up to the First Division, complains that the supporters have lost touch with reality. As Berlin's stock rises in other areas, the city's inhabitants are developing hunger for success in football, too. They want Hertha to be champions, first of Germany and then of Europe. They no longer applaud their team grinding out nil-nil draws at home, as they did against Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday.

Rober is aghast. Any expectation that Hertha might improve on its "sensational" third place this season is "Utopia", he insists. Rober embodies German football. He likes patient build-ups, and not only on the pitch. Maybe, in two or three years, the club can have a go at the championship, but not yet, he protests.

He spent well, especially up front, bringing in the Iranian striker Ali Daei to team up with last season's leading Bundesliga goal-scorer, Michael Preetz. But his strengthened team has not had a great start to the season, crashing to a 5-1 defeat to in-form Hamburg in one of the early games. Ten of the regular players were out with injury at one stage, including 19-year old wunderkind Sebastian Deisler, upon whose shoulders so much of German football's hopes rest.

The fans, though, will hear no excuses. In west Berlin pubs, where the club draws most of its support, punters no longer reminisce about great promotion battles. A self-belief is developing, and ambition. After a few drinks, they see their team competing with Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and other mega-teams as equals.

Their enthusiasm has started to infect the club management. They are preparing to raise cash by a share issue, and talk of entering the big league. They have a vision of Hertha becoming a "club of European importance". The coach, wilting under all this pressure, is beginning to feel nostalgic for the good old days when nothing was expected of his team.