Hertha Berlin is hoping birthday wishes for coach Pal Dardai bring some extra luck in its unlikely push for Champions League football
BERLIN — Hertha Berlin is hoping birthday wishes for coach Pal Dardai bring some extra luck in its unlikely push for Champions League football.
Fifth-place Hertha is just two points off the Bundesliga's last qualification place for Europe's premier competition and three points off Borussia Dortmund in third.
Dardai, who turned 41 on Thursday, watched his side beat Dortmund 2-1 last weekend, underlining its position as the league's best team at home this season — better even than runaway leader Bayern Munich — with ten victories and one draw from 12 games at its Olympiastadion.
Hertha's problems have come away from home, however. Five defeats in a row should have ended hopes of Champions League football, though rivals have not taken advantage.
"Nine points are too few," acknowledged Dardai, whose side has won just twice away this season and next faces a trip to seventh-place Cologne on Saturday. "It's about time to change that."
Dardai has introduced an efficiency to Hertha since taking over, initially on an interim basis, from Jos Luhukay after a 1-0 loss at home to Bayer Leverkusen in February 2015. Hertha was second from bottom at the time — ahead of Dortmund, then in a spiral of uncertainty under previous coach Juergen Klopp.
Dardai, a former midfielder and youth coach at Hertha, was also coaching the Hungarian national team, but he gave up that position to focus on the club. He brought tactical discipline to the side and convinced the underperforming players to up their game. In short, he rekindled belief in the side, showing them that much can be achieved, despite limited resources, through hard work and commitment.
Dardai's background as an uncompromising defensive midfielder at Hertha helped. The Hungarian has long been fighting for the club's cause.
"Hardly anyone has done so much for Hertha BSC in the recent past as Pal Dardai," the club said on his birthday. "He wore the jersey with the blue and white flag on his chest since 1996, more than two decades for one team — an absolute exception in today's professional football environment."
Dardai even turned down an offer from Bayern in 1999. The Berliner Zeitung newspaper reported that Bayern president Uli Hoeness was speaking on the telephone with Dardai's wife Monika as the player was negotiating with Hoeness' brother Dieter, then Hertha general manager, next door. It was a rare defeat for the older Hoeness brother.
"I was out of contract and had a few offers but I wanted to stay here because there was something stirring at Hertha," Dardai said of his decision at the time.
Altogether he made a club-record 286 Bundesliga appearances for Hertha over 14 years and also played UEFA Cup and Champions League football, endearing himself to the fans with his unconditional commitment.
As coach he saved the club from relegation in 2015, led it to seventh the following season, and is well-placed to do better this year — if the side can address its troubles on the road.
"The capital club is fifth and the strongest team at home in the league," Hertha said. "An end to this development is nowhere near in sight!"
Salomon Kalou, a Champions League winner with Chelsea in 2012, extended his contract with the club on Wednesday, following captain and fellow striker Vedad Ibisevic's example.
"I feel very good in Berlin and still have a lot to achieve with Hertha BSC. I want to help the team keep developing as well as it has in the last years," the 31-year-old Kalou said.
The Ivory Coast forward's signing came as an early birthday present for Dardai, whose efforts no doubt played a big role in convincing his two main strikers to stay.
"Hertha BSC congratulates Pal Dardai heartily for his birthday and wishes him all the best, lots of luck and success for the future! Gratulalok!" the club said, adding congratulations in his native Hungarian.