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 By Uli Hesse

Hertha Berlin, Pal Dardai hoping to defeat a long-running DFB-Pokal curse

Pal Dardai has experienced German Cup heartbreak as a Hertha player. He's hoping to reverse it as a manager.

Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2002, was not a pleasant day. The temperature was unseasonably mild, but it was gloomy, wet and windy. And so only 17,200 football fans came out to the Olympic Stadium in Berlin to watch Hertha play Cologne in the quarterfinals of the German cup, the DFB-Pokal.

Although Hertha's performance matched the miserable weather, the team scored two minutes after the restart when a goalkeeping blunder gifted Berlin forward Bart Goor the opening goal. Cologne were the better team on the night, not least because some of Hertha's key players -- such as centre-forward Michael Preetz or midfielder Pal Dardai -- had a very quiet day. Yet Goor's lucky goal should have been enough to see the hosts through. They had a fine team that year that would qualify for Europe, while Cologne went down unceremoniously.

But five minutes from the final whistle, Cologne's Swiss centre-back Marc Zellweger tried a desperate shot from almost 30 yards. It hit the back of the net and tied the game. The rest was almost inevitable. Halfway through extra time, the visitors' captain Dirk Lottner ran past a few Hertha players -- whom a Berlin newspaper would derisively call "paralysed" the next day -- to score the winning goal. Fourteen years later, Preetz is Hertha's general manager while Dardai coaches the team. It's safe to say that on Wednesday, both men will think back to that Cologne game in 2002: It still marks the closest Hertha have come to being among the last four teams in the German cup competition for the last 30 years.

The closest until now, at least, because on Wednesday, Hertha travel to Heidenheim for another quarterfinal cup tie. The hosts are a mid-table team in the second division, while Hertha are unbeaten since November and sit third in the top flight. Put differently, the side from the capital will go into the game as the overwhelming favourites.

If they go through, they will have progressed further in the cup than any professional Hertha side (mark that distinction) in three decades, but it would be only the first step. The real aim is to break a curse that goes back to 1985. Prior to that year, Hertha were a team known for good cup runs -- between 1976 and 1981, they reached the semifinal of the DFB-Pokal no less than four times. In 1977 and 1979, they even made it all the way to the final, meeting Cologne and Düsseldorf respectively and losing both times in rather unlucky fashion. (One final even went to a replay.)

In both years, the final was staged in the city of Hannover, because it's situated almost exactly halfway between Berlin and Cologne or Düsseldorf. This used to be the decisive factor in determining the site of the German cup final, coupled of course with the size of the ground; but in 1985, the final was moved to Berlin. More precisely, it was shifted to West-Berlin for political reasons. Berlin was then still a divided city and Germany a divided country. The Cold War seemed to be intensifying (the controversial deployment of American middle-range missiles in Europe had begun in December 1983) and West Germany jumped at any chance to demonstrate that West-Berlin was a part of the country.

The initial plan was to stage the final in the city for only five years and then return to the old system, but the games in Berlin proved to be a huge success. Then the Wall came down, Berlin was made the new capital of the reunited Germany, and it was a no-brainer to play the cup final at the Olympic Stadium every year. This was good news for football fans all across the country, who had grown fond of annual pilgrimages to Berlin for the final, and it established a cherished tradition. It was bad news, paradoxically, for Hertha fans, because from the moment the final moved to Berlin, an inexplicable cup curse befell the club.

Between 1985 and 1991, Hertha never even got past the second round, losing to third-division sides such as Gütersloh and Jülich. The longer the curse lasted, the more desperate Hertha became to reach the final on home soil. Some clubs dream of championships, others of promotion and still others of playing in Europe or winning a derby against a fierce local rival. Hertha dream of the final at home.

When the current season began, coach Pal Dardai said in a newspaper interview: "I want to play in the final in Berlin." Winning wasn't even the main thing, he told the reporter; simply breaking the curse and at last reaching the final would be enough. "Since many years, I live with my family in Westend [neighbourhood where the Olympic Stadium is found]," he added. "On cup final day, we always take a stroll across the area around the Olympic Stadium and follow the final only as spectators. This annoys me."

Hertha's strong season so far makes the cup semifinals eminently reachable. But it's never that simple.

The strange thing about Hertha's cup curse is that it doesn't mean there haven't been any Berlin teams in the final during those 30 years. In 2001, third-division Union Berlin met Schalke at the Olympic Stadium (and lost 2-0) and then, of course, there was the annus mirabilis, 1992-93.

When the first round proper of the DFB-Pokal kicked off that season, there was not one Hertha team competing: there were two. One was the club's first team, then languishing in the second division. The other were Hertha's reserves, playing at the multitiered third level and officially known as the "Amateurs" -- essentially an U-23 side featuring many talented kids who were only 19 or 20 and hadn't yet signed professional forms. That's why the team was soon called "Hertha-Bubis," or "Hertha's little boys."

The reason this team even needed a nickname was thanks to the most unexpected cup run in the history of the German game. While Hertha's senior side bowed out fairly early, in the round of 16 and at the hands of Bayer Leverkusen, the Hertha-Bubis were seemingly unstoppable. The youngsters eliminated three second-division sides (VfB Leipzig, Hannover 96, Chemnitz) and Bundesliga club Nuremberg to reach the final at the Olympic Stadium against, ironically, the side that had knocked out their first team, Leverkusen.

Their fairy tale ended on a rainy Saturday in June 1993. The plucky underdogs, five of whom were only 19 years old, held out for 77 minutes. Then Leverkusen's Pavel Hapal crossed from the left and star striker Ulf Kirsten rose at the far post to head home from close range. As Kirsten ran over to the stands to celebrate what proved to be the winning goal, a steward's German shepherd angrily barked at the player.

The hound wasn't the only one who disliked the winning team. Two days later, Kicker magazine looked back on the final and called Leverkusen "the most unpopular title holders since there were trophies" because the crowd in Berlin understandably cheered the "Hertha-Bubis."

With each passing year, the fame of those brave amateurs has grown. The 1993 final's 10th anniversary saw Sven Meyer, who had been the amateurs' sweeper that season, tell a local newspaper: "No matter where I played, whether for Union in [the Berlin borough of] Köpenick or far away in China, I was always the 'Hertha-Bubi.' That's what everybody brought up in conversation with me."

What has also grown with each passing year is the embarrassment felt by Hertha's professional team. Since 1985, no less than 24 different teams have played in the cup final at the Olympic Stadium; but the team whose regular ground this is have not, hence why the final has become an obsession for fans and team alike. In December, coach Dardai told Bild that his contract doesn't mention bonus payments for reaching a certain number of points or avoiding relegation. "But there are bonuses for certain goals," he said, "such as reaching the cup final."

Last week, Hertha centre-back and U.S. international John Anthony Brooks told Kicker that this match is not only in the back of Dardai's mind but also his own. "It's only two games until the final," he said. "It's not easy, but it's doable."

It wasn't that long ago that an American player appeared in a German cup final, though it's safe to say most fans would struggle to name him. David Yelldell kept goal for MSV Duisburg against Schalke in 2011, a few months after he had made his sole appearance for the United States. But there has been no American DFB-Pokal winner since Thomas Dooley triumphed with Kaiserslautern more than a quarter of a century ago, in 1990.

It's just one more curse for Brooks and his club to lift.

Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.

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