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Dec 29, 2009

Loony Lehmann and the curse of Hertha

It's that time of year again when any self-respecting columnist suddenly feels an innate urge to look back at the past 365 days of domestic football and make sweeping generalisations, saying it was a great year or a terrible year or a thrilling year or a boring year.

As usual, the year was all of this - and more. It was also quite often puzzling.

There surely weren't too many people 12 months ago who predicted that Hertha would almost win the title and then make history by producing what is the most abysmal pre-winter break performance by a proper Bundesliga club ever.

And while there will have been quite a few people who predicted that Jens Lehmann would make headlines with the odd bizarre stunt, I doubt they had any idea how bizarre those stunts would be.

Just take the already legendary and oft-discussed but still mysterious incident from Stuttgart's game with Unirea Urziceni, when Lehmann left the pitch ten minutes from time to hide, if that's the word, behind an advertising hoarding to do whatever it was he felt needed to be done there.

I'm sure you've all seen the clips on YouTube and have debated them one way or another. What I missed in most every debate I have seen or heard is how utterly inexplicable Lehmann's act was and is.

I mean, the fact remains that he still hasn't said what he was doing there. A week before Christmas, Lehmann appeared on television and sort of hinted (no matter what you've read, it wasn't more than a hint) that he had been readjusting his jockstrap.

Now, if you've ever worn such a thing - and I have, though not at football - you know that you don't have to leave the field of play, climb over an ad board and cower down in order to adjust a jockstrap. This is not a chastity belt or whatever sophisticated, complicated gadget could be covering that region of the body. And even if you're not the most dexterous person, which I hope is a rare weakness among goalkeepers, all you have to do is call for a timeout which a referee has to grant you if there's something wrong with your kit.

The same, of course, goes for the other, more widespread explanation that's been brought forth, namely that Lehmann was simply relieving himself. "Simply"? What is simple about leaving the pitch without notifying the referee, which constitutes a bookable offence, and then going down on your haunches in plain view of tens of thousands of people, not to mention cameras?

The simple thing would have been to ask the referee for what in tennis is called a "toilet break". Since a game cannot be started or restarted without both keepers between the sticks, Lehmann would have been granted such a break instantly.

Finally, there was always the option of doing it the time-honoured way, namely on the job. Many sportsmen, from rugby players to cyclists, handle urinary urgencies thus - and a football goalkeeper has the added advantage of being able to wait until action has switched to the other end. What's more, he can cover up what he's doing by kneeling down and pretending to tie his shoelaces. No problem whatsover.

Take former Argentina keeper Sergio Goycochea, who urinated on the pitch prior to the penalty shoot-out against Yugoslavia at the 1990 World Cup. (And when Argentina then won this game, turned an emergency into a habit. "I did it before every shoot-out", the keeper told the Guardian in 2007. "It was my lucky charm.") So why did Lehmann have to leave the pitch and draw all this attention to what should have been no big deal? It remains a mystery.

As much of a mystery, some might say, as Hertha Berlin's most recent fate. After the first half of the season, the team's record stands at one win, three draws and 13 losses for a grand total of six points. Almost everybody says this is the worst showing since poor Tasmania Berlin managed only one win and one draw in their first 17 games, back when The Beatles released We Can Work It Out.

But I'm afraid we can't let Hertha off the hook that easily. Yes, Tasmania were as awful as awful can be. But the only reason they were in the Bundesliga at all in their annus horribilis, 1965-66, is because none other than Hertha had their license revoked (for illegal payments to players) and the German FA wanted Berlin represented in the Bundesliga for political reasons. SV Spandau had the good sense to decline the offer of taking Hertha's place, but Tasmania - who would've never have won promotion on the pitch - said yes and suffered accordingly.

If we only look at the records of teams that truly belonged among the best in the country because they had earned the right to be there on the pitch, then Hertha are, so far, the worst we've ever seen. The only team that comes close was, strangely, also from Berlin. In 1974-75, Tennis Borussia won two, drew one and lost 14 in the first half of the season. (Good for seven points under the new rules, five under the old. Their goal difference was better than Hertha's, though.)

At first glance, Hertha's performance seems inexplicable, given that this is a side that challenged for the 2008-09 title until the last week of the season, which was just seven months ago. Even the loss of their two best strikers, Marko Pantelic and Andriy Voronin, can't explain such a drastic turnaround. So maybe Hertha are jinxed, cursed for a wrongdoing we have yet to discover?

No. Even teams that are cursed don't have games like Hertha did against Hamburg in October. That, you may recall, was the day when the team scored an own goal, then lost their third keeper of the season to injury, then conceded two goals within 87 seconds when the new man between the sticks twice cleared a situation outside the penalty area with his head, only to be lobbed twice, from 30 and 40 yards, respectively.

Such mishaps can only be explained by a force stronger than curses. And those among us who've watched a few episodes of Lost know what force that is. It's the numbers.

Some of you may remember the column about Hertha in March. It mentioned that Hertha frustrated opponents by (often) winning for no apparent reason. Well, this season Hertha are frustrated because they (often) lose for no apparent reason. If you don't mind a baseball analogy, if there's a .275 hitter who suddenly bats over .400 from April to July, it doesn't mean he's the new Ted Williams. It means he'll bat only .150 the rest of the season.

To transfer this line of thinking to football, if you take Hertha's results in the whole of 2009, from January to December, you end up with 38 points from 34 games - a mid- to lower-table finish and acceptable for the kind of squad they have.

By the same token, if your run in 2009 has been below par, don't worry - the numbers will even out and 2010 is going to be cracking. If, however, your 2009 performance was excellent ... well, you don't really believe that numbers nonsense, do you? Happy New Year!

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