FEATURE | Hertha BSC and Arne Friedrich separate as boardroom battle looms at relegation-threatened club

The 82-time Germany international Sporting Director Arne Friedrich who had a contract until the end of the season and Hertha BSC Berlin have agreed to part ways ‘by mutual agreement’ with immediate effect.

The 42-year-old joined Hertha in the position of performance manager in November 2019 and was then promoted to Sporting Director in the summer of 2020. However, an underwhelming 14th place finish in his first season and very poor performances this season in which Hertha have failed to pick up a win in 2022 have undermined Friedrich’s position at the club.

Following the thumping 4-1 loss at home to Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday, just one of a string of poor results this season including a 1-6 to RB Leipzig and 4-0 loss at Mainz. The Olympiastadion based club find themselves for the second week in a row in the relegation playoff position and very much in the middle of the battle to stay up.

The club has been beset by instability in recent seasons with the head coach position at the club has become something of a ‘hot seat’. Former Tottenham Hotspurs striker, Jürgen Klinsmann departed in February 2020 after just 3 months in situ. His successor, former Bayern Munich striker Bruno Labbadia, was sacked after just eight months in spite of leading Hertha to a respectable 10th place finish in the 2019/20 season. The club’s all-time record player by appearances Pal Dardai was then appointed for the second time following his successful stint between 2015-19, which included reaching the first round of the Europa League in 17/18.

However, with Hertha languishing in 14th place and just four points off a relegation spot, Dardai was sacked after just 10 months in the position last November. Tayfun Korkut, who took then newly-promoted VfB Stuttgart to 7th place as coach in 17/18 has since taken over. He has also struggled to change the course of the club with Hertha winless in 2022 and remaining in the bottom four since matchday 11.

Behind the scenes, the capital club has been beset by a boardroom battle between the leading investor Lars Windhorst and the club’s president Werner Gegenbauer.  The businessman who took a controlling stake in the club in November 2019, had high ambitions for the club wanting to take them back to the Europa League for the first time since 17/18. Windhorst’s main stated aim when he joined was on modernising the way the club is managed, Windhorst declared in an interview with Berliner Zeitung at the time: “We didn’t invest because we want everything to stay the way it is.”

However, the conflict has been developing with Windhorst’s main counterpart in the argument the 73-year-old Hertha President Gegenbauer reported by Kicker to be having regular ‘fall-outs’ with the investor and in particular referring to Windhorst’s €374m investment in the club as a ‘loan’ rather than a controlling stake.

Since the arrival of Windhorst in the summer of 2019, there has been one particularly big ‘Blue and White’ elephant in the room: with questions arising as to how Windhorst could have joined Hertha for so much money but gained so little power in the process? With Windhorst’s investment resulting in the acquisition of 64.7 per cent of the shares in the club but only in the holding company Hertha BSC Berlin GmbH & Co. KGaA.

The tactic, which appears to have been designed to manage to the 50+1 rule, which limits investors’ stakes to 49% of football clubs in Germany whilst at the same time provide Windhorst with the maximum investment, has proven to be counter-productive leaving the investor without the overall control of the football club in spite of his record investment.

Windhorst, who is reported to have a net worth of over €800m, got just two of the nine seats on the supervisory board of the club’s holding company, just like his investor predecessor US Venture capitalist company KKR in 2014 – however that was for an investment of €63m – In essence, Windhorst has a controlling stake and sits at the ‘top table’ but troublingly has next to no authority at the club.
With results on the pitch going from bad to worse, in an interview with German business magazine Capital, the 45-year-old has now hit out at the club’s management and in particular Gegenbauer: “I was counting on Hertha, having people in charge, who were rational and thinking about the future and who also wanted sustainable success.”

Hertha president Gegenabauer for his part in an interview with Berliner Zeitung countered accusing the lead investor of ‘interfering in the running of the club’ blaming the club’s main investor for the sacking of coach Dardai following the 2-0 derby loss to Union Berlin in November.

The dispute now appears to be escalating with Windhorst reported by Kicker to ‘want Gegenbauer out before investing more money to the club’. However, his removal will not be an easy task, his adversary is himself not just highly established at the club having been president since 2008 he is himself influential; a wealthy industrialist. Gegenbauer owns the Salamander shoe company and is the former lead sponsor of VfB Stuttgart ENBW Energy company and is a member of the board of the Landessportbund Berlin, the umbrella organisation that oversees sport in the region and the former chairman of the IHK the Chamber of commerce.

Windhorst who is currently facing criminal proceedings for unauthorised banking transactions in Germany is reported by his financial advisors to have been warned against his Hertha investment. But his urge to impress his international business partners as a football club owner is said to have been too pronounced to follow his business advisor’s advice something he may learn to regret with Hertha’s fortunes failing.

Hertha’s leading investor, however, remains robustly committed to ‘Die Alte Dame’ as Hertha Berlin are known: The 45-year-old is committed to making a success of his investment: “I won’t let anyone burn €375 million, and that’s why I’ll never give up, I’ll lead the investment to success, even if it will take much longer than originally planned,” underlined Windhorst in the same interview.

The fans unrest that could be heard from the stands on Saturday will only get louder if the results don’t improve. It remains to be seen how the boardroom battle which may have contributed to the departure of Sporting Director Arne Friedrich who was also on the board will play out. On the field, Hertha has some challenging fixtures ahead with ‘Gladbach away on Saturday followed by the visit of in-form fourth-placed Hoffenheim at home on the 19th and a tricky match at third-placed Bayer Leverkusen on 4th April.

With first-choice keeper Alexander Schwolow currently out to Covid and second choice Rune Jarstein unable to deputise due to a knee injury, as well as centre-back Marton Dardai carrying an ankle injury. Hertha, who has conceded only six goals less than bottom-placed Greuther Fürth is likely to continue to leak goals and making ground in the league looks to be a difficult endeavour in the coming weeks.

Hertha is very far off the mark for a European place, it may be starting to dawn on investor Windhorst that in spite of the €400m of his money spent by managing director Fredi Bobic so far since 2019, the Berlin club may well have to play its football in the second-tier next season.

Ben McFadyean

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