"That's what drives us!"

Eleven teams, around 250 players and some 80 members of staff, all sharing one goal: winning football matches. That is an aim which has not been achieved often enough this year, though. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, football has been played only intermittently at the Hertha BSC academy. Academy manager Benjamin Weber and his fellow staff members have had to deal with numerous challenges in deciding how best to proceed with training and matches, all while considering the responsibility they have for the talented youngsters who just want to play football. "The first huge challenge of this period was working out the right way to approach the situation,” says the 40-year-old Weber. We spoke to the father of two and looked ahead to 2021.

Benny, with such a long time without competitive football, do you feel like any of the lads have lost their interest or passion for football?
We can’t really answer that question at this point in time. When they’re out on the pitch, our coaches are trying to ensure that the lads have the same enthusiasm that they had before. We are taking that really seriously. What we have noticed is that after the first lockdown it took a little while for the lads to return to their previous level, since they’d not been allowed to do anything at all during that time. At this moment in time the majority of our players are able to train, which is a big difference from earlier in the year. But we can’t predict the effects of this time without competitive matches yet. We will only see the consequences later on. I’m concerned mainly about the older age groups and the U19s as they’re in their final year. With these guys, we’ll see the consequences later down the line. They’re missing competition in their final stage before the jump to the professional game. We have to keep an eye on these players and also be considerate when they return to the playing field. Meanwhile, in the younger age groups, it’s easier for players to make up for the missing games with five-on-five or tournaments. In the U13s, Michael Dober is doing a type of Champions League with his team. Of course, in the younger age groups, it’s a different
kind of enthusiasm.

A question that is often asked is what are the chances like? When can our youth players return to action? What are your discussions like with the governing bodies?
We’re certainly in very close discussions with the governing bodies and also the ministers. When it will actually be possible to return to play depends on the political guidelines, so that’s a bit like looking into a crystal ball. Things are a little more relaxed in the U19 and U17 leagues as, due to the pandemic, each team only plays each other once, and there are no return fixtures. Therefore, in these two age groups the season can still be played at a later date. I’d really like to think that we will be allowed to play again in March 2021. But as I said, that's my personal hope.

Plans for next season are usually being made around the turn of the year. Is that at all possible given the current situation?
Of course we are still concerning ourselves with planning for next season. We have to make plans considering the current circumstances, so that’s what we’re doing. In our U23 coach Andreas 'Zecke' Neuendorf, we have somebody who is in contact with the first team coaching staff almost every day. 'Zecke' has an eye on the guys who are currently making the step up to the first team and that’s one of our main tasks. We are really happy that Bruno Labbadia has made it possible for youngsters such as Márton Dárdai to make their Bundesliga debuts even during this difficult period. Seeing them make the jump to professional football is what drives us to help our boys. If they do that with Hertha, even better.

Since October you’ve been taking part in the “Management in Professional Football” course from the DFB and DFL. What are your first impressions? Is everything being carried out as planned despite the coronavirus?
The first impressions are really positive. We had a workshop to start in October that was carried out face-to-face. It’s a really exciting group with a mix of characters who are all in different roles at their clubs. In Christian Gentner (1. FC Union), there is a professional player on the course too. I really enjoyed the workshop because we stuck into working on practical topics so quickly. Since then, everything has been online, which still works well. We have regular tasks to complete on a weekly basis. The current focus is on management. It’s an honour for me to be able to be part of this course. The discussion on topics from management, sports, scouting, marketing or law is unique and really enjoyable. I'm really looking forward to January, when the course will continue.

To end, let’s look ahead to 2021. What are your hopes for the year to come, both for Hertha and for yourself personally?
I’m hoping for good health above all else! That’s the most important thing to us. Hopefully everyone around me stays healthy, both at work and in my private life. Obviously I hope that we can get back the thing that we all love as soon as possible – football matches! The lads out on the pitch, the coaches on the sidelines and the us in the stands. That’s exactly what fuels me; helping young athletes after their final school years toward a potential career in professional football. That’s my motivation, and I want to get back to doing that as soon as possible. I wish them all a few days of peace and quiet surrounded by loved ones and hopefully a little normality will return in 2021. Finally, I have to say that it’s not been an easy year. On the one hand we have all the new rules to deal with, and I also have to be there to support the players. My warmest thanks go to all those who have worked with and helped the Hertha academy. A big compliment to you all!