Berlin - Almost two months ago to the day was when the decision was made that Hertha’s away game against TSG Hoffenheim would take place behind closed doors due to the coronavirus pandemic. “We have to accept the situation,” was what Niklas Stark said a few days after in an interview with herthabsc.de. What neither the Hertha vice-captain, nor the rest of the country could know by then was the effect that the novel coronavirus would have on everyday life. For the Bundesliga, the rapid spread of the virus resulted in a last-minute decision to postpone matchday 26, which eventually turned into the season being put on hold for nine weeks. During this time, the 25-year-old had to enter into quarantine twice, and kept busy by training at home before progressing to small group sessions with his teammates. Now, Stark has shifted his focus towards Saturday afternoon (15:30 CEST), when the Blue-Whites will return to the pitch to face ninth-place Hoffenheim.
Herthabsc.de: Nik, when we last spoke in March there was no way of knowing the impact that the coronavirus would have on the world. We have several uncertain weeks behind us now. Can you describe what these last weeks have been like for you?
Stark: It started with some really shocking news. All of a sudden we were caught right in the middle of the crisis, although it didn’t feel as though it was that close to us. Simply talking about it is much different from experiencing it directly. Not just with the game being postponed, but then having to quarantine shortly afterwards due to someone within our team testing positive. It was a different feeling because at that point, we were directly affected and had been in contact with the individual. Of course, it was a whole lot worse for the player who was affected. That’s when I started to get a bit worried. Had I been infected? Could I have infected someone else? How are my family and friends doing? Or just generally, how will things go from here? I think several other people had similar concerns. Being in quarantine then definitely made it feel very real once again, especially since - despite testing negative myself - I had to quarantine two more times after potentially entering into contact with someone who had been infected.
herthabsc.de: Football is finally getting back underway now. How excited is everyone ahead of the game against Hoffenheim on Saturday?
Stark: It's a huge opportunity that ourselves and the Bundesliga have been given here, and we've had a lot of luck. Along with that, of course, comes the expectation and responsibility that we will have to take very seriously. Now we have the chance to get back playing again and with that, the chance to emerge from this horrid situation. We all know it's going to be a little strange, but we have to deal with it and get back to playing our game. Of course I'm incredibly excited but I'm also a little cautious about the unknown. Playing games without supporters will be unusual, even if we have been training in the Olympiastadion. Normally, we would thrive off the atmosphere, the fans would push us and often move us to victory. Now that's not a possibility.
herthbsc.de: There’s some public debate regarding the justifiability of the restart. Because of Salomon Kalou’s video, you all were involuntarily dragged into the media. Has his misconduct been discussed internally?
Stark: We spoke a lot about that video. The club made us aware of the importance of following the guidelines. How important it is to abide by the rules on hygiene. We all know, Salomon as well, that he made a big mistake. He’s really very sorry that he brought harm to the team and Hertha BSC. Sala’s got to live with that, because he brought it upon himself. However, it’s important that I make clear that, in the five years we’ve played together, he’s always been a careful and responsible team player, who’s there for others and has been a real role model.
herthabsc.de: As a team, you’ve not played a competitive match for two months. No competitive training in that time either. What challenges does the restart present in terms of fitness?
Stark: During the first sessions after quarantine, there was a noticeable lack of fitness and match sharpness, but we’ve got more and more into it. It feels a bit like return after the summer break, or a long injury. When you have to take it step by step. At first we worked individually, then in small groups, and now as a whole team. We now to rediscover a bit of rhythm. It’s like learning a foreign language. If you’ve not spoken it for a while, you forget a few words. In football too you improve with repetition – and now we need to relearn what’s correct in which situation in the match.
herthabsc.de: What’s it like to be spending more and more time with each other, as is the case in your quarantined hotel? How are the days looking?
Stark: A bit like a training camp. We’re taken to training in two busses, so that we can keep apart. In the hotel, we have lectures, talks and meals. The coach speaks to us a lot. That’s how our routine looks at the moment. We accept that. We can still go about our job, and are looking enough to be making the best out of the situation.
herthabsc.de: Our new head coach is using the time to get to know you all a little better. What impression has Bruno Labbadia made?
Stark: He’s impressed me a lot. We have a coach, who’s got a clear plan and gives us clear instructions. Of course we’ve not had enough time implement everything perfectly, but we’re improving day by day and want to play our best football on Saturday, and win of course.
herthabsc.de: Even though this is new start, the table is still unchanged from before the break. How optimistic are you that you can end the season on a high?
Stark: If we don’t go into these final weeks with a positive mindset, we’ll have problems. Of course it’s necessary for us to reflect, and mustn’t forget what’s gone well and what’s gone wrong in this current campaign. Before the break, we were conceding too many early goals, maybe that was a mentality thing. We can’t start this way again, and I think the break has done us good, insofar as forgetting these worries. In any case, I feel that everyone is fully committed in training and is working hard.
herthabsc.de: Two topics remain current (unfortunately), even with this longer period away from the game. Are last win away in Hoffenheim was six-and-a-half years ago (3-2 in November 2013). You haven’t ever been on the pitch for a win against TSG either.
Stark: And what did I say back in March? That these kinds of stats don’t really interest me, but that I would like to polish them up a bit when I hear about them! It’s still true now! We’re feeling good going into the game against Hoffenheim and want to bring a result back. Getting the restart off to a flier would give us a lot of momentum for the end of the season.