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Monday, October 4, 2004
ESPNsoccernet: October 5, 2:19 PM UK
Hamburg to clock out?

Uli Hesse-Lichtenberger

At Hamburg's very nice ground, the AOL Arena, there is a clock. It counts, believe it or not, seconds, minutes and hours. That may not sound outrageously unusual, but this is a special clock nonetheless, as it also counts days, months and years.

At the first glance, an uninitiated visitor could be led to believe that it's one of those World Cup clocks, which you'll also find at places like Dortmund's Westfalenstadion, where they count down the time until the 2006 extravaganza kicks off. But then you realise that Hamburg's variety currently stands at forty-one years, one month and that it doesn't count down but up.

This is the so-called 'Bundesliga Clock', which tells you the time that has passed since the league began at 5pm on August 24, 1963 ­ and the time Hamburg have spent in the top flight.

Since 1998, when their fellow founder members FC Cologne were finally relegated, Hamburg hold the distinction of being the only club in the country to have graced the Bundesliga for every single season. (Bayern Munich were only promoted in 1965.)

Yet while this clock is a nice gesture, it's also a bit misleading, as fans of Arsenal or Everton could claim that forty years are nice but not really very long. And people from Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Milan or Torino might actually sneer in derision.

But that would be rash. The last time Hamburg were relegated from any league was in 1913, and that lot befell not the club we know today but two of its predecessors, Germania Hamburg and Hamburg FC.

Six years later, in 1919, the modern SV Hamburg (HSV) were formed through a merger, and the team has been playing ever since in the highest league it could possibly attain. To put this pedigree into perspective: In May of 1904, when Nuremberg were only fours years old, when Schalke were four days old and Dortmund not yet formed, HSV's precursor Germania Hamburg already stood in the semi-finals of the national championship.

In 1922, when Bayern Munich were put into their place by local rivals Wacker Munich and when the city of Mönchengladbach was still spelled 'München-Gladbach', HSV played a historic final against Nuremberg: The first game was stopped after 189 minutes, with the score 2-2, on account of darkness.

In the replay, seven weeks later, it was 1-1 after 112 minutes, when Nuremberg were suddenly down to seven men because of red cards and injuries. The referee stopped the proceedings yet again, and after much legal wrangling and under pressure from the authorities, Hamburg renounced the title. (Which is why stats books list no champion for this year.)

In the seven decades that followed, Hamburg never went too long without challenging for a trophy. They twice won the title in the 1920s, got into two finals in the 1950s, and played in the European Cup as early as 1960-61, making the semis (where Barcelona beat them in a playoff which the Catalans only reached thanks to a last-minute goal in the second leg).

In the 1970s, Hamburg lifted the Cup Winners' Cup and the Bundesliga title, and under coach Ernst Happel and business manager Günter Netzer, the 1980s at last brought the European Cup, won against Juventus through a long-range shot from Felix Magath. In 1987, veteran Manfred Kaltz led his side to victory in the German FA Cup. But as the 1990s began, so did the barren years.

Since that time, the club which may be the proudest in the land has been on a roller coaster ride marked by mismanagement, bad signings, overmatched coaches and delusions of grandeur interspersed with sudden bright spots. If there's one thing the club has not experienced during the last years, it's stability.

Between 1987, when Happel left, and 1995, there were five different coaches. One of them, Benno Möhlmann, hung onto the job for three long years, but was finally fired in October of 1995 with the club winless and in a relegation spot. In came former player Felix Magath, who promptly finished in fifth place.

It was the first of many false dawns. A season on, Hamburg lost 5-0 at Leverkusen and 4-0 against Cologne down the stretch and were edging near the danger zone, so local hero Magath was sacked.

The new man at the helm, Frank Pagelsdorf, introduced a three-year-plan to get Hamburg back into Europe ­ and was true to his word when the club qualified for the Champions League in 2000. But only twelve months on, it was back to the lower regions and even fears of suffering the drop.

Pagelsdorf manged to stave off the worst by finishing 13th, but when the next season opened with three defeats from six games, the board panicked.

The Austrian Kurt Jara came in to replace Pagelsdorf, told the press 'Where I am, success is' and led the side to mid-table security. In 2002-03, Hamburg then finished fourth, and Jara was the toast of the town, as he had obviously taken the club to where it really belonged.

Or had he? In September, Hamburg were in last place, in October they got hammered 4-0 at Kaiserslautern, and Jara was history. The next saviour in line went by the name of Klaus Toppmöller, who quickly repeated the modus operandi of his predecessors: First you move up in the standings and raise expectations, then you plummet with breathtaking speed.

And so Toppmöller finished last season in eighth place and was given loot to spend, as Hamburg were obviously going places. He bought the former Man City player Daniel van Buyten, the German international Benjamin Lauth and the Belgian striker Emile Mpenza.

Four months later, this side is the second worst-team in the league, and Toppmöller's job hangs by a thread.

The coach has certainly made life hard for himself by disregarding some basic rules of diplomacy, by appointing Van Buyten captain when the player was only a few weeks at the club and by constantly coming up with a new starting formation.

But he's also been let down by his directors, who sold the Czech international Tomas Ujfalusi to Fiorentina five days before the start of the season ­ because the club that had just spent 10m Euros suddenly needed money.

But whatever happens to Toppmöller in two weeks, when the league resumes, it seems increasingly likely Hamburg will never find the right man unless they rebuild from within.

And that should happen sooner rather than later, as there are already fans on the club's message board who suggest to reset the 'Bundesliga Clock' to have it count down the days until the club's first-ever relegation.

  • Uli's history of German football, Tor!, is available online.

  • Any thoughts on this article? Email us.

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