UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
Soccer

Hamburg faces the previously unthinkable threat of relegation

Little VfL Bochum, a club wedged halfway between Schalke 04' hometown of Gelsenkirchen and Dortmund, used to have one of the coolest nicknames in German football: Die Unabsteigbaren, The Unrelegatables. 21 uninterrupted years in the Bundesliga from 1972 to 1993 made it an appropriate nom de guerre but the supporters are now only applying it in an ironic sense, as Bochum have become more of a "Fahrstuhlmannschaft," an "elevator" team, always going up and down between the top divisions.

Last week, big blue stickers referencing Bochum's old moniker were sprucing up all across Hamburg, 186 miles to the north. "Unabsteigbar", unrelegatable, they said in white letters, with the addition of "now more than ever!". The stickers came with copies of Hamburg tabloid MoPo, and their runaway success was a reflection of the club's acute troubles. A similar statement would have been unthinkable two months ago, when players, officials and the media were still looking toward European qualification. A dire run of six defeats and one draw in seven games plunged the northerners right into the relegation quagmire, however. Suddenly, the club was having its worst-ever season in the Bundesliga and sweating over survival. Even neutrals began to worry about the only German club who has featured consistently in the top flight since the league's inception in 1963. Hamburg has not won a title in 25 years but it is a genuine heavyweight in terms of support and finances. Its nickname is "Dino," for dinosaur, because it has been around for ever. "Are you afraid you'll be extinct soon?", a TV crew wanted to ask club mascot "Hermann," a blue T-Rex. The interview request was turned down. "He can't talk," explained a spokesman.

A nervy 1-0 away to Kaiserslautern last Saturday gave the club some breathing space on 15th place -- 18th and 17th are relegated, 16th has to win a playoff against the third-best division two team -- but HSV is by no means safe yet. "We have six more finals to win," said sporting director Frank Arnesen.

How did it come to that? Five years ago, Hamburg was playing in the Champions League. Four years ago, the team contested semifinals in the German Cup and Europa League. Two years ago, they made it to the Europa League semis again. Plenty of managerial changes took their toll but a clever transfer policy that yielded players like Rafael van der Vaart, Vincent Kompany, Nigel de Jong and Ruud van Nistelrooy kept the club near the top of the table.

The mistakes piled up, though. Sporting director Dietmar Beiersdorfer, the architect of the club's steady progress in the Noughties, left after falling out with chairman Bernd Hoffmann in 2009. Bruno Labbadia, Armin Veh and Michael Oenning all flopped as coaches. Hoffmann hired Chelsea sporting director Frank Arnesen to overhaul the club in February 2011 but was forced out before the former Danish international moved to Hamburg in the summer.

Financially, too, the club started to suffer. In 2010-11, it turned over ?128M ($170M) and was ranked 18th in the Deloitte "Money League" of European soccer, but two seasons without European soccer forced the club to downgrade its roster. Arnesen, who had been promised ample transfer funds, came in to find a deficit instead. The wage bill (?47M in 2011/12) needed to be cut by about a third before the start of the current campaign. The departure of aging high-earners like Brazilian midfielder Ze Roberto and van Nistelrooy went a long way to balance the books but Arnesen's shopping list started to raise some eyebrows. The 55-year-old, who was credited with discovering talents like Arjen Robben, Park Ji-Sung, Ronaldo and Romario at PSV Eindhoven, brought in five fringe or reserve players from Chelsea -- Jeffrey Bruma, Michael Mancienne, Jacopo Sala, Gökhan Töre and Slobodan Rajkovic. In addition, Norwegian midfielder Per Ciljan Skjelbred was bought from Trondheim, and winger Ivo Ilicevic joined from 1. FC Kaiserslautern.

Privately, club officials were surprised at the sheer number of West London recruits but Arnesen convinced them that they were cheap, talented players whose sell-on value would only increase over time. In the case of Töre, 20, Arnesen was vindicated. The Turkish wide midfielder was the club's best performer before picking up a knee injury in the winter. At ?400,000 ($532,000) a season, he's also been a steal. The other Chelsea players have been inconsistent and shown their inexperience, however. Questions about their level of commitment were raised in the dressing room, where more experienced stalwarts like David Jaroliom, Mladen Petric, Gojko Kacar, Marcell Jansen and keeper Jaroslav Drobny also weren't pulling their weight. Neither Oenning nor his successor Thorsten Fink, hired in October, could get consistently good performances out of the squad.

Arnesen, who admitted to not knowing the Bundesliga well before taking on the job, overestimated the capabilities of his youngsters and Fink, too, was too confident in his squad, at least in his public utterances. "We don't have to change anything," the former Bayern Munich midfielder, 44, insisted after the 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Wolfsburg 10 days ago, even though he had been experimenting with different defensive lineups throughout recent weeks. English U-21 international Mancienne, perhaps the most disappointing Chelsea import, seems to have kept his place thanks to some gently lobbying of his teammates and the fact that he's the only squad member to have experienced a relegation fight before, on-loan with Wolverhampton Wanderers. Are these good enough reasons? "You learn to deal with the pressure," he told Hamburger Abendblatt, "young players especially find it difficult when every game is like a battle. It's important to get to grips with this extreme situation."

Arnesen has hardly been criticized for his risky strategy so far, maybe local journalists are too taken in by his charming, genial demeanor. He told German TV channel ZDF that he was playing a long game: "They are young players, they'll get better with experience." That's surely true. The trouble is that a transitional season has now turned into an existentialist crisis. Relegation to the second division would essentially half Hamburg's turnover and set the club back for years. And even if "Dino" does survive, Arnesen "stack'em high" approach to recruiting will leave HSV with the same fundamental problem that its previous, qualitatively much better teams had to contend with: there are too many pros who see the club as a useful stepping stone toward bigger and better things, not enough men who truly identify with the club. Its magnificent supporters deserve better, from everyone involved.

More Soccer

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.