The last time Hamburger SV were a happy club was in late August 2012. During the final few days of the transfer period, the club’s investor Klaus-Michael Kuehne had made funds available for the return of Rafael van der Vaart, the club favourite who had left for Real Madrid in 2008.
Eighteen months later, they have hit rock bottom, free-falling toward the second tier with no clear sign of revival.
Hamburg are the only team to have played in every season of the Bundesliga since its introduction as the highest German football league in 1963. A clock featured both on the club website and in Hamburg’s stadium proudly shows the number of years, month, days, minutes and seconds they have spent in the division.
“I am visiting HSV tomorrow,” former Eintracht Frankfurt and Norway striker Jan Aage Fjortoft, now a TV pundit, tweeted on Friday. “It’s like visiting the Titanic two days before the iceberg.”
One could not have put it better.
Hamburg have not won a trophy since 1987. When they triumphed in the DFB-Pokal that year, a 33-year-old Felix Magath was the club’s sporting director. Four years earlier, Magath’s goal had secured the European Cup in a 1-0 triumph against Juventus. The success of that 1983 team still haunts the club.
Now, six consecutive Bundesliga defeats have left Hamburg second from bottom, and while they are just two points away from safety, doubts are growing as to whether their famous clock will extend beyond a half-century.
Before Saturday’s meeting with Hertha BSC, club captain Van der Vaart had told the Hamburger Morgenpost newspaper: “This week has been different. You could see that we will go through the fire together. We will not get relegated -- that is 100 percent sure.” Hamburg coach Bert van Marwijk added: “We’ve become united.”
However, Hamburg found themselves 3-0 down after only 45 minutes against Hertha and the score remained unchanged come the final whistle.
When they lost to Hoffenheim by the same scoreline a week earlier, club officials backed Van Marwijk after local media called for his head. The fans also made their feelings plain, marching to the training ground in hundreds to demonstrate their belief in the former Netherlands coach and his team.
They continued their show of support for 90 minutes on Saturday. But some of them could no longer take it.
Late on Saturday, around 200 supporters turned, waiting at the stadium gates, shouting: “We want to see the team!” The players arrived and tried to placate the protestors, but to little effect. “Sack [president Carl-Edgar] Jarchow! Sack the board!” the fans continued, before insisting that Van der Vaart join his teammates.
The fans then hit out at Van der Vaart, who is these days less a ray of hope than a symbol for Hamburg’s downfall. Only the stewards were able to stop the Netherlands midfielder and the fans being drawn into a brawl.
“We are also disappointed with that game, with the past weeks, the past months, but the team and I don’t think that it is OK when players are attacked,” Van der Vaart said. “That type of behaviour does not belong at a great club.”
Saturday’s result was a third 3-0 defeat in succession since the winter break concluded. After the first of those, against Schalke, Van Marwijk had granted his team a day off -- a decision widely criticised in the local media. A week later, instead of granting his players a day off, he ordered them to do a double training session.
At a subsequent news conference, he explained: “I’ve always said that when the weather is better, we’ll have a few extra training sessions with the players. It has nothing to do with the situation we are in.”
German weekly Sport Bild refused to let Van Marwijk off the hook. The magazine published pictures showing him walking his dog in his Netherlands home under the headline: “It’s all going downhill in Hamburg, but Van Marwijk walks his dog in the Netherlands.” The piece claimed that the Dutchman had told his players in the dressing room: “It’s not me getting relegated -- it’s you!”
The story at least prompted some public support for Van Marwijk, with sought-after midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu -- who recently committed to a new contract until 2018 -- telling the Morgenpost: “Mr. Van Marwijk would never say that. He said that he does not want to get relegated with us.”
However, it does appear there is disquiet elsewhere at the club. As Calhanoglu signed his new contract, the details of 17-year-old teammate Jonathan Tah’s deal were being leaked on the Internet.
The talented young defender, a Germany youth international with Ivorian roots, prolonged his deal in November after breaking into the first team, but the details of his four-and-a-half-year term -- including a 25 million euro release clause -- were released into the public domain. More significantly, the contract appeared to breach FIFA statutes, as 17-year-olds are not permitted to sign contracts longer than three years.
A few days later, it remained unclear who leaked the contract, of which, Bild reported, only five copies existed.
Hamburg sporting director Oliver Kreuzer blamed Tah’s father, who was quoted by the Morgenpost as saying: “I should never have signed it. I did it all for the boy. I did not know what it all meant.”
Aquila Tah, who is living in France, also criticised his son’s agent, Akeem Adewunmi, saying: “He visited us and said he wants to become Jona’s agent. We said yes. But now I am terrified. You can’t do it like that. This contract is only in the interest of Hamburg and the agent -- but not in the interest of my son.”
On Friday, the German broadsheet Sueddeutsche Zeitung claimed that the contract had been leaked by official FIFA agent Joel Essomba, or somebody posing as Essomba. The agent claimed to be a good friend of Tah’s representative but said: “Somebody used my account.” Essomba also believed that Tah’s father was behind the leak, and the newspaper reported that he was considering pressing charges against him.
Meanwhile, in a letter sent to Hamburger Abendblatt, Aquila Tah accused Adewunmi of using “voodoo.” Tah claimed the agent, of German-African descent, had “dazzled” the player’s mother, Anja, “with African magic” and concluded: “He is now like a god for the blond mother and her son.”
Amid all these distractions, the local press reported that, if the contract does prove to be invalid, Manchester City have lined up a deal that would see the youngster leave Hamburg for 8 million euros. (One of the City scouts is Sebastian Arnesen, the son of the former Hamburg sporting director Frank Arnesen, who was sacked after last season.)
At the weekend, Jonathan Tah did not make the squad, and Kreuzer said: “Jonathan is finished. Too much happened last week.”
Regardless, the Tah affair could hardly be cited as the cause for this latest 3-0 defeat. As Germany international Marcell Jansen acknowledges, the players have lost belief.
“I have never experienced such a frustrating, god-awful situation,” he said. “At the moment, we don’t have the feeling we can hit back.”
Jacques Zoua, the attacker who joined Hamburg from Basel in the summer and has scored only once since, broke into tears on Saturday. Some papers claimed it was because he feared the fans outside the stadium.
“That was our sixth consecutive defeat. I can’t blame the fans for being annoyed,” Zoua told Swiss paper Blick.
In the face of all this, Van Marwijk has remained defiant, declaring on Saturday: “I will not give up.”
He was unanimously backed by the Hamburg board -- which includes Jarchow and Kreuzer -- but on Sunday, the directors called for a crisis meeting. Just like the fans at the stadium gates, they planned to sack the board, punish them for backing Van Marwijk and install Magath in a leading role.
It was a long meeting. Camera teams waited outside the Grand Elysee hotel while local papers ran live coverage online.
Magath used his Facebook account to set out his own stance to the fans: “I share your concerns. Football has return to the spotlight in Hamburg. HSV must demonstrate unity and set a strong example.”
Late on Sunday, after some eight hours’ discussion, the meeting ended without a resolution. The plan to install Magath did not get the two-thirds majority required.
“Jens Meier, the chairman of the board, has told me that there is no result to announce,” media director Joern Wolf told reporters while the board of directors escaped through the back door without comment.
Van Marwijk, Kreuzer and Jarchow will still be in charge of the club when Hamburg take on Bayern Munich in the DFB-Pokal on Wednesday. Next weekend, Hamburg visit Eintracht Braunschweig, the only team still below them in the division they have made their own.
"Hamburg are in auto-destruct mode, but we -- coach, board and team -- will stick together,” Van Marwijk said on Monday.
The question is for how long.