Despite all predictions to the contrary, Hamburger SV finished 15th last season to remain “the dinosaur” of the Bundesliga as the only club to have never been relegated from the top flight of German football. HSV hung on to this distinction by the skin of their teeth as only five points saved them from the drop. It was a year to forget for the HSV faithful. Unfortunately, a new season seems to have brought only a renewal of those same old woes.
The story so far
The 2011/12 campaign was undeniably one of the worst in the club’s long history, even with the tumult of recent decades. Last season began with HSV winning only one match in eight, as the club took a spin on the manager carousel; they cycled through Michael Oenning, Rodolfo Cardoso, and even had sporting-director Frank Arnesen take the reign for a fixture at SC Freiburg. All before mid-October. Finally, Thorsten Fink was brought in from FC Basel. HSV did not lose a match for the rest of the Hinrunde, winning two and drawing six to go into the winter break with 19 points. The team’s bad form resumed with the football in the spring, and by season’s end, it was but for the grace of Kaiserslautern, Köln, and Hertha that HSV managed to stay afloat despite a defense that took in goals more readily than the Titanic did water.
Though HSV’s defense looked a little better in the 2012/13 preseason, the team was nothing to write home about. Indeed, newly-arrived striker Artjoms Rudnevs so thoroughly unimpressed that when HSV began their campaign in earnest, it was the underperforming Marcus Berg who found himself heading the team’s formation.
HSV then promptly found themselves on the wrong end of a 4-2 encounter with third-division Karlsruher SC in the DFB-Pokal first round. And the rough start was not over yet. A week later, HSV kicked off the 2012/13 Bundesliga season with a toothless 0-1 loss to Nüremberg at home. The team was booed off the pitch by home fans at the Imtech Arena.
“No one’s ever gone down after the first game,” said Fink who remained ever optimistic. But the second match day of the season saw HSV lose 2-0 in the Nordderby. Werder Bremen dominated proceedings for almost the entire 90+ minutes, and the score might well have been higher were it not for René Adler’s heroics in goal. HSV are now winless in three competitive matches, and the alarm bells are ringing once more.
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“It’s been a constant for two years now,” said Marcell Jansen in a display of frankness. “There’s has been no development, we haven’t made one step forward.“
Arnesen, too, admitted to the feeling that the team were not making any sort of meaningful progress. And team captain Heiko Westermann has told reporters that it was not only Jansen who felt discouraged; the mood within the whole team was poor.
Even club legend Uwe Seeler has taken to the press with his criticisms. Seeler pointed the blame at Arnesen for much of the team’s woes, pointing out that during his tenure HSV lost great players such as van Nistelrooy, Ze Roberto, Piotr Trochowski, etc. But their replacements have not been found.
“I don’t see any sort of progress given the steps that were taken over a longer period of time,” said Seeler. “I simply have to shake my head at times. There are so many players here who aren’t good enough for the Bundesliga.“
The departure of players last season was a concern, as the only real quality signing that HSV made for much of the transfer window was René Adler. Though it is understandable that Adler on a free transfer would be a hard thing to turn down, the team already had a strong no.1 in Jaroslav Drobný, and was more desperate for reinforcement in other departments. Moreover, the club’s financial straits puts to question the prudence of signing a high-profile player. Though he has fallen down the pecking order in the national team, Adler remains a prominent German goalkeeper and will certainly cost a pretty penny to keep around.
Apart from Adler, Arnesen also brought in Artjoms Rudnevs, Maximilian Beister, Lennard Sowah, and Paul Scharner early in the summer. But given the quality of players that HSV had let go — Paolo Guerrero, Mladen Petric, Gökhan Töre — more was needed. It wasn’t until the summer neared its end that HSV really began to make headlines. First, Petr Jiracek and Milan Badelj were brought in from Wolfsburg and Dinamo Zagreb, respectively, to fortify the midfield. Then at the stroke of midnight, HSV announced their last and biggest signing: Rafael van der Vaart.
Van der Vaart scored 29 goals in 74 matches for HSV from 2005 to 2008, before leaving for Real Madrid, and the return of HSV’s “little angel” was a welcome bit of good news for supporters. However, the golden boy will need time to (re)adjust, having just been dropped from the Dutch national team because, according to Louis van Gaal, he had played too little club football lately.
Van der Vaart himself said, “I want to help the team rediscover their self-confidence, but I’m not the savior.”
The question of the Dutch international’s transfer fee and wages poses another cause for concern. The midfielder’s quality is indisputable, but €13 million is not pocket change. Plus, Jansen has already criticized the club for failing to move forward; calling upon an old hero (even if van der Vaart is only 29 years old) represents a certain lack of imagination, and direction.
Van der Vaart travelled with the team to Bremen and watched the 2-0 loss from the sidelines, as the club was not able to get all the paperwork done in time. He is expected to make his debut when HSV take on Eintracht Frankfurt after the international break. But perhaps there is small mercy in the late transfer, as it saved van der Vaart from taking part in the 4-2 spectacle of the DFB-Pokal. The midfielder’s last game with HSV, before leaving for Spain, was a 7-0 win over Karlsruher. Times have changed.
No country for old HSV
The problem of HSV at the moment is that the team has, on paper, enough quality to compete in the Bundesliga. Unfortunately for Fink and Arnesen, football does not move on pen-and-paper calculations, but on real-life decisions, played out in real time. Confidence and self-belief are sorely lacking, and it remains doubtful whether even Fink’s endless optimism will be enough to reinstate those two critical qualities.
HSV have one of the toughest September fixture lists in the Bundesliga. The Nordderby is done and dusted, next up they face Eintracht Frankfurt at home. The Eagles are soaring high, having done good business in the summer and have consequently hit the ground running to celebrate their Bundesliga return. Van der Vaart will have a tough match on his hands, for his own return to the Bundesliga. After Eintracht, HSV have reigning champions Dortmund, followed by Favre’s Gladbach, and a rock-solid Hannover. If Fink and his men manage to score even one win before September’s end, it should be considered a wildly successful month.
Fink remains “absolutely convinced” that the club can only move onwards and upwards, and that van der Vaart will not face a relegation battle in his first season back. Whether the manager is right remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: these are troubling times for HSV, and the Dinosaur of the Bundesliga is looking more and more like an endangered species.
Written by Guest Author June Pan
Follow the author on Twitter: @mimsicality