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Clock ticks as Hamburg fight to avoid first relegation

Hamburg (AFP) – A clock ticks in Hamburg’s stadium, proudly displaying how long the club has been in the Bundesliga, yet time is running out to avoid the relegation which would stop it.

Hamburg are the only club to have played in each season since the Bundesliga was founded in 1963 — when even Bayern Munich were only a second-division club.

Hamburg’s golden era in the late 1970s and early 80s are long gone.

Since Angela Merkel became German Chancellor in 2005, 18 different coaches have tried and failed to bring success to Hamburg.

“Economically speaking, Hamburg football club is the worst investment decision of my life,” bemoaned German billionaire Klaus-Michael Kuehne, who has pumped millions of euros into the club since 2010.

“There hasn’t been the right management, which is a pity and terrible for Hamburg (as a city),” Kuehne told Friday’s edition of Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

Only by winning a relegation play-off in both 2014 and 2015 did Hamburg stay up and, with the team currently second from bottom, they are again fighting to avoid the drop.

They have just two games left, at Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday then at home to Borussia Moenchengladbach, to bridge a two-point gap to Wolfsburg, who occupy the relegation play-off place.

“With Hamburg, you never know and it’s not over yet,” added the 80-year-old Kuehn, whose fortune Forbes put at $12.2 billion in 2015.

“I’ve done much better in business than I ever imagined, but the club is certainly the exception.

“I have not been going to the stadium for years, because I’m recognised and often insulted.

“I always watch the games on television, and I suffer with the players… well actually, I don’t suffer anymore.”

A diet of regular defeats has left Hamburg fans starved of success in recent years and the current plight is a far cry from the glory days. 

England star Kevin Keegan, with his flowing permed locks, was voted European player of the year in both 1978 and 1979, scoring 17 goals when Hamburg won the 1978/79 Bundesliga title.

Then in the 80s, legendary Austrian coach Ernst Happel steered Hamburg to their 1983 European Cup triumph, when Felix Magath scored in a 1-0 win over Juventus in Athens.

The German league titles went to Hamburg in 1981-82 and 1982-83, but no significant silverware has come their way since lifting the German Cup back in 1987.

This season has been a disaster with three coaches since January.

Hamburg had 15 points from 19 games when Markus Gisdol was sacked as head coach at the start of 2018.

– ‘Like a funeral’ –

Former player Bernd Hollerbach took over, but was dismissed in farcical scenes weeks later after failing to win any of his seven games.

Christian Titz, 47, the former reserve team coach, has coaxed three wins from his six games to reignite long-lost hope among the fans.

“I think they’ll do it, they have to stay up — it’ll be like a funeral in the city if they go down,” one supporter told AFP.

A seven-point gap at the start of April has been slashed by beating Freiburg 1-0 at home a fortnight ago and Wolfsburg 3-1 away last Saturday.

A cup knock-out mentality has been adopted for Saturday’s match at Frankfurt.

“We have to throw everything at Frankfurt. This is our semi-final,” said forward Luca Waldschmidt.

But Hamburg’s fate is not in their own hands.

They sit just two points behind Wolfsburg, who are 16th which provides the solace of a play-off against the team who finish third in the second division.

Hamburg need Wolfsburg to slip up either on Saturday at RB Leipzig, who are winless in their last five games, or at home to Cologne, who are already down.

A defeat or a draw at Frankfurt would make Hamburg’s first relegation almost certain.

Even legendary West Germany striker Uwe Seeler, an eternal optimist who scored 404 goals in 476 games for Hamburg, is considering what most fans dread.

“Without being a pessimist, I think it’s too late,” said the 81-year-old after Hamburg managed to beat Schalke last month.

“It will be important to put together a good team in preparation for the second league, because the second league is also strong.”

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