Imagine if Chelsea, the team that ranks third in the all-time Premier League table, wasn’t challenging for the title every year, but rather was fighting to avoid relegation. That’d be strange, right? Like watching a drunken executive wallow in the gutter. Chelsea isn’t supposed to be down there. To continue this thought experiment, imagine Chelsea’s answer, because it’s a “big club” that aspires to more, and because it has some resources, was to bring back a former star–let’s say Arjen Robben–to save the team. That’d be cool right? A returning hero riding into town to set things right again?
This is basically the situation in the German Bundesliga, at Hamburger SV–the hero being Rafael van der Vaart, who returned to the club in 2012 but has been unable to affect much change. Nicknamed Der Dinosaurier, Hamburg is the only original Bundesliga team never to get relegated from the top flight. But last season, the dinosaur faced extinction. It finished 16th, just one point above outright relegation. Hamburg played Fürth in a relegation playoff, and after two embarrassing matches in which Hamburg was outplayed for long stretches, it managed to win on away goals.
Although Hamburg last won the league in the 1980s, it didn’t become a disaster club until recently. Aside from a brief troubled spell in the early 2000s, Hamburg spent much of the last 20 years reliably finishing in the upper half of the table, if not in a European spot. But the team last qualified for the Champions League in 2005-06; and the last time it qualified for Europe was in 2008-09, when it finished fifth, just above Borussia Dortmund.
Exactly what went wrong is a story of chronic mismanagement. Including caretakers, the club has been through 11 managers since the 2008 season. (Dortmund, by comparison, has employed just one.) At Hamburg, the club’s directors hire and fire the managers, but the directors report to a supervisory board, which is democratically elected by club members. It’s one of those uniquely German situations in which the fans have a massive say in how the club is run. Fan participation and ownership is one of the reasons why soccer is such a culturally important thing in Germany and why Bundesliga attendance is off the charts. But the flip side is that fans aren’t always the most clear-eyed decision makers, nor are they necessarily the most qualified people to run a football club, democracy or no. It’s hard to say exactly who is at fault, but a situation in which whatever dissatisfaction exists in the stands, rational or not, is reflected in the boardroom, at the very top of club’s power structure, doesn’t have a stabilizing effect, at least in Hamburg’s case. It’s no wonder the team is a giant clusterfuck.
In addition to the managerial merry-go-round, Hamburg’s transfer market activity has been a complete joke since–you guessed it–2008. Just look at the guys who left: Nigel de Jong? Rafael van der Vaart? Vincent Kompany? Compare that to the players brought in and it’s like whoever was running the club was actively trying to get the team relegated. Marcell Jansen is the only player who joined in 2008 and is still there today. From there it got worse. Jérôme Boateng and Sidney Sam left in 2010. In 2012, Hamburg brought back Van der Vaart, but by then it was too late. He had no supporting cast. (For good measure, Heung-Min Son and Dennis Aogo left the following season.)
Can Hamburg turn it around? The football team spun off from the rest of the Hamburg club last May, meaning it is no longer run by the fans. This offseason, there was reason to be optimistic. Klaus-Michael Kuhne, a German billionaire, “lent” Hamburg 17 million euros. (Don’t believe it’s a loan until Hamburg pays it back.) And the team then brought in a couple potentially useful players: German international Nicolai Müller from Mainz, Swiss international Valon Behrami from Napoli. On paper, both were good moves.
And then there’s the young, talented Julian Green, who joined Hamburg on loan earlier this week. Americans will no doubt be tuning in throughout the season to watch Green finally get some minutes. What kind of minutes those are is the real question. Hamburg’s opening two fixtures were against two newly promoted teams: Köln and Paderborn. Hamburg managed a 0-0 draw against Köln before Paderborn came to town and showed Hamburg just how much of a dinosaur it really is: the biggest underdogs in Bundesliga history completely dominated Hamburg, winning 3-0.
It’s likely Julian Green will get minutes, in other words, but what he’ll get out of those minutes remains to be seen. Some goals? Doubtful. Actually, doubt might be the one thing he’s sure to get a taste for this season. The supremely talented teenager will be going into a situation where everything is in doubt–how to play, how to win, how to run a soccer team, whether that team can even remain in the league. One thing that Green clearly has is self confidence. We all saw that in the World Cup. Let’s hope his time at Hamburg doesn’t teach him to doubt himself. Let’s hope he doesn’t spend the season counting the seconds until Hamburg is relegated.
Updated on Sept. 3, 2014 to indicate that Hamburg SV is no longer run by fans.