Hamburg have been mired in mediocrity for years and hope that a major reorganization will help the club return to its former glory. But first they have to take of the most immediate business - staying up.
The biggest news in Hamburg this off-season was not on the winter transfer market. The days are long gone when "HSV," the Hamburger Sportverein, which is saddled with debts approaching 100 million euros, can land big European names. Fans in Germany’s second-most populous city had to make do with the loans of youngsters Ouasim Mouy from Juventus and Ola John from Benfica.
Still, things are never boring at Hamburg. One week before the season started, club supporters gave preliminary approval to a plan called “HSV plus,” which would separate the professional football team from the rest of club, convert it into a joint stock company and open the way for investors.
Despite fears from some supporters that the move would spell the end of tradition at the club, which traces its origins back to 1885, almost 80 percent of members voted in favor of drawing up concrete plans, which will be put to another vote in May or June.
This issue is more than just commercial bureaucracy. Hamburg have the biggest board of directors in the Bundesliga and the only one with fan representation. The result of combining such a bloated management structure with the change-a-minute world of modern football has been a total of ten coaches in the past six years - and zero titles of note. In the past few seasons, the club that rivaled Bayern Munich in the 1980s has struggled not to get relegated.
“HSV plus” is intended to change all that by bringing in extra money and putting the team in the hands of a limited number of professionals who can ensure stability and continuity. But some have questioned whether now is the right time to hit the stock market.
A lack of assets
One man who doesn’t think much of “HSV plus” is Felix Magath, the former midfielder and coach who, more than anyone, is synonymous with Hamburg’s glory years.
“In sporting, economic and image terms, HSV is a bad position - at the moment it’s more a sinking ship than a luxury liner,” Magath told Die Welt newspaper. “You should only sell shares when they’re worth something because only then do they get you a good price. If the club incorporates now, I don’t think the money earned would be enough to take HSV back to the top.”
A bleak assessment - and one that may be painfully accurate. Hamburg’s midfield talisman Rafael van der Vaart is almost 31. Their top goal-getter, Pierre-Michel Lassoga, is only a loanee from Hertha Berlin, and if the bullish young forward keeps scoring at the rate he did in the first season half, he’ll price himself out of Hamburg’s range. Furthermore, his form while on loan has caught Hertha's eye - the capital club recently said they would seek an extended contract with Lasogga.
In order to improve their books a bit, Hamburg were forced to sell one of their best young prospects, Heung-Min Son, to Bayer Leverkusen last summer. And they’ll certainly face a challenge to keep their breakthrough midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu at the end of this one. Meanwhile they’re still saddled with million-euro salaries for flops, some of whom don’t even make the squad any more.
In order for HSV plus to have any chance at all to attract big investors, one thing is paramount: staying in the first division. And that’s by no means a given.
A long bumpy road ahead
There are good reasons why Hamburg have sunk to the bottom three in the table. The first is defense. Only Hoffenheim are more porous at the back, despite coach Bert van Marwijk’s emphasis on defending. The back four are a mix of players who look past their prime (Heiko Westermann) and ones who may not quite be ready for the big time (17-year-old Jonathan Tan).
The midfield is clogged with underachievers - Badelj, Arslan, Ilicevic and Zoua. And while John was the one bright spot in Hamburg’s defeat by Schalke on Sunday, HSV don’t have an option to buy him and couldn’t afford his 12-million-euro valuation even if they did.
As they never tire of pointing out, Hamburg are the only club to have been in the Bundesliga ever season since its inception 51 years ago, and they’ve flirted with relegation before only to pull themselves out of the muck and the mire.
Their problem, though, is that if the players they have brought in do help them avoid the drop, they won’t necessarily by staying very long. This cycle of developing and then having to sell on talents (think Son or Sidney Sam) is one they need to break.
But that’s going to take time, regardless of whether the club adopts "HSV plus" or any other plan.