Time and a Relentless Clock Weigh on Hamburg Soccer Team

A crowd in 2015 framed a stadium clock that counts how long Hamburg has been a part of the Bundesliga. The clock notes an essential fact of Hamburg’s identity: it is the only team that has played continuously in the Bundesliga since the league’s inception in 1963. Credit Oliver Hardt/Bongarts, via Getty Images

HAMBURG, Germany — Workplaces often display a particular type of signage: “This Department Has Worked __ Days Without An Accident.” These notices, with their hopefully ascending numbers, are meant to remind employees of institutional standards, of individual responsibilities, of the importance of mindfulness and consistency.

The Hamburger S.V. clock is sort of like that.

Displayed prominently in the northwest corner of Hamburg’s cavernous home, the Volksparkstadion, the clock marks the total time, down to the second, that the team has spent in the Bundesliga, the top tier of German soccer. Last Friday, the digital numbers, glowing in white, ticked relentlessly upward when the club hosted Bayer Leverkusen: 53 years, 163 days, 3 hours, 31 minutes, 28 seconds at kickoff, all without an accident. As you read this sentence, they continue to mark the days, the hours, the seconds.

In Hamburg, the simple act of keeping time commemorates an essential fact of the club’s identity. A founding member, it has played continuously in the Bundesliga since the league’s first competitive moments, on Aug. 24, 1963, at 5 p.m. It is a distinction no other German club can boast. Not the former European champion Borussia Dortmund. Not Hamburg’s Nordderby rival, and fellow founding member, Werder Bremen. Not even mighty Bayern Munich.

All this helps explain the complicated angst once again shadowing this city’s biggest team. Pride outstripped performance here long ago. After decades of producing quality soccer — Hamburg has three Bundesliga titles on its résumé, and it reigned as the champion of Europe at the end of the 1982-83 season — the club is currently mired in a yearslong rut. Hamburg narrowly avoided its first relegation in 2012, and has survived two even closer calls since then.

Now, a stream of losses this season has once again plunged the club toward the bottom of the standings. And the clock, a moment-by-moment reminder of the club’s venerated past, has in effect become a scale measuring in real time the incessantly mounting weight of history.

Gert Dörfel after scoring for Hamburg in the team’s inaugural Bundesliga game on Aug. 24, 1963. Credit Volgmann/Ullstein Bild, via Getty Images

“I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse right now,” said Toben Baumgarten, 24, a fan of the team since childhood. “This can be a point of pressure on the team. They have to keep the clock running.”

Hamburg moved up one place last weekend to 16th in the 18-team league, with 15 games remaining. In the Bundesliga, the bottom two teams at the end of the season are automatically relegated. The third-to-last team must play a two-legged playoff series against the third-place team from the second division, with the winner awarded the final spot in the upper tier. Hamburg grabbed that lifeline in 2014 and 2015, pulling itself to safety and keeping its clock ticking.

The club’s poor play, for now, has not much dampened its support. There were 45,653 fans at the game on Friday, many of them eager to diagnose the team’s ills, to offer variations on similar themes: The players are afraid to lose; history has handcuffed the club; moves geared toward short-term self-preservation have suppressed big, fresh ideas.

According to Bobby Wood, an American striker who joined the club last May on a four-year contract, it does not take long for new players to grasp the depth of the club’s history, to absorb its pride — or to inherit its emotional baggage. It’s hard to avoid: In 2014, a small, digital version of the clock was mounted in the front window of the team bus.

“You don’t want to be a guy on the team that gets relegated after all these years,” Wood said. “Just because we never got relegated doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen, so you can’t think it’s not going to happen. If we continue this way, we will get relegated. We have to get out of that mentality, start realizing we’re in a bad situation, and do something different to get out of it.”

The Hamburg squad on July 1, 1983, with the Bundesliga trophy, left, and the European Cup. Credit Bongarts, via Getty Images

Things have not always been this dire. Hamburg, which has played in Germany’s top tier since the modern incarnation of the club was formed in 1919, has captured six domestic league titles over all, and three German Cups. It won the European Cup in 1983, in the midst of a golden era that ran from the mid-1970s to the mid-80s. When the first clock was installed in 2001, the team was mired in a spell of mediocrity that has extended to the present day. Back then it was a marker of pride as well as time.

“We weren’t winning trophies at that point, so you look for the one thing everyone was proud about,” said Alexander Iwan, who was 7 years old when he watched Hamburg win the 1987 German Cup, the club’s last significant trophy.

He still stands on the terraces every weekend, just below the clock, to sing alongside the team’s other hard-core fans. Twelve years ago, his university studies and sports loyalties fortuitously merged when he began working as a historian for the team.

Sometimes, while giving tours of the stadium, Iwan will direct his guests’ attention to the clock and mention Bayern Munich, the biggest club in Germany. Bayern has never been relegated either, but, crucially, it was not a founding member of the Bundesliga, and only played its way in in 1965.

“They win two trophies a year,” Iwan tells them about Munich. “But we have this.”

Iwan said the clock serves as a reminder of the club’s pedigree, regardless of its current state. No matter what, he added, it is loaded with meaning. “It shows everything — all the history, all the problems — at once,” he said.

Hamburg players are never far from a reminder of how long the team has been in the Bundesliga. In this instance, the team bus, parked in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 2015, has a clock that keeps an up-to-the-second count. Credit Matthias Hangst/Bongarts, via Getty Images

Hamburg won its game on Friday at the Volksparkstadion, 1-0, with a workmanlike performance against visiting Leverkusen. The players launched themselves into tackles, skidding around the damp field, earning appreciative applause from the crowd. Around the 28th minute, and for the next several minutes, fans belted out a popular club song, which borrows the melody of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister:

Sechs mal Deutscher meister,

Six-time German champion,

Drei mal pokalsieger,

Three-time cup winner,

Immer erste liga, H.S.V.!

Always first division, H.S.V.!

Hamburg players celebrating a victory over Bayer Leverkusen on Friday at the Volksparkstadion in Hamburg, Germany. Credit Martin Rose/Bongarts, via Getty Images

What would happen if the team got sent down? The song, for one thing, would disappear with the last tick of the clock. Patrik Voss, 31, predicted frustrations would boil over in vivid ways. “I think many people would be aggressive, angry,” he said. “Some riots, protests, might go on.”

The clock, Voss presumed, would be removed, never to be seen again. But others on Friday suggested it should be saved, perhaps used to count down to some predetermined deadline for promotion. And some said relegation might even serve as an overdue notice for the organization.

Such thought exercises have been more common over the last five years, mental gymnastics amid the near-misses and the relegation playoff escapes. The clock, in the process, has sometimes become an object of jokes and scorn. Iwan said local newspapers often use headline puns playing on timepiece imagery. Sometimes, they have replaced text headlines altogether with images of the clock. Many fans have grown more cynical.

“I think if we were not successful right now, we wouldn’t be so proud about always being in the league,” said Baumgarten, the young fan. “It’s more like there’s nothing else to be proud about, so you talk about the history a lot.”

Sipping a beer before Friday’s game, Baumgarten recalled going to a Hamburg game as a child and listening to his father explain the clock’s meaning. He was impressed, and the feeling stuck with him through the years as his devotion to the club grew.

“I hope if I come here with my own son one day, I can show him the clock,” he said, smiling at his sudden sentimentality. “We’ll see.”

Source: NYTimes