When Hamburg Conquered Europe
All around the world, clubs that were once hugely successful are going through rough patches. Be it Leeds United and Nottingham Forest in England, Rangers in Scotland, Parma in Italy or Auxerre in France. Recent seasons in the Bundesliga have seen the rise of young clubs like Hoffenheim, Ingolstadt and RB Leipzig at the expense of many traditional institutions. Of these historic German clubs, perhaps none has been hit harder than Hamburg.
Once one of Germany’s most successful clubs, Hamburger SV enjoyed a trophy-laden era in the 1970s and 80s, winning multiple Bundesliga and DFB Pokal titles while famously becoming Germany’s second ever European Cup champion. Despite their decorated history, Hamburg has struggled mightily in recent years. On the field, the results have been disastrous as Hamburg has failed to qualify for European football since the inaugural Europa League campaign in 2009/10. The current streak of seven seasons without European football is the longest in Hamburg’s history since their European debut in 1960. The club was, in fact, left to fight for the relegation playoff for the first time in its history in 2014 and again in 2015! These results and indifferent form in the current season have together put the club at serious risk of facing their first ever relegation and losing their sacred “Dino” status as the longest serving club in the Bundesliga and the only club that has played in all 54 seasons of the Bundesliga. While the players have performed poorly, they have not been helped by the constant speculation and instability surrounding the club. The decision making at boardroom level has been consistently poor. Ever since former Hamburg star Thomas Doll was sacked as head coach in February 2007 Hamburg has changed their coach 16 times! The club has also racked up massive debt in recent times, a net transfer spend loss of over 50 million euros over the past three seasons has certainly not helped ease the growing concern about Hamburg’s financial situation.
Despite these recent struggles, Hamburg remains one of Germany’s biggest and most popular clubs. It still boasts of having the fifth highest number of members among all clubs in Germany and the fourth highest number of attendees in the Bundesliga last season. Yet, we believe, Hamburg still has the potential to rise from their malaise and conquer Germany and Europe again.
Hamburg was one of the most dominant football clubs in post WWI Germany, winning the Northern German football championship a record 10 times along with two German championships — a competition for the champions of each region to decide the national champion — in 1923 and 1928. This incredible success continued into the 1940s and 50s as Hamburg won the Oberliga Nord 15 times in 16 seasons. Despite this incredible success in the North of Germany, Hamburg struggled in the German football championship. Often knocked out in the first round of the competition, it wasn’t until former youth team coach Günter Mahlmann took over in the 1956/57 season that the club started reaching the later stages regularly. During Mahlmann’s first two seasons as coach, he took the team to the competition’s final, losing finally to Borussia Dortmund and Schalke respectively. It wouldn’t be until 1960 that Hamburg ended their 32-year wait for a German championship. Victory over Köln in the German championship qualified Hamburg for the European Cup for the first time. Hamburg’s first time in Europe provided another highlight in their pre-Bundesliga history as they reached the semifinals against a great Barcelona side featuring Sándor Kocsis and Luis Suárez. With Hamburg a minute away from a 2-1 win, Kocsis scored to send the tie to a replay which Barcelona duly won 1-0.
Hamburg entered the newly formed Bundesliga on a high in 1963 just 10 days after winning the DFB Pokal for the first time, courtesy of an Uwe Seeler hat trick. Led by Seeler, one of the greatest players in German history and scorer of over 300 goals in nine seasons with the club since making his debut at 18, Hamburg looked to continue their winning ways and establish themselves in the Bundesliga.
Early Bundesliga Years
While Seeler contributed a league-best 30 goals on his way to his second German Footballer of the Year award, Hamburg could only finish 6th in the inaugural Bundesliga campaign. Following their dominance in regional football their failure to succeed in the league was an unfamiliar feeling for Hamburg. Hamburg wouldn’t finish above 6th until Bundesliga’s eighth season in 1970-71.
Change in 1970
Hamburg’s fortunes began to change in 1970 with the hiring of innovative 30-year old Klaus-Dieter Ochs as head coach. Ochs faced the difficult task of finding new, younger players to replace ageing stars like Uwe Seeler, Gert Dörfel and Willi Schulz (all of them older than the coach).Ochs, together with Vice President Ernst Naumann and youth coach Gerhard Heid set up an extensive youth scouting and development program. This youth initiative would go on to produce and identify many Hamburg regulars including stars Manfred Kaltz, Caspar Memering, Rudi Kargus and Peter Hidien. Ochs oversaw that transitional period in Hamburg when many ageing players were replaced by younger talents. The retirement of Uwe Seeler and Jürgen Kurbjuhn in the summer of 1972 and the integration of Kaltz, Kargus, Memering, Hidien and Peter Krobbach into the team symbolized the club’s vision for the future.
After a fifth place finish in Ochs’ first season in charge, Hamburg recorded 10th and 14th place finishes in the next two seasons respectively. Pressures mounted, and in what would be Ochs’ final act as Hamburg boss, his team won the club’s first trophy of the Bundesliga era in the 1973 DFB Ligapokal. It was the quest for consistency in the Bundesliga, that inspired the board to replace Ochs with Kuno Klötzer in the summer of 1973. , Klötzer, a former Werder Bremen midfielder, came with an experience of 20 years with several German clubs..
After the struggles of the previous two seasons, Klötzer provided a steady, if unspectacular hand, guiding Hamburg to 12th position in his first season as coach and to 4th in 1974-75, which happened to be his second and Hamburg’s best Bundesliga season.
Two years into Klötzer’s reign the club’s hierarchy underwent significant changes that would play a key role in allowing Hamburg to reach its untapped potential. In the summer of 1975, Dr. Peter Krohn stepped down as President of the club and instead took on the (paid) role of general manager. Hamburg treasurer and German table tennis champion Paul Benthien took over as club president. Benthien and Krohn wasted no time in improving the quality of the squad available to Klötzer. Klötzer was able to spend significantly on the transfer market, buying Austrian midfielder Hans Ettmayer from Stuttgart and Ajax-Legend Horst Blankenburg. Blankenburg, despite being only 28 years old, brought tremendous experience and winning mentality having won the European Cup three years in a row with Ajax from 1971-73. These transfers signalled unprecedented ambition and intent from the new club bosses. Hamburg would no longer settle for mid-table results with the occasional European finish, the “new” Hamburg aspired to reach the pinnacle of German and European football.
Klötzer’s men entered the 1975-76 season on the back of a fourth place finish, ready to compete on all three fronts. Blankenburg was slotted into the starting XI alongside Peter Nogly, Manfred Kaltz and Peter Hidien to form Bundesliga’s best defence conceding just 32 league goals. This stingy defence helped Hamburg finish second in the Bundesliga behind Borussia Mönchengladbach. There was also continental success for Hamburg as they reached the semi final of the UEFA Cup before narrowly falling to Club Brugge 2-1 on aggregate after a Kaltz own goal late in the second leg condemned Hamburg to defeat. The season’s most memorable success, however, was in the DFB-Pokal. After outlasting Bayern Munich in a thrilling semi-final tie that went to a replay, Hamburg met Kaiserslautern at the Waldstadion in Frankfurt. First half goals from Peter Nogly and Ole Bjørnmose,(the Dane was Hamburg’s only non-German player in the lineup) were enough for the club to win their second DFB-Pokal and qualify for next season’s Cup Winners’ Cup. Hamburg appeared to be on the verge of greatness in the 1975-76 season nearly completing a historic treble but falling just short in the league and UEFA Cup.
Hamburg begun the next season after the hinrunde (the first half of the season prior to the winter break) in 12th place. They were already out of the DFB Pokal and that quickly led to discontent within the club’s hierarchy. The atmosphere at the club soured; general manager Dr. Peter Krohn publicly criticized Klötzer and the pressure mounted. Not even Hamburg’s first European trophy, the Cup Winners’ Cup could save Klötzer, he was sacked in the summer of 1977 after four years at the club.
It was at this time that Hamburg paid a record fee of 500,000 pounds to sign English forward Kevin Keegan from Liverpool. Krohn wanted to capitalize on Hamburg’s growing profile in the game and thought Keegan could help Hamburg take the next step. Keegan was warmly received by the press in Germany, who referred to him as Hamburg’s “saviour”. However, when reports of his wages got out, (Keegan was the highest paid player in Germany, earning a reported 100,000 pounds/year with up to 150,000 more in endorsements) many Hamburg players were unhappy and even complained to new coach Rudi Gutendorf. The next few months were tough for Keegan as many of his new teammates refused to pass him the ball. He punched an opposition player during a friendly with Hamburg as they lost 6-0 in the European Super Cup. He was humiliated on his return to Liverpool Despite this, Keegan managed to score 12 goals in all competitions and topped Austrian striker Hans Krankl to win the Ballon d’Or. Hamburg, however, finished in the mid table. Keegan really managed to kick on in his second season, teaming with recruit Horst Hrubesch to create one of Germany’s most dangerous front lines. Keegan’s form saw him defend his Ballon d’Or, comfortably winning ahead of the likes of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Ruud Krol. As Keegan’s success in Germany grew, he became more accepted in the team and loved by the fans who nicknamed him “Mighty Mouse” after the cartoon superhero.
Another poor start cost Klötzer’s successor, Rudi Gutendorf, his job after just 12 league matches. The gamble by Krohn had not paid off and he soon followed Gutendorf out of the door as well. Klötzer’s assistant and former Hamburg ‘keeper, Arkoç Özcan became the first ever Turkish manager of a Bundesliga club when he took over until the end of the season and managed to steer the club into 10th.
Gunter Netzer’s Arrival
Shortly after Krohn’s exit, President Paul Benthien made an appointment that would help lead Hamburg to their most successful period in their history. Gunter Netzer was brought in as the new general manager. Netzer arrived in Hamburg less than a year after being removed from a playing career. He had won two league titles, each with Mönchengladbach and Real Madrid, the European Championships and World Cup with West Germany. Netzer’s first action was to hire high-profile Yugoslav coach Branko Zebec in time for the start of the 1978-79 season.
A notoriously strict and demanding coach, Zebec set out to transform Hamburg into a more stable unit from a side that had shipped the fourth most goals the season before. Zebec abandoned the 4-3-3 used in Klötzer’s final season, also usedby Özcan, in favor of a return to a more defensive formation. During Zebec’s reign, Hamburg’s preferred formation was 5-2-3. In possession this formation allowed the team to become a fluid 3-4-3 or even a 3-3-4 at times, with one of the wingbacks bombing on and allowing one of the center backs to join the midfield, leaving cover for Magath to make forward runs. When the ball was lost, however, the formation quickly became a 5-4-1. Zebec demanded that everyone track back and defend. As most teams across the continent played with two up front, Hamburg sat deep and man-marked the opposition forwards, leaving one center back free in a “sweeper” role. This defense first mentality based on teamwork and work rate would serve as the foundation for Zebec’s greatest successes in Hamburg. (The amount of work Felix Magath would get through in central midfield on a weekly basis under Zebec might help explain some of Magath’s future training methods!)
Failing to qualify for European football the previous season and crashing out of the DFB Pokal 1978-79 in the first round allowed Zebec to focus solely on the Bundesliga. Hamburg chased Kaiserslautern at the top of the table all season, spending 13 weeks in 2nd and 9 weeks in 3rd before finally passing FCK in April on the 27th match day. Hamburg never looked back and held on to win their first ever Bundesliga title. What Zebec managed to achieve was nothing short of remarkable, taking a side from 10th to the title in one season, tying a Bundesliga record for best improvement from the season before in a title winning side (a few teams had also done it from 10th in the 1960s and Kaiserslautern went to beat this record twice in the 1990s). Seven players, including new signings Jimmy Hartwig and Horst Hrubesch, played in every match symbolizing Hamburg’s consistency. The only title winning side that had more players play in every match was Bayern Munich in 1968-69 with eight, no prizes for guessing their manager… Branko Zebec. Zebec’s focus on defence paid off as Hamburg conceded the fewest goals in the league, 35 less than the season before! It wasn’t all dour 1-0’s though, as Hamburg, led by Kevin Keegan’s 17, also managed to lead the league in goals scored.
Hamburg so nearly managed to defend their first title, top of the table going into match day 33, a slip-up in Leverkusen cost them dearly as Bayern took advantage and beat Hamburg to the title. Hamburg’s season was not yet over. Just the “small” matter of the European Cup Final against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest remained.
Following a memorable 5-1 thrashing at home against Real Madrid in the semi-final second leg (Hamburg was down 2-0 from the first leg) Hamburg could be confident of their chances, even against the defending champions. There were still a few concerns. Horst Hrubesch, Hamburg’s talismanic striker, was doubtful for the game with an ankle injury and had to make do with a place on the bench. Hamburg were behind at half-time courtesy of a John Robertson strike midway through the first half. Zebec reacted by replacing midfielder Holger Hieronymus with Hrubesch for the second half. Hrubesch, clearly unfit, hobbled around the pitch for 45 minutes, a shadow of his usual self and was unable to help Hamburg break the deadlock as the match ended 1-0 to Forest. Their chance to be Kings of Europe had gone.
Zebec, a strict disciplinarian, was largely to blame for this failure. He believed that when a team plays successfully it can take more training. The players suffered from the rigours of this training regime and complained about the harsh training at that late stage of the season. Legend has it that when Zebec made the team run, he would grab a handful of gravel and use each individual pebble as a lap counter until his hand was empty again.
Critics said these harsh training sessions were the reason why Hamburg, four days before the final, also lost a decisive match against newly-promoted Leverkusen which consigned them to runners-up position in the league.
“Branko Zebec took the pleasure out of playing football.” – Peter Nogly
Immediately following the final defeat, two-time European Footballer of the Year Kevin Keegan was sold to Southampton. Peter Nogly and Rudi Kargus, who together had amassed nearly 600 league appearances for Hamburg, also left for new pastures. The spine of the team needed changing. To replace Nogly in the “Libero” role, Zebec turned to one of his former players, the great Franz Beckenbauer. Beckenbauer was 34 and had spent the last 4 seasons playing in America with the New York Cosmos but Zebec couldn’t pass up the opportunity to reunite with a player of his calibre.
Hamburg began the 1980-81 season in fine form with no sign of a hangover from their final defeat at the hands of Forest. Hamburg entered the winter break at the top of the Bundesliga. Despite the on-field success, there was one problem that couldn’t be ignored. Branko Zebec had developed a rather serious drinking problem and was even seen drinking on the bench during matches! Famously, Zebec once came into the dressing room at halftime and told his players, “0-2, lost! Does not matter, we have to win the next match!” Gunter Netzer tells of a time towards the end of Zebec’s reign when Zebec missed the team bus before a match in Dortmund, was caught by the police drunk at the wheel and almost fell out of his seat during the game. The board along with Netzer knew this could not go on and decided that they must terminate Zebec’s contract. Zebec’s assistant Aleksander Ristic was put in charge of the team for the rückrunde (the second half of the season, after the winter break). Without Zebec, Hamburg were unable to maintain their position at the top of the table, finishing second and crashing out of the domestic cup at second division Eintracht Braunschweig, conceding four goals, shortly after Zebec’s departure from the club.
The minor collapse towards the end of the 1980-81 season aside, Hamburg remained one of Europe’s premier teams and were set to rebound from the disappointment of the previous season. Gunter Netzer turned to quiet Austrian coach Ernst Happel, a serial winner who had recently led the Netherlands to the World Cup final. Having already guided Feyenoord to a European Cup triumph and collected league titles in the Netherlands and Belgium, Happel came to Hamburg as a coach who could be counted on to deliver trophies.
Happel brought with him to Hamburg the zonal marking style favored in the Netherlands. This meant scrapping the highly-successful defensive, man-marking style favored by Zebec. Happel, no doubt influenced by his time in the Netherlands, favored a more possession-based, attacking style. Key to this system was the ability to play the ball out from the back. Holger Hieronymus was converted from midfielder to center back where he was often partnered with former Libero Ditmar Jakobs. This gave Hamburg two good passers in the back and freed Magath and Hartwig from some of the build-up and playmaking responsibilities. The success that followed has become legendary around Hamburg and Germany.
Mightily successful in this era, this defensive duo promised to be the backbone of Hamburg’s team for years to come. Sadly, this partnership would face a premature end in 1984 when Hieronymus suffered career-ending injuries to his knee forcing the talented defender to retire at the youthful age of just 26 . Jakobs, equally tragically, was also forced to end his playing career due to horrific injury. Sliding to make a goal line clearance in a 1989 match against rivals Werder Bremen, Jakobs was impaled by a carabiner fixing the goal to the ground. For 20 minutes, Jakobs lay in the goal until a team doctor cut the hooks from his back with a scalpel. The great defender suffered nerve damage and was forced to retire.
“No one who sits in and defends become champions. It did not matter to Happel if the opponent was Darmstadt 98 or FC Bayern München.” – Jimmy Hartwig talking about Happel’s aggressive attacking style
The change in philosophy allowed Hamburg to fully utilize their attacking talents, setting a Bundesliga record for most goals in the hinrunde with 50. Despite this, Hamburg entered the winter break in 3rd. A draw in Köln on match day 22 allowed Hamburg to go to the top of the table, a position they would not surrender on their way to their second Bundesliga title in four seasons. Six Hamburg players scored at least 8 league goals, led by Hrubesch, who banged in a league highest 27 goals. With Hamburg also well positioned in the cups, a treble looked possible. Hamburg went the final 16 league matches unbeaten, proving that Happel’s plan had been successfully implemented. Hamburg went out of the DFB Pokal at the semi-final stage following a disappointing 2-0 defeat in Nürnberg. In the UEFA Cup, Hamburg navigated a difficult path, including Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen, to reach the final against Göteborg. It was not to be, however, as the Swedes overpowered Hamburg, winning comfortably 4-0. Still, Happel could look back on his first season with pride, and look forward to playing in the European Cup the following season…
Hamburg’s four West German internationals (Hrubesch, Magath, Kaltz, Hieronymus) returned from the World Cup in Spain as members of one of football’s most hated teams. An “eventful” summer that included humiliation against Algeria, match-fixing against Austria that would become known as the “Disgrace of Gijon”, Toni Schumacher’s attempted decapitation of France’s Patrick Battiston and the disappointment of the World Cup Final defeat against Italy. Hamburg’s German internationals arrived determined to put the summer’s events, behind them and exploded out of the gates for Hamburg.
Hamburg finished the hinrunde atop the Bundesliga having yet to suffer a league defeat and awaiting Dynamo Kiev in the European Cup quarter finals. The break did not disrupt Hamburg’s season as they continued their form in the rückrunde, losing just twice. Hamburg won the Bundesliga for a second time running, finishing 24 match days on top of the table, including the final 20. Despite their dominant form, Hamburg was pushed to the wire by a Rudi Völler-inspired Werder Bremen side and finished level on points with 52. Hamburg, however, claimed the title due to a superior goal difference. Hamburg were unable to focus solely on the league run-in as they also had the European Cup to contend with. Having swept aside Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kiev, Hamburg were drawn against Real Sociedad in the semi-finals. Hamburg managed to advance by the narrowest of margins, courtesy of a late, and very controversial, Thomas von Heesen tap-in following a deflection off Ditmar Jakobs. Hamburg’s opponents in the European Cup Final? A star-studded Juventus side known as “the team of all talents”.
The European Cup Final
Hamburg were heavy underdogs for the Final in Athens. Led by Giovanni Trapattoni, Juventus featured six members of the Italian team that defeated West Germany in the ’82 World Cup Final alongside foreign stars, Zbigniew Boniek and one Michel Platini, on his way to his first of three consecutive Ballon d’Or awards. Hamburg’s lineup included five members of the team that was defeated by Nottingham Forest in the ‘80 final. It was just like a rematch of Germany vs. Italy – two sets of players lined up against each other who had contrasting fortunes just a while back.
Hamburg got off to a flying start when Felix Magath picked up the ball about 35 yards from goal, drove past Roberto Bettega and fired the ball past Dino Zoff in just the 8th minute. The early lead allowed Hamburg to sit back and absorb the Juventus attacks. Early in the second half, Happel sent on midfielder Thomas von Heesen in place of striker Lars Bastrup, leaving Hrubesch up front on his own for much of the second half. Despite the more defensive outlook, it was Hamburg who created the better chances and could have gone two up towards the end. In the end, a second goal wasn’t required as the Romanian referee Nicolae Rainea blew his whistle for the final time with the score still 1-0. Hamburg were European Champions at last!
In two seasons under Happel, Hamburg had won the Bundesliga twice, the European Cup, and reached the UEFA Cup Final. Hamburg’s dominance can be seen from their record-breaking form when Hamburg went undefeated in the Bundesliga between 16 January 1982 and 29 January 1983. The run stretched across 36 games and remained a Bundesliga record until it was finally broken in November 2013 by Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich. This was the success that former President Dr. Horst Barrelet had envisioned in 1970 when he appointed Klaus-Dieter Ochs in charge of the first team with the instruction of replacing the “old guard” with young talent. While only Manni Kaltz remained from that initial group of youngsters, the others had undeniably left their marks on Hamburg, allowing the club to reach the summit of European football. The squad had finally maximized its potential.
“Whoever has Happel as coach, has won the lottery.” – Franz Beckenbauer
The End of an Era
In the years after the European Cup triumph, many of the heroes of that night in Athens left Hamburg for new challenges. The summer of ’83 saw captain Horst Hrubesch leave for Standard Liege. One year later, Jimmy Hartwig and Holger Hieronymus were gone. The next summer brought more departures in the forms of Jürgen Milewski, Jürgen Groh and Felix Magath. Not only did the playing staff change, Gunter Netzer, a man who had done so much to bring Zebec and Happel to Hamburg and equip them with suitable squads, decided it was time for a change in his life and stepped down in 1985.
Even with the brilliant Ernst Happel still in charge, Hamburg couldn’t recover from these losses. On finishing level on points with Stuttgart and Mönchengladbach in 1983-84, life came full circle for Hamburg as they missed out on the title due to goal difference, finishing 2nd. They slipped further down the table to 5th and then to 7th positions in the seasons following the memorable trophy lift. Hamburg failed to make any notable cup runs and in 1986 they even failed to qualify for Europe for the first time in seven seasons. Happel did manage to finish his time at Hamburg on a high, finishing 2nd in 1986-87 and winning the DFB Pokal. At the Olympia stadium there remained only four players (Stein, Kaltz, Jakobs, von Heesen) from the club’s biggest success just four years ago. Happel stepped down after the Pokal victory over Stuttgarter Kickers and returned to his native Austria as coach of FC Swarovski Tirol. Hamburg players, staff and fans knew this was the end of an era. 1976-83 was a special time for the club, winning six trophies and establishing themselves as a force both domestically and in Europe.
What Happened Next?
Yugoslav legend Josip Skoblar was chosen as the man to replace the great Ernst Happel.
Happel’s void proved too big to fill as Skoblar lasted just 15 league matches before being told to pack up, with Hamburg languishing in 9th place in the Bundesliga and already out of the Cup Winners’ Cup.
Hamburg’s fall from grace continued into the nineties as they finished at the bottom half of the table six times, something they had only done seven times in their entire Bundesliga history before 1990. Hamburg fell into serious financial trouble in the early ‘90s. IThomas Doll’s sale to Lazio for a then-club record 7.5 million Euros in 1991 is often credited with keeping the club afloat. After the relatively stable club leadership from 1970-87, 1987-99 saw seven different club presidents and eight managers come and go. The early 2000s saw an uptick in form in which Hamburg qualified for Europe seven seasons running, they completely collapsed again. Instead of fighting for European titles against the best teams and greatest players in football, Hamburg has been fighting for their place in the Bundesliga for the last several seasons. Now might be the time for a Klaus-Dieter Ochs inspired youth policy– who knows where that could take the club? (Or maybe just some common sense in the club’s leadership!)
Even during this particularly tough spell in the club’s history, Hamburg remains one of Germany’s biggest clubs and holds the potential to become a dangerous club in European competitions, again. All Hamburg needs is the right catalyst for change.