Clock ticking on Hamburg's Bundesliga future

Hamburg (AFP) –


Fallen German giants Hamburg could be relegated from the Bundesliga's top-flight for the first time in their history on Saturday.

A clock in their Volksparkstadion proudly displays how long Hamburg have been in the Bundesliga -- they are the only ever-presents since the division was founded in 1963. The now mighty Bayern Munich were only a second-division club back then.

But Hamburg's proud record is now in serious danger.

Lying second from bottom after taking just 28 points from 33 games, the club must beat Borussia Moenchengladbach at home on the final day of the season and hope Wolfsburg, who are one place and two points above them, lose at home to already-relegated Cologne.

"In mathematical terms, the chance is low, but in football, an awful lot is possible," Hamburg coach Christian Titz said defiantly.

"Lots of people in Hamburg will be Cologne fans on Saturday.

"The problem is, we could do our homework, get the win and still it might not be enough."

So desperate are Hamburg fans to get the right results on Saturday that barrels of beer are being pledged, via Twitter, to Cologne should they beat Wolfsburg.

The goal is to finish 16th, which would mean for the third time in five years Hamburg would face the ordeal of a relegation playoff, this time against Holstein Kiel, who finished third in Germany's second tier.

- 'Like a funeral' -

To sweeten the bitter taste of regular defeats, the squad handed out free scoops of ice cream to long-suffering Hamburg fans at training on Tuesday.

The current plight is a far cry from the glory days.

England star Kevin Keegan, with his permed locks, moved to Hamburg from Liverpool for a then-record 500,000 pounds in 1977, becoming the Bundesliga's first foreign superstar.

Keegan thrived in the bustling northern German port and was voted European player of the year in both 1978 and 1979. He scored 17 goals as Hamburg won the Bundesliga title for the first time in 1978-79.

Then in the 1980s, legendary Austrian coach Ernst Happel steered Hamburg to triumph in the 1983 European Cup, when Felix Magath scored in a 1-0 win over Juventus in Athens.

Hamburg also won the German title in the 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons. But no significant silverware has come the club's way since they lifted the German Cup back in 1987.

Since Angela Merkel became German chancellor in 2005, 18 different coaches have failed to bring success, or even stability.

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

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

Markus Gisdol was sacked in January after taking just 15 points from 19 games.

Former player Bernd Hollerbach took over, but was gone by March after failing to win any of his seven games.

Titz, 47, the former reserve team coach, has coaxed 10 points from his seven games to reignite long-lost hope.

"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.

- Squad clearout -

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."

Should the unthinkable happen, a clear-out of the squad is highly likely.

In total, eight players are out of contract, including captain Gotoku Sakai, a Japanese international, plus Aaron Hunt, Lewis Holtby and Nicolai Mueller, who have played for Germany.

One of the eight, right-back Dennis Diekmeier, has been involved in nerve-wracking relegation play-offs four times in his career, with Nuremberg in 2009 and 2010, then Hamburg in 2014 and 2015 -- always with the winning club.

"Some guys are relaxed, some are tense, but we should look forward to the game," said Diekmeier.

"Eight or nine weeks ago, everyone thought we were finished, now we still have the chance to avoid relegation on the last day of the season."