Hamburg were relegated from the Bundesliga in the 2017/18 season after a few seasons of flirting with relegation. Relegation terminated the longest running stay by one club in Germany’s top flight. The story of a clock perched in the north-west corner of the club’s home stadium became renowned in the club’s final seasons in the elite division.

The Stadionuhr counted how long Hamburg had been in the Bundesliga to the exact second. When relegation finally occurred on 12 May 2018, it was met with a lot of emotion at the Volksparkstadion. A report on the website of Deutsche Welle mentioned one banner in the stadium that read: “Love regardless of league.”  

At relegation, the clock read 54 years, 260 days, 22 hours, 28 minutes and 21 seconds. It became synonymous with the club’s struggles to cling on to a piece of history. Over time, it felt as though that Hamburg’s only yardstick for success became the continuous movement of the clock’s hands. This situation belies the greatness this extraordinary football club had enjoyed before.

The Hamburger SV that exists today was founded in June 1919 by a merger of three clubs. However, the club’s history is traced back to 29 September 1887, when the first of the predecessors, Sport-Club Germania Hamburg or SC Germania was formed. SC Germania was an amalgam of two clubs: Der Hohenfelder Sport Club and Wandsbek-Marienthaler.

Hamburg clock

After the First World War, SC Germania merged with Hamburger FC (formed in 1888) and FC Falke Eppendorf (formed in 1906) to form Hamburger Sport-Verein (HSV). The toll of the war hamstrung the ability of the three clubs to successfully survive as separate clubs.

Long after its formation, the club had modest success with three German championships and one DFB Pokal. It had never won the Bundesliga title, which by 1973, was a decade old.  By that year, Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach were in the fifth season of the nine that they shared the German crown. Hamburg’s best league position within that period was fifth – achieved in 1970-71.

In April that year, Peter Krohn assumed the role of General Manager of Die Rothosen with an avowed aim of making the club a force in German football – at the time, it seemed a tad over-ambitious.

A business entrepreneur, he launched various initiatives to market the club better and bring in more funds to finance his ambition. Various events were organized during training sessions: he started selling advertising spaces and lured fans into the stadium by giving them a say through voting on transfers. Even a pink jersey was launched to attract women to their games.

Any semblance of progress Krohn envisaged took time in arriving. The 1975-76 season yielded a second place finish in the league and the first silverware in the form of the DFB Pokal. Despite a disappointing sixth-place finish in the league the next season, Hamburg won the European Cup Winners’ Cup by defeating Anderlecht. That gave impetus to Krohn’s ambitions.

Hitachi was brought in as shirt sponsors to further drive Krohn’s determination to make Hamburg a force. To match that ambition on the pitch, Kevin Keegan was signed for a then British record fee of £500,000 from Liverpool, whilst Yugoslav defender Ivan Buljan also came in. To lead the charge, Kuno Klotzer was replaced as manager by Rudi Gutendorf despite opposition by the playing body.

A poor start to the new 1977-78 season led to both Krohn and Gutendorf departing in October. Ozcan  Arkoc, Hamburg’s ex-Turkish goalkeeper, took over.


Krohn had not managed to make Hamburger SV the force he envisaged but it was clear he had laid some foundation. Günter Netzer was his replacement. Netzer was part of the Borussia Mönchengladbach team that battled Bayern Munich for dominance in the Bundesliga from the late 1960s. It, therefore, seemed apt that he played a role in realizing Krohn’s aim of making the club a force in German football. A poor league performance the previous season and the lack of a substantive coach meant Netzer’s plate was already full heading into his first full season. He appointed Yugoslav Branko Zebec as coach.

Zebec was with Yugoslavia in the 1958 World Cup. He had enjoyed success in club football in his home country. A transfer to Alemannia Aachen towards the end of his career introduced him to the environment he was later to do most of his coaching. He won Bayern Munich its first Bundesliga title and DFB Pokal in his sole season in charge in 1969. Prior to the Hamburg role, he also had experience with Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia and VfB Stuttgart.

Netzer signed midfielder William Hartwig from TSV Munich, as well as strikers Horst Hrubesch from Rot-Weiss Essen, Bernd Wehmeyer from Hannover and Hans-Gunther Plucken from Union Solingen. Arno Steffenhagen and Georg Volkert were considered trouble-makers who were not playing for Keegan. They were moved on.

Kevin Keegan was expected to be sold after a disappointing first season in Germany, with Real Madrid showing interest. However, Netzer’s explanation about his own struggles in the Spanish capital convinced the Englishman to stay, and that proved to be an inspired decision. The following campaign, he showed his best form, ending the season with 16 goals – the highest at the club – and would win the Ballon d’Or twice in the following three seasons, whilst also earning the nickname of the ‘Machtig Maus’ (Mighty Mouse).

The new signings, a revitalized Keegan and a coach well-versed in the German league proved a potent combination as Hamburg won its first Bundesliga title in the 1978/79 season. They won 21 of 34 fixtures en route to the title.


By the start of the 1979/80 season, Hamburg were gaining a reputation as one of the finest in Germany. Felix Magath, who had been signed from second-tier side Saarbrücken, had grown to become one of the key creative forces of the team. Striker Horst Hrubesch and defender Manfred Kaltz were also in the German set up. Hrubesch, by the end of the season, became an unlikely hero for West Germany in the Euro 1980 triumph in Italy.

Hamburg came close to repeating the league triumph of the previous season. However, they lost the league by two points to Bayern Munich. Borussia Mönchengladbach had the upper hand over the Munich club in their tussle for dominance in the league. They won the title between 1975 to 1978, with FC Koln and Hamburg accounting for the other two titles before Bayern’s triumph in 1980.

Three key factors contributed to Bayern’s resurgence in 1980: Uli Hoeneß’s supreme work in an executive role, Pal Csernai success as a coach and the arrival of Paul Breitner from Real Madrid. With Breitner in midfield and the prolific Karl-Heinz Rummenigge upfront, ‘FC Breitnigg’ fired Bayern Munich to the title. Despite the strength of Bayern Munich, Hamburg remained in contention until the very end, with their charge receiving a fatal blow after a 3-1 loss to Bayer Leverkusen in their penultimate match.

Hamburg had to settle for second-best in Europe too that year, having lost to Nottingham Forest in the European Cup final, despite going into the match as favourites. The tag came to them as a result of the 5-1 hammering of Real Madrid in the second-leg of the semi-final. Prior to that, they had overcome Dinamo Tbilisi, Liverpool, and Hajduk Split, before overturning the 2-0 deficit against Real Madrid to reach the final. Such was their dominance that Vicente del Bosque, representing the famous white at the time and a traditionally composed figure, lost his cool and was sent off for trying to punch Kevin Keegan.

Europe’s grandest prize may have eluded them, but their run to the final as well as the league title from the year before helped improve the status of the football club. That profile was raised even further with the signing of Franz Beckenbauer, who was approaching the end of his career.

In the next season, Saint-Étienne thumped Hamburg 5-0 in the UEFA Cup to add another season without success on the continental front, but it was the sacking of Zebec that captured most of the headlines. The coach’s alcoholism troubles caught up to him and it was clear that his work was being affected. In his place came his assistant, Aleksander Ristić, who, in his short tenure, led the team to a second-place finish in the Bundesliga.


Ernst Happel may not be mentioned as one of the originators of Total Football. However, he made a seminal contribution to that concept during his coaching career. Taking over ADO Den Haag in 1962, he transformed the relegation contenders to rise to the top of the league. In 1968, when his ADO Den Haag side faced Ajax in the KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup), he opted for a 4-3-3 formation against the then-popular 4-2-4. Ajax was coached by Rinus Michels, one of the originators of Total Football. Happel triumphed. The Austrian was one of the very first tacticians to use a three-man midfield – a defining feature of Total Football.

Happel’s success at the Hague attracted attention in Rotterdam. At Feyenoord, he would employ the 4-3-3 again to frustrate Ajax and Michels. According to Jonathan Wilson, the 3-3 stalemate convinced Michels and Ajax’s 4-2-4 to switch to a 4-3-3. Happel enjoyed a successful spell at Feyenoord, helping them win their first and only European Cup in 1970, a league title and the Intercontinental Cup to add to the Dutch Cup he won at ADO Den Haag.

Therefore, when Netzer made the move to bring Happel to Hamburg, it was a big deal. Hamburg had emerged from years of under-achievement to a league triumph to employing a big name coach in Europe. Krohn’s ambition of turning the club into a force was well and truly on course even years after his departure.

With the tactical guidance of the astute Happel, Hamburg won its second league title in the Austrian’s first season in charge. The season, however, ended in disappointment as Die Rothosen unexpectedly lost the UEFA Cup final to Swedish side Gothenburg.

Hamburg successfully defended the Bundesliga title following year despite a stiff challenge by Werder Bremen. Midway through that season, they set a record in the league for going a mammoth 36 games unbeaten. That run was ended by the Bremen club in late January 1983, and the record stuck for 30 years until Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich wrote their names in the history books.

The high point of that season was their triumph in the European Cup for the first time. Athens, the venue of the contest served up good memories for Hamburg. It was in the ancient city and the same stadium that Happel’s team thumped Olympiacos 5-0 in the second round. The road to Athens began with a 3-1 aggregate win over Dynamo Berlin.


A Lars Bastrup hattrick away in Kyiv gave Die Rothosen a strong edge in the quarter-finals. Hamburg lost the home tie by two goals to one. The Germans overcame Real Sociedad by an aggregate score of 3-2 to set up a tie with Juventus in the final.

Giovanni Trapattoni had been in charge of the Bianconeri since 1976. In his time, he had won three Scudetti, but it was European glory that eluded the club. Inconsistent league form saw AS Roma take the Serie A title that season, as Juventus mainly focused on bringing the European Cup to Turin. On their way to the final, they had overcome Hvidovre, Standard Liege, Aston Villa, and Widzew Łódź, while much of their squad included the World Cup winners from the previous year including Dino Zoff, Claudio Gentile and Gaetano Scirea. Other than that, Hamburg would have Michel Platini and Zbigniew Boniek to worry about. This was an all-star team.

Hamburg, however, were up for the task. Felix Magath’s early goal would do the trick for them, and it was an early goal that would do the damage on La Vecchia Signora, just as it had a decade prior at the same stage against Ajax. Hamburg would hold on for their first European triumph, as Ernst Happel would become the first manager to win the famous trophy with two different clubs. Since then, Carlo Ancelotti, Otmar Hitzfeld, José Mourinho and Jupp Heynckes have followed suit.

Jonathan Wilson’s notes about the match in his book, Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, made for an interesting read:

“Hamburg played with two forwards: a figurehead in Horst Hrubesch with Lars Bastrup playing off him to the left. That suited Juventus, because it meant he could be marked by Gentile, while Cabrini would be left free from defensive concerns to attack down the left. Realizing that, the Hamburg coach Ernst Happel switched Bastrup to the right, putting him up against Cabrini. That was something almost unheard of in Italian football…Giovanni Trapattoni decided to stick with the man-to-man system and moved Gentile across to the left to mark Bastrup. That, of course, left a hole on the right, which Tardelli was supposed to drop back and fill. In practice, though Tardelli was both neutered as an attacking force and failed to adequately cover the gap, through which Felix Magath ran to score the only goal of the game”.


The European success and the league titles marked a period that Die Rothosen would fail to match ever again. The team disintegrated, with players moving far and wide, while mismanagement from the men in the suits affected the club greatly. They would compete in the league, finishing amongst the higher echelons several times, but this was a period that would never be replicated. Nevertheless, this was the most glorious phase in Hamburg’s history – one that is held in the highest regard.