Der Friedhof. When translated literally, this word means “the peaceful place.” A Friedhof right next to Hamburger SV’s Volksparkstadion is filled with flowers and chirping birds and from which it can feel like the 57,000 who take to the terrace every other weekend are miles away, spare the occasional drunkard’s shouts. There’s even a section of the Friedhof with signs and flowers in HSV’s colors and featuring its logo for those who dedicated themselves to the team. But these people dedicated more than their lives to their beloved, because Friedhof really means cemetery.
The ones buried here before May 12 never had to see their team hit their lowest point in their Bundesliga history. At just after 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, the lone team that has been in every Bundesliga season since its founding in 1963, dropped to the second league. That’s 54 years, 261 days, and just over 30 minutes.
Going to the stadium this May day, there was still this sense of hope, of a “Maybe they can do it once more!” All they had to do was win and hope for Wolfsburg to lose. Hamburg have done well at the end of the season in recent years. They tend to do just enough to make up for their early gaffes. Not one person looked worried. Beer flowed freely. Sausages and fish were slapped on rolls in exchange for a couple of euros.
Whenever someone said “zweite Liga” (second league), a “niemals!” (never!) came before or after. Alone, it was a dirty word. They’d rather drink Astra or Becks (beer for rival FC St. Pauli and Werder Bremen fans) than say the z.L. words.
(“Zweite Liga! Niemals! Niemals niemals!” HSV fans chanted as the team headed to the stadium on matchday 34.)
Relaxation turned to business at kickoff. Eyes on the ball. Any sudden move could determine if Hamburg stayed up. The referee missed a clear Gladbach handball in the box, and HSV fans screamed for the penalty. It was not until the video assist was used that Hamburg got their deserved penalty. Aaron Hunt put it away, and business seriousness turned to hope.
Gladbach pulled even and muted applause filled the air at halftime. There was still time for this Hamburg team. There were no updates though from the all important match in Wolfsburg. It didn’t matter what happened in the Volksparkstadion if Cologne couldn’t take all three points.
I asked a (Bayern fan) roommate from college what the situation in Wolfsburg was.
Me: Score in Wolfsburg?
Friend: 3-1. For Wolfsburg.
Me: Yep, this is it
At this point, I thought about the last time Hamburg came so close to relegation. I was in the east tribune in the stadium in 2015. Last game of the year, Hamburg needed to win and get some help in order to go to the relegation playoffs. This was the first time I went to a Bundesliga match in three years, and I was thirsty to see some relegatin’. I wanted this history to happen right there. I wanted to show that I was there for the moment the clock went off. And then they beat Schalke and the other results put them in 16th place. I was so upset after the match that when I wrote a recap of it, I was cursing the team after every word I smashed onto my laptop.
But in 2018, I couldn’t get myself to cheer for the team’s deserved demise. I genuinely felt something was not right. This team, which was such a German and European powerhouse in the 1970’s and 1980’s, was falling apart in front of me. Hamburg eventually started to play second fiddle, in terms of popularity, to Hamburg’s other club, FC St. Pauli. That was the hip club, with merchandise that could be found most anywhere in Germany nowadays, even with their lack of a trophy room. The pirate club even beat HSV when St. Pauli had their one year of fun in the top flight earlier this decade.
Considering that, I knew it was time for HSV to go. If a team has to depend on the worst team in the league in order to stay afloat, they deserve to go down. And the fans knew it. With 20 minutes left, and with the ability to know what was going on, security took their places in front of Hamburg’s Nordtribune to prevent any field invasions.
(A win against the Foals, but not enough.)
Ten minutes from time, Hamburg fans accepted their fate. Gladbach fans were taunting Hamburg fans with their own clock counting down how much time Hamburg had left in the league. Everyone wants to be the team that knocked Hamburg out of the league. Hamburg fans responded with a somber rendition of “Mein Hamburg lieb ich sehr” (I love my Hamburg so much).
With stoppage time near, Hamburg fans were in the final stages of preparing for something they never wanted when explosions rocked our eardrums. They weren’t bombs meant for destruction, they were smoke bombs meant for distraction. Black smoke choked the ground like a noose just before the executioner was set to drop the floor on Hamburg. The only other times I saw black smoke in German stadiums was during relegation. So long as it stayed in the fan blocks, the game could continue. And then the smoke bombs flew onto the field. Ads were burned. Riot police flooded the pitch and halted the match, forcing both teams off. It was the hooligans’ last attempt to keep the clock in the stadium ticking. And like many last attempts at staying alive, it was just so hard to watch those last gasps of air.
(And here comes the pyro protest; riot police halt the match as the players look on.)
Riot police had enough and yanked out at least 200 people in the Nordtribune by the time the smoke cleared. What a disgraceful way to end the stay in the league. The PA announcer was furious at the black-clad fans responsible for the madness, saying “this is not the right way.” Outside the Nordtribune, fans in blue screamed at the fans in black. The rest of the sold-out crowd screamed “you’re not real fans!” as the rioters were pulled away.
It is said that Hamburg burns about once every century. Much of the harbor city was destroyed in a great fire in 1842 and then again during World War II. It appeared that the next fire may have come early, as there were parts of the city that burned during last year’s G20 protests and parts of the stadium that caught fire on Saturday. But the fires were put out both last year and this past weekend, and things eventually returned to normal. It should have been so much easier than this, but it showed that like most everywhere else, Hamburg wouldn’t let the small groups of hoodlums ruin something important, even if in this case it temporarily prevented the inevitable.
After some tense moments around the stadium, it was decided play would go on. Every time security and riot police stepped closer to the end lines, the fans roared. Both HSV and Gladbach then crept back onto the field, and all of the remaining 57,000 fans welcomed both friend and foe. No remaining fan in the Nordtribune dared encroach on the area where the rioters vanished. The players and coaching staff wanted to get the rest of the game back on. The game goes until the final whistle, after all.
And then we stood there. The Gladbach keeper got the ball back from the head referee and kicked it to the Hamburg keeper. The final whistle came. All in blue felt the blast from his whistle as HSV’s final heartbeat in the top flight for a few hundred days (at least).
Heads moved to look at the clock that reminded us of how long HSV was in the league, as time ended in the Volksparkstadion at that very second. We took a mental note of the time. Then applause trickled in. Thankful, somber applause. The wild ride, the lone bragging point in recent years, vanished. There were no more chances. It was just over. More than half a century in the top flight ended. No words were used to thank them for their efforts. Not from the public address announcer, not from the fans, no one. The hands and tears were enough.
In a way, the Volksparkstadion really was a Friedhof that Saturday. Hamburg fans watched their team give one last go, a good one at that, in order to maybe stay alive a little longer. And after the rowdy bunch tried to ruin it, the real Hamburg fans proudly saluted their squad one last time in top flight. There weren’t many.
The clock that said how long HSV has been in the Bundesliga kept going and is still going for the time being. Probably for the best. That would have felt like watching the one you love get lowered into the ground. I left when the clock said 54 years 261 days 00 hours 47 minutes and 53 seconds and I never looked back.
As dejection enveloped the fans, there was one final message on the video board: “Danke für eure Unterstützung! Wir kommen wieder!” (Thank you for your support! We will return!) Even to the end, no one could properly say “Zweite Liga” at the Volksparkstadion. They’ll have to in three months time, but they’ll be back, right? They’re Hamburg.