The biggest story on the final Bundesliga matchday was the relegation of Hamburg SV, the only club who’s played every season in the top flight since the Bundesliga’s founding in 1963. Prior to Saturday, of course, this storied German club, winners of 6 domestic league title and 3 Pokal titles, had never been relegated. So permanent had HSV’s Bundesliga occupancy been that over time the club earned the nickname der Dino and had installed the infamous clock tallying the club’s duration in the top flight—down to the very second.
Over the past decade, this clock hung as a symbolic yoke around the club’s neck, burdening HSV under the weight of its own history. Anyone even remotely following the Bundesliga knew that the past decade had been a slow unraveling process for HSV, weighed down with roster junk and permanently stuck on a nauseating coaching carousel—not to mention two relegation playoffs and many close calls with the Bundesliga cellar. If anything, HSV’s eventual relegation was one of the Bundesliga’s least surprising stories in recent years.
Nevertheless, the relegation still shocked me on Saturday. Even though we had seen this event coming since late fall, the suddenness of it, the lack of ceremony, and the permanence of it surprised me. I guess I didn’t expect the long-expected event to happens like this.
The narrative part of my mind mislead me as usual. The storylines were slowly converging around a miraculous HSV escape, a phenomenon seducing my mind thanks to HSV’s suddenly attractive play under football-obsessive and seeming miracle worker, Christian Titz. As our own Abel Meszaros observed, Titz’s footballing philosophy revolves around a Cruyff/Guardiola/Tuchel-esque possession-heavy game, oriented around quick possession recovery and creating dangerous 1 v 1 or 2 v 1 overload attacking scenarios. Abel’s own match viewing analysis corroborated these observations, as he highlighted many examples of HSV’s new shapely offensive structure and zonal pressing schemes. Thanks to Titz, HSV suddenly gained a bit of sympathy.
Folks, Titz ball is hübsch ball.
HSV was even getting results. In the eight matches under Titz, HSV was 6th place on the Bundesliga form table with 4 wins, 1 draw, and 3 losses (doubling the club’s win tally from the previous 28 matches!). Under Titz, HSV secured just enough results to fuel the miracle escape narrative.
However, the disastrous 0-3 loss at Eintracht on the penultimate matchday 33 spoiled all the fun with HSV needing a win, plus a non-win from VfL Wolfsburg on the final matchday to survive. Suddenly, the Titz show wasn’t in command of its own destiny. Forget about narrative magic: contingency ruins the fun for all of us. Being contingent on VfL failing at home just wasn’t the charming narrative turn I was seduced into expecting. Naturally, HSV hung on for a nice win against visitor Borussia Mönchengladbach, but Wolfsburg didn’t oblige, beating already-relegated 1.FC Köln 4-1 at home.
From HSV’s perspective, these two results cast a pall of helplessness over the final plunge. But don’t misunderstand me, HSV dug this grave months ago and put itself in a contingent position, relying on other clubs to bail it out. In other words, HSV is entirely to blame for making its own infamous history this season. This point applies not only to HSV’s whole season, but also to the eight match Titz run, which was spoiled by the disastrous 3-0 loss at Eintracht. So Titz deserves a modicum of blame, too. Let’s face it, when a never-relegation club is relegated everyone is blameworthy somehow. All have sinned.
But the moment was still weird. My narrative brain half-expected HSV to beat Gladbach and lowly Köln to pull out a miracle at hated Wolfsburg. Indeed, when Jonas Hector made it 1-1 after his magical run and Traumtor, my skin was tingling. The Titz-as-savior narrative roared to life. The HSV ultras tried to will their team on. Der Dino seemed like it was about to escape yet again. After conceding an equalizer, HSV retook and hung on to a 2-1 lead, doing its part in the narrative formula, but Wolfsburg didn’t, scoring 3 unanswered goals ultimately burying HSV.
As the goals piled up in Wolfsburg, the HSV crowd grew increasingly restive, as the event of relegation simply became mere minutes and seconds on the match clock—no matter what HSV did on the pitch. In a sense, the actual relegation was anti-climatic, mechanical (tick, tick, tick!), and muted. Although football tempts us with narratives, it isn’t obliged to deliver them.
However, a small group of HSV ultras disrupted the quietistic ending with the pyrotechnics that made all the sportspaper headlines. Say what you will about the ethics and value of these ultra members smoking everything up and stealing the headlines (the 50,000+ other HSV fans in the stadium certainly supplied their judgement), but this small group of ultras successfully changed the timbre and the direction of HSV’s historic relegation. What was becoming a strangely anti-climatic, mechanical, and muted relegation, suddenly took on a “Do not go gentle into that good night” quality. Rage, rage, rage! At least this was the meaning these ultras members suddenly injected into the proceedings. It’s as if they needed a the smoke show as a catharsis for what’s been a maddening decade of incompetence and failure for their storied club.
But nobody else in the stadium seemed to want or need the smoky protests.
Don’t forget this.
In fact, the mood seemed almost slightly celebratory for many HSV supporters. Why? HSV is finally freed from the pressure of living under that damn clock, and its “never been relegated” status reminder. It’s amazing how we love to cling onto to seemingly arbitrary symbols, streaks, numbers, tallies, etc. that mark human work on the earth. (Oh, how I love seeing my eight year old son do this! The lil meaning-maker …) The HSV clock and the “never relegated” status is an example of this impulse, because why should never-having-been-relegated be a big deal? Why is a clock needed to mark this status? Why is this even a status? Why is the passage of time at a certain level of sports league a big deal? On one hand, the whole “never relegated” status was arbitrary. My guess is that nearly every HSV supporter knows this and is relieved that the relegation finally finally finally happened, killing off an arbitrary identity that’s plagued HSV.
On the other hand, the passage of time itself points to duration, which points to long-standing presence, which points to cheating the passage of time by keeping something (a top league status) intact. Or something like that. This can matter for some fans because football is, on one level, partially vicissitude itself. The sport teems with randomness, dynamic chaos, and pinballing luck. HSV’s “never relegated” status looks impressive from the perspective of cheating football’s vicissitude. I’m just trying to follow out the logic here, folks. Ironically, HSV’s ability to cheat time for so long looks even more remarkable when you consider the mess administrators and coaches made of this club during the past decade. Naturally, these considerations make me think about a false sense of invincibility or entitlement creeping into everything related to this club (for administrators, coaches, players, fans, etc.). Although this point is probably too obvious to dwell on, it’s worth noting that at least HSV is also freed from whatever false sense of X,Y, Z that’s been plaguing the club.
Which leaves me with two burning questions: 1) what will happen to the HSV clock? and 2) did the ultras keep their promise to do some player-chasing around Hamburg?
"Before the clock comes down, we'll chase you through the city." pic.twitter.com/Q5dc4TMZB7
— Matt Ford (@matt_4d) February 17, 2018
Technically, the clock is still up, so the ultras are (technically) off the hook. Given that (administratively) the season ends in June, the club has said the clock will remain up until then at least. Rumor has it the clock might be converted to document HSV’s existence as a club. Meanwhile, if any readers see a big clock on EBay in coming days, you’d better warn the HSV squad that a dangerous game of tag is about to take place on the streets of Hamburg.
Despite what happens during this fantastical chase, everyone associated with HSV has a bit of new freedom to enjoy. However, freedom alone is pretty meaningless for football fans as a plain ol’ concept. Luckily for all the HSVers, there’s also Christian Titz, the football obsessive. You better believe that the 2.Bundesliga is about to experience a year-long reign of Titz-induced possession-football terror next season. It should be glorious. After all, the irony is that HSV finally got relegated the one time it seemed (finally) to find the right coach and began playing attractive football. In other seasons (other worlds) this HSV side would still be in the Bundesliga.
Hang in there, HSVers. Oh, and in the meantime, develop an extra special grudge against VfL Wolfsburg. You deserve it.