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Hamburg the New Challengers

The streak was brought to an end. Hamburg stopped defending league champs Bayern Munich's 15 game string and saved the Bundesliga from a runaway and utter boredom. Thomas Doll's side is a serious threat.

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Rafael van der Vaart (white) has revived Hamburg this season

The last major title for once-proud Hamburg was the German Cup in 1987. In the 1970's and 80's, they were on everybody's list as a possible Bundesliga champion. In 1983, they were even the best team in Europe, taking home the Champions Clubs' Cup, the predecessor to the Champions League.

If you look at their performance in the 1990's and over the past five years, it's peppered with mediocrity. A third-place finish in the 1999-2000 campaign was the best result.

Then came a disastrous start last season. A year ago, the team was wallowing in the cellar, wondering if they would hit their head on a large beam and be knocked down to the second division -- something that had never happened in club history.

The club's management did what is normal -- they sacked the coach. Klaus Toppmöller was given his marching order. Thomas Doll, the team's amateur trainer, came in to stop the bleeding.

Turnaround comes quickly

Fußball: Arminia Bielefeld - Hamburger SV 3:4 (2:3)

Iranian striker Mehdi Mahdavikia has awakened from his slumber this season with Hamburg

Seven match days later, the northern Germans rested in eighth place. They would move higher, but dropped back down into that spot in the table. This season, the early season agony has been avoided. With the youthful attitude, the effervescence of Thomas Doll, the players have stormed to second place in the standings. The highlight of the young campaign was the clear 2-0 victory over their bitter rivals Bayern Munich.

"Hamburg celebrated like they had already won the championship," said Munich keeper Oliver Kahn.

Considering how the team celebrated after the match -- furious dancing on the field included -- it's no wonder that Kahn was a little irritated. The intensity that Kahn is so well-known for is not one of Doll's attributes. The Hamburg coach has been following the tenets of Buddhism for some five years.

"I believe that the most important thing is to keep an even-keel," Doll told the magazine Sport-Bild. "Whoever is kind to others, will be paid in kind with kindness."

An unusual philosophy, no matter what sport you play.

New challengers

To keep up the rally that started when Doll entered the scene last season, the players have to perform so that their ambition of international competition on a consistent basis can be reached. Players like Mehdi Mahdivikia and Benjamin Lauth have improved up front. In back, Daniel van Buyten is solid as usual.

Der ewige Meister 02

Franz Beckenbauer (l) ended his German soccer career with Hamburg

Most importantly so far is that the surprise acquisition of young Dutch star midfielder Rafael van der Vaart has paid off in spades. Four goals and two assists have helped Hamburg preserve an unbeaten record in seven Bundesliga matches, albeit they have two draws to their record.

Kahn's comments after the 2-0 defeat were music to the ears of Hamburg sporting director Dietmar Beiersdorfer.

"The fact that Kahn said we celebrated like we won the title tells me Bayern are taking us seriously," he commented.

"Hamburg are now Bayern's main competitors for the title," said Bayern president Franz Beckenbauer, who after all, ended his playing career in Germany not in Bayern red, but in Hamburg blue.

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