It’s looking a lot like 2014 all over again, as Hamburg once more clawed their way into the end-of-season playoff on the final matchday. Kai Dambach witnessed the nerve-wracking Houdini act live in the Imtech Arena.
Hamburg are the only club to have played in the first division since the inception of the Bundesliga and even have a clock in the Imtech Arena to remind everyone of that fact. That timepiece kept ticking on Saturday, as the Northern Germans beat Schalke 2-0 to escape relegation and move into the playoff spot.
The match in Hamburg was a completely different experience for the two sets of fans. Schalke had already clinched a spot in European competition so their supporters could enjoy a sunny day out. Many of the home fans seemed to expect a loss and an immediate drop into the second division, waiting for the gates to open with crossed arms and blank looks on their faces.
"It's so difficult for the boys today," said one Hamburg supporter. "They have to win and have to hope that other teams win as well. I think that they need too much luck to stay in the first division today.”
Other fans were more positive about Hamburg's chances of keeping their Bundesliga streak alive.
"If I gave up hope, I wouldn't be here,” said one of the optimists. "A big city needs a very big club."
Time for talk was over
The atmosphere was tense right from the get-go, with the home fans reacting extra sensitively to any call that didn't go their way. They did not want to go down due to a bad refereeing decision and made sure the officials knew that.
Their attention was divided by the action on the field and smartphone information about the state of the other relegation battles.
After a nervous - and scoreless - first half, Hamburg fans only had to wait four minutes after the restart to cheer. Olic's tap home from a corner put the team ahead and sent the stadium into a frenzy. They continued forcing the ball down the throat of the Schalke defense, and another goal nine minutes later from another set piece put the game virtually out of reach. And when goalkeeper Rene Adler bailed out his side with a great save ten minutes from time, all the fans in the Imtech Arena needed was for the results in Paderborn and Hannover to go their way.
No one left after the final whistle, and the clock kept counting the passing seconds. At last the final results were in: victories for Hannover over Freiburg, and Stuttgart over Paderborn. Hamburg weren't out of the woods, but they would have the chance to save their skins in a playoff with the third-best team from the second division in the week to come.
"It's something no one wanted to see," Hamburg coach Bruno Labbadia said on the club's website. "It was nerve-wracking television last year."
The playoff is better than immediate relegation, but Hamburg supporters aren't counting their chickens just yet. Unless the team gets results against their second-division rivals, the Bundesliga's most famous clock can still come to a halt on June 1.