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Stuttgart and Hamburg's rocky road to revival

June 26, 2020

VfB Stuttgart are set to return to the Bundesliga after a one year absence. But for Hamburg, a two-year hiatus could easily become three. Both clubs have endured difficult seasons and their fates are a warning to others.

Hamburg look set to miss out on promotion
Image: Imago Images/J. Huebner

Eleven German championships, six German Cups, European triumph, huge modern stadia and over 160,000 members between them – VfB Stuttgart and Hamburger SV might be located at opposite ends of the country, but they have a lot in common.

This season, however, they have been united by less positive traits, with both battling desperately to get out of Germany’s second division and return to the Bundesliga, where clubs of their size feel they naturally belong.

If only it was that simple. Myriad coaching changes, wild transfer policies, inconsistent performances and humiliating derby defeats – Stuttgart and Hamburg (HSV) have endured them all in a 2. Bundesliga season which has made up for its lack of quality with its predictably unpredictable drama.

It wasn’t meant to be this way when members of both clubs were convinced to vote to out-source their clubs’ professional football operations into limited companies – Hamburg in 2014, Stuttgart in 2017 – a common process in German football known as Ausgliederung.

The decisions were accompanied by promises that the moves would encourage greater investment and help propel the clubs into European football. Away days in Sandhausen, Osnabrück, Regensburg and Aue were not part of the plan.

Ultimately, after a final few dramatic twists and turns at the top, Stuttgart have all-but sealed promotion back to the top flight at the first attempt. Hamburg might well need a third run at it, with the last regular season round of fixtures on Sunday (table above).

But while they may be in different leagues next season, many of their shared problems will remain, and there will be other German giants taking note.

Stuttgart heading back to the big time – just

Thomas Hitzlsperger has experienced VfB Stuttgart’s historic highs and lows at first hand. In May 2007, it was his strike which set them on their way to their last Bundesliga title. And in May 2019, he was on the touchline at the Stadion an der Alten Försterei as sporting director, turning away in horror as Union Berlin took Stuttgart’s place in the Bundesliga.

After 84.2 percent of club members voted for the Ausgliederung in June 2017, local automobile behemoth Daimler invested €41.5 million in exchange for 11.75 percent of the club. Stuttgart were aiming to attract further investment in order to capitalize on their location in one of Europe’s industrial hotbeds and re-establish themselves at the top level.

But Hitzlsperger, a young and immensely popular figure who has since taken over as chief executive at the age of just 38, had more immediate concerns: returning to the Bundesliga.

Stressing continuity and stability, he installed the relatively inexperienced Tim Walter as head coach, before landing a significant coup when former Borussia Dortmund head scout and Arsenal sporting director Sven Mislintat also came on board. Even the popular former fan activist Claus Vogt replaced the unpopular Wolfgang Dietrich as president.

But despite an unbeaten start, Stuttgart were only third by Christmas. Hitzlsperger himself admitted that continuity and stability would have to be secondary if promotion was in doubt, and Walter was sacked.

His replacement, the American-born Italian Pellegrino Matarazzo, won four of his first five games, before the coronavirus break broke the rhythm. The familiar old problems re-emerged, and the pressure intensified, while suspicions arose that all was not well in the dressing room.

"The team looked scared, disjointed, hesitant," says Phil Maisel, who covers the club for local papers Stuttgarter Nachrichten and Stuttgarter Zeitung. "The pressure to go up was huge in the city and it seemed to affect the players. They were so scared of making mistakes that they inevitably happened."

A late season derby defeat to Karlsruhe was a case-in-point – but the subsequent wins over Sandhausen (5-1) and Nuremberg (6-0) showed what the team really is capable of. "We got lost along the way and tried out things which didn’t always work,” said Matarazzo. “Now we’ve found ourselves again and we’ve shown what’s possible.”

Hitzlsperger’s promotion project might not have been as stable as he would have liked, but it has achieved its primary aim: Stuttgart will almost certainly join Arminia Bielefeld in the Bundesliga next season. Whether Hamburg will follow, is another question altogether.

Patience running out in Hamburg

The people of Hamburg have forgiven their city’s biggest football club for a lot.

Like in Stuttgart, HSV fans were also promised glory and success when their club went through its own controversial Ausgliederung in 2014. Instead, they watched as the club flirted with relegation, succumbed to relegation, and then missed out on promotion.

As in Stuttgart, players, coaches, sporting directors, chairmen and presidents have come and gone at a rate so dizzying that many in Hamburg have lost track. But still they filled the Volksparkstadion on the banks of the Elbe – until the pandemic struck.

But patience is starting to wear thin as the season began to resemble Groundhog Day. Just like their previous campaign, HSV started strongly under Dieter Hecking, losing only one of their first 11 games, putting six past Stuttgart and establishing their position as heavyweights at the top of the table. Off the pitch, as well, the Bakery Jatta affair saw players, staff and fans pull together in support of the then 21-year-old who had been wrongly suspected of having incorrect documentation.

But again, just like last season, it didn’t last. Home and away derby defeats to local rivals St. Pauli were humiliating enough, while disastrous late collapses against Fürth, Kiel and Stuttgart since the restart have seen Hamburg surrender second place. After a 95th-minute defeat to Heidenheim last week, even the play-off spot is out of their hands going into the final day, and the blame game is back underway.

Hecking’s tactical adaptability has been questioned, while a series of media interviews before Christmas also had him discussing his potential future plans. 

Meanwhile, further up the hierarchy, Hamburg remain financially reliant on Klaus-Michael Kühne, the German businessman who has a 20.6 percent stake in HSV and whose associates dominate the boardroom.

"Kühne is the catalyst for many of Hamburg’s problems," believes Daniel Jovanov, an author and journalist who has written a book on Hamburg’s slow fall from grace. "But there is no way of getting rid of him. The bigger the crisis gets at HSV, the more Kühne’s influence grows."

Warning signs for German giants

A third season in the second division would accentuate that crisis to hitherto unseen levels, and the obsessive media coverage of Germany’s seventh biggest football club will intensify even further – but for how long? Hamburg fans have forgiven their club for a lot, but even their patience will have its limits.

One only has to look at the fates of Kaiserslautern, who announced last week that they would be filing for insolvency in the third division, 1860 Munich and others to see what can happen to fallen German giants who find themselves trapped in a downward spiral of sporting failure, financial mismanagement and unrealistic expectations. Schalke could yet be next. 

Down in Swabia, with promotion as good as certain, Thomas Hitzlsperger and his colleagues will hope that Stuttgart have averted the worst as they look to consolidate and build for the future in the Bundesliga. Up north in Hamburg, the worst could be yet to come.

A Clash of Footballing Worlds: Hamburg vs St Pauli

DW Matthew Ford Sports
Matt Ford Reporter and editor for DW Sports specializing in European football, fan culture & sports politics.@matt_4d
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