The top four places in the German league standings are all but set, and the league title is going to Bayern Munich for a fifth consecutive season. Down near the bottom of the standings, though, lies Hamburger SV, the club with perhaps the strangest bit of pride in Europe to play for — a digital clock, plastered on the front of the upper-deck facade of its stadium, quietly ticking forward.
The clock marks the time since the founding of the Bundesliga in August 1963. Hamburg is the only team that’s played every season of the German top flight. As the club has struggled into mediocrity, the clock has become almost pitiful and, in some ways, a warning to other clubs.
There’s no reason that HSV should be struggling like this. It’s the most popular team in Germany’s sports-mad second-largest city. Hamburg was once one of Europe’s best teams, winning both the Bundesliga title and the European Cup in 1983.
But since that triumph, HSV has barely had a sniff of glory. The club won the German Cup in 1987, and that was pretty much it for the Hamburg trophy case. The team has not won a major trophy since, a three-decade span marred by an endless parade of new managers and some financial troubles.
The club flirted with relegation in 2012 and then barely avoided the drop in both 2014 and 2015, finishing 16th but winning a playoff to stay in the Bundesliga in both years. This year, Hamburg has spent most of the season in the bottom three, only escaping in recent weeks thanks to a string of victories at home.
For any big club in Europe, HSV has to be a cautionary tale, a sign that changing the manager isn’t always a panacea and that any advantage isn’t permanent.
Take Arsenal, which — like Hamburg — has been in the top division in England longer than any other team. This is Arsenal’s first season since 1996 that it has finished outside the top four in the standings. It’s more likely than not that manager Arsene Wenger will not be in charge when next year begins. Most Arsenal fans expect that the team, the most storied in England’s biggest city, will retool and get right back into the thick of things.
But one glance at Hamburg shows that nothing is guaranteed. By a fluke of the schedule, four of HSV’s last five games are against fellow relegation candidates; Hamburg will have a chance to play its way out of danger again this year and escape the sad unplugging of the strange digital clock.
Even if the clock keeps ticking, though, Hamburg’s problems will remain. And for Europe’s other clubs, which tend to plan as if the good times will always keep coming, the clock will continue to be a warning that time marches on, with or without you.