Europe’s underdogs – Hamburg’s stacked squad who failed to hit the heights

European Cup winners in 1983, Hamburger SV (HSV) have never quite managed to reach the heights that saw them win three Bundesliga titles in a five year period from 1978. At the time of writing they lie second in the Bundesliga 2.

That said in the summer of 2007 there was every indication things would be different, a brief resurgence under Dutchman Huub Stevens, with a team packed full of talent from across the globe. A mixture of youthful prospects, probably too young in reality, and experienced stars the north German side would finish the season a distant fourth in the Bundesliga and bow out of the UEFA Cup in the last 16.

Not much to write home about in normal circumstances but it is in posterity that Hamburg team was packed full of some serious talent, albeit talent finding it’s feet in the professional game.

Frank Rost

His first full season with Hamburg the German keeper had already picked up his four caps for Germany and would play every league game that season, contributing to a defence that conceded just twenty six goals in thirty-four matches. Dependable if nothing else, Rost would play the bulk of his career at Werder Bremen, Schalke and Hamburg making 426 Bundesliga appearances.

Timothée Atouba

Spurs fans will likely remember Atouba as an exciting left back who ultimately failed to adjust to life in the Premier League but he was one who had a decent career in Germany. A firm favourite of Martin Jol, the Dutchman would take him to Ajax in 2009 but that was the last the Cameroonian would really play as a professional footballer. During his time with Hamburg he won the Intertoto Cup on two occasions in 2005 and 2007.

Joris Mathijsen

One of three Dutchmen in the side, no player played more minutes for the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup than centre-back Mathijsen. A signing in 2006 from AZ Alkmaar for €6 million he was a more or less ever present under a succession of different managers. Five seasons in Germany he would leave for Malaga before returning home to play out his days with Feyenoord. With 84 international caps Mathijsen may just be the best Dutch defender you’ve never heard of.

Juan Pablo Sorin

It’s quite nuts to think Sorin made quite so many appearances for Argentina (75), because as a club footballer he didn’t play that much past the age of twenty-five and returned to Argentina aged just twenty having failed in Europe with Juventus. Failure is perhaps a harsh term, it’s hard to break into a team which is winning the European Cup (1996).

The story of one of Argentina’s finest left backs is one you’d struggle to make up.

Having left Europe he was a focal point of the River Plate side that dominated Argentinian football in the late 90s and, in 1996 the whole of South America by winning the Copa Libertadores. In 2000 he would cross the border into Brazil, unusual for an Argentinian footballer, and quickly ingratiate himself to the Cruzeiro faithful, winning the Copa do Brazil in one of his first acts. His time in South America would coincide with three appearances in the South American team of the year (1996, 2000 and 2001). What followed were three loan moves, to Lazio, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain each of which failed to meet a fever-pitch level of expectation.

When he was eventually sold by Cruzeiro it was against his will, saying he didn’t want to move to Villareal but he did have some success in Spain. Champions League semi-finalists in 2006, Sorin made the move to Hamburg as the captain of Argentina. His time in Hamburg signalled the beginning of the end, injuries blighted his stay in Germany and he would return to Cruzeiro, playing only one more game before retiring having just turned thirty-three.

Jerome Boateng

Boateng made the move to Hamburg as an eighteen year old from Hertha Berlin and immediately played an important part in Hamburg’s defence. 113 appearances across three seasons he would make the move to Manchester City but would leave after just one season. The rest is history. Eight Bundesliga titles, two Champions Leagues and a crucial, some say man of the match performance in Germany’s 2014 World Cup final win. Now aged thirty-one with his contract ticking down at Bayern Munich there’ll be plenty of top clubs after his signature.

Vincent Kompany

2007/2008 was to be Kompany’s second and final season with Hamburg, one in which he shook off the achilles injury that had hampered his first season in Germany. Mark Hughes was the manager who signed him at City, two years before Mancini brought Boateng. Four Premier League titles, four League Cups and two FA Cups would follow, Kompany cementing his place in City folklore. Kompany has just hung up his boots, managing the team where it all started, Anderlecht. But with a Mancunian wife, don’t rule out a return one day to the Etihad.

3 appearances in the PFA Team of the year, he played 89 times for Belgium.

Collin Benjamin

Namibia’s finest ever player? Wing back Benjamin played for HSV for ten years, originally starting his career playing for Civics Windhoek in his native country. He made the move to Germany to see if he could make a career of it, having been put in touch with an agent who offered to get him some trials. Benjamin weighed just 68 kg at the time. He was six foot.

Bulking up, he was playing in the fourth division when his side, Empshorn, played Hamburg’s second team. He scored one and made another, and the Hamburg coach made him an offer. Ten years by the North Sea later Benjamin’s gamble had well and truly paid off and the Namibian is now assistant manager for his country, having performed the same role in 2015 for 1860 Munich.

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Nigel De Jong

Ah gentle Nigel, harmless Nigel. Xabi Alonso might have different thoughts but no-one likes a moaner. De Jong arrived in Hamburg from Ajax where he had run down his contract and was sold for just €1 million. De Jong had broken into the Ajax team as a combative player alternating between defence and midfield and winning the Eredivisie title in his first season as a regular starter. A year later he would be Ajax’s player of the season but would find himself relegated to the bench for much of his final six months in Amsterdam. Aged twenty-one that wasn’t going to be acceptable and Hamburg were the beneficiaries. Despite injuries throughout his three years in the Bundesliga his reputation continued to grow and Mark Hughes would sign him for an estimated £18m in January 2009.

Nowhere would he play more club football than at Manchester City. His three and a half years including periods of injury but he was Vice-Captain in the side that brought City their first Premier League title, and played an important role in City’s first FA Cup since 1969 (in 2011). With one year left on his contract and after 137 appearances he joined AC Milan for just £5m.

His impact at Milan was just as significant at his peak but his relationship soured and his contract was terminated in favour of a move to LA Galaxy. De Jong would win down his career at Galatasaray and Mainz, retiring aged just thirty-three in 2018.

De Jong played 81 times for the Netherlands, 78 times more than his father Jerry, and set up a car dealership business whilst in Hamburg. One he still owns to this day.

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Rafael Van der Vaart

Like De Jong, Van der Vaart had signed from Ajax but unlike the defensive midfielder he left Amsterdam very much as a first choice player. Captain under Ronald Koeman at Ajax in 2004/2005 he was one of Europe’s hottest prospects and, when fit, had been a mainstay in the Ajax team for five seasons. Twice an Eredivisie winner he had endured criticism over his weight and professionalism but it was still a surprise when Hamburg was announced as his destination.

HSV were a good fit for Van Der Vaart, enjoying the acclaim of the fans but not the same pressure he had faced in his homeland and he developed a consistency he hadn’t seen towards the end of his time with Ajax. 2007/2008 was his final season with Hamburg and one where he would score 21 times from attacking midfield.

Now he was ready for Europe’s biggest clubs. Few are bigger than Real Madrid and despite only lasting two seasons at the Bernabeu his stay in the capital wasn’t quite the disaster people make it out to be, though twelve goals across 73 appearances wasn’t quite the return people had grown accustomed to.

When he signed for Spurs it was a real statement signing for Harry Redknapp, the first time the North London club could be considered to have bought a ready made world-class player. His time in the Premier League was not without its highlights, Van Der Vaart himself considering his penalty in the comeback versus Arsenal one of his best goals for Spurs.

He would leave Spurs after two seasons, and twenty eight goals, returning to Hamburg and continuing to enjoy his football.

His last three years in football were in Denmark with FC Midtjylland and Esbjerg fB, a country he went to join his partner, the Dutch handball player Estavana Polman.

An incredibly exciting player on his day, Van Der Vaart retired with 109 international appearances, including a number of appearances through the Dutch’s run to the World Cup final in 2010.

Paolo Guerrero

The Peruvian record goalscorer played the the bulk of his football across six seasons with Hamburg, jonining in 2006 from Bayern Munich. Fifty-one goals in 181 games. He came as a double Bundesliga winner who had made some useful contributions in Bavaria and left in 2012 to join Corinthians where he would win the Club World Cup in the first few months.

After a successful three seasons with Corinithians he joined Flamengo and now plays for his third Brazilian side, the Porto Allegre side of Internacional. Rolling back the clock in 2019, he helped Peru to their first Copa America final since 1975. With Guerrero now aged 38, Peru’s head coach Ricardo Gareca faces the unenviable task of replacing a striker who has scored thirty-eight times across 102 international caps.

Ivica Olic

Olic’s time in Germany came in two parts. A failed stint at Hertha he had moved to Marsonia in the Croatian top division, scoring enough goals to be noticed by NK Zagreb and subsequently their more illustrious rivals Dinamo.

From here he broke into the international ranks and was bought in 2003 by CSKA Moscow, with which he won the UEFA Cup in 2005 as well as the Russian Premier League on three occasions.

Olic was signed from Russia with Hamburg in a genuine relegation battle in January 2007 and quickly provided some impetus to help steer them out of trouble. His next two years with HSV would probe two of the most prolific of his career before Bayern Munich signed him on a free.

A Champions League semi-final hat-trick against Lyon helped fire Bayern to the Champions League final in 2010 but they would lose at that stage, as they did again in 2012, Olic’s substitute appearance in extra-time being his final outing for the club.

At Wolfsburg he became a first choice once more and would return after three season to Hamburg before finishing his career in the second division with 1860 Munich.

He played over 100 times for Croatia and was assistant manager when they reached the World Cup final in 2018.

Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting

Cameroonian international Choupo-Moting was born in Hamburg and came up through the ranks at HSV, being poached from neighbours St Pauli.

His time in the first team started in 2007/08 and in truth the impact was minimal (three goals in twenty-three appearances that season). He would move to Mainz in 2011, then Schalke in 2014 and finally the Premier League in 2017, something Stoke fans will be all too aware off. Never prolific at any club, there’s clearly more to his game than just that and Choupo-Moting now plays the role of a super sub, being relied on by PSG and Bayern Munich to provide some impetus from the bench.

Featured image “File:FIFA WC-qualification 2014 – Austria vs. Germany 2012-09-11 – Jérôme Boateng 05.JPG” by Michael Kranewitter is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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