As the two largest urban metropolises in northern Germany, it is only right that the foremost football clubs of Hamburg and Bremen – Hamburger SV and Werder Bremen – should share a rivalry. Their animosity perhaps isn’t rooted in the stark socio-political differences that cause Celtic and Rangers’ enduring conflict in Scotland to run so hot, nor is there a historic class or wealth disparity comparable to that which fuels the eternal feud between Argentina’s Boca Juniors and River Plate, but the Hamburg-Bremen rivalry – dubbed simply the ‘Nordderby’ in honour of their relative geographic intimacy – is nevertheless a noteworthy one.
Ask devotees of either of the two sides and, rest assured, they’ll leave no doubts as to the poignancy of their enduring antagonism. “The rivalry of course goes way back, and the reason it has such reputation and meaning is that it’s two of the biggest clubs in Germany, historically,” lifelong HSV supporter Gustav Fisker told These Football Times. “They had so many important clashes throughout the 70s and 80s and 90s. Fired up by geography, as the two northernmost Bundesliga clubs, it was not just making the clashes important for the league but also the decider of who the ‘King of the North’ would be.
“For many Hamburg fans, winning the two derby games was more important than where we finished in the league; rather beat Werder twice and finish 15th than lose to them and end up in ninth, you know?” Fisker continued. “Personally, I don’t hate Werder fans, but in general they seem more entitled, biased and ignorant than fans of any other club – but that’s probably just what any fan would say about their biggest rival’s fans.”
Fellow Hamburg supporter, Alex Staats, offered an opinion on his club’s rivals that came a little less diluted. “My support for HSV is due to my Oma and Opa being born in Hamburg prior to World War Two – I’ve always maintained my German roots, I’m proud of where my family is from; Hamburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world – so, because of that, I hate Bremen.
“There’s something that just burns inside of me when I hear the word Bremen,” Staats added. “Although my hate for St. Pauli reaches even greater height; I’m not sure if it’s the green that Bremen wear, I’m not sure if it’s the hate that other HSV fans have for them which fuels mine, all I know is that, from a footballing perspective, I hate them.”
For balance, Benjamin Fehr, Werder Bremen follower and founder of the It’s Not Easy Being Green podcast, told These Football Times: “I have no reason to snipe those from Hamburg, other than it is my God-given right as a fan of Werder to do so. Beyond a right, it has become my responsibility. I cheered when they were relegated and I will cheer again when they fail to get promoted. But, beyond cheering their demise, I cheer that we are Werder and they are not.”
But, as with even the brightest flare held aloft on a crowded terrace, not all hostilities burn with the same radiance forever and, over time, this shared resentment has seemed to dim a little, at least for some. “I do believe that in recent years there has been some sort of common understanding and thereby also growing respect between those two groups of fans,” Fisker admitted. “Supporting a huge club with a big budget and giant fan base who somehow consistently mess up and underperform can be emotionally draining and, once you’ve tried it, your respect for those who go through the same rises, even though it’s your biggest rival.”
And so, today, there is perhaps less hatred between the two sides than ever before, in honour of, as Fisker describes, an unlikely common ground discovered in both sets of fans finding themselves harbouring the same hopes, reciting the same prayers, supporting similarly sleeping giants that simply refuse to be roused, despite the fervour and desperation of their respective fan bases.
Nevertheless, the status of their rivalry today does little to change the past. In fact, it only serves to bring into even sharper focus the days that best encapsulated the rivalry at its most divisive and entrancing. In search of those days, you need look no further than the incredible events of one particular 19-day period in 2009.
Despite Hamburg traditionally being the more prosperous of the two, throughout the years directly preceding the 2008/09 Bundesliga season, Werder had faired the more favourably. Securing a league and cup double at the end of the 2003/04 campaign, Die Grün-Weißen quickly developed something of a taste for silverware, though they couldn’t quite sate it as they came agonisingly close to reclaiming the Meisterschale in two of the following four seasons, twice finishing runners-up to the relentless Bayern Munich, first in 2005/06 then again in 2007/08.
HSV, meanwhile, had found adding to their six German league titles an exercise in futility, with only a third-place finish in the 2005/06 season to write home about. Nonetheless, entering into the 2008/09 campaign with ambition aplenty, both sides typically harboured hopes of coming out on top, not only on top of their northern rivals but of all their assorted domestic rivals.
As the aforementioned season progressed, HSV proved themselves to be the more suitably equipped of the two sides. With Hamburg sat in fifth and Bremen behind in seventh, the two sides first locked horns on 23 November 2008, at HSV’s Volksparkstadion, where goals from Paolo Guerrero and Marcell Jansen were enough to see the hosts overcome their opponents, despite Naldo registering in vain for the visitors. It was on that very day that Hamburg’s bragging rights for the season deserted them, never to be seen again, like a pooh stick dropped into the River Elbe’s coursing current.
It wasn’t for another five months that the teams would meet again. They did on 22 March 2009, having been drawn together to contest the DFB-Pokal semi-final, the first of four meetings in just 19 days.
En route to the competition’s last four, HSV had beaten Ingolstadt 3-1 away from home, overcome Bochum 2-0, dispatched 1860 Munich by three goals to one, and squeezed beyond Wehen Wiesbaden, winning 2-1 against the underdogs. In getting to the same stage, Werder had begun the competition by travelling to lower-league Nordhorn and thumping them 9-3, edging out Erzgebirge Aue 2-1, beating Borussia Dortmund by the same scoreline, before emerging victorious from a 5-2 thriller away to Wolfsburg.
The evening before Hamburg and Bremen were to meet, late drama in Düsseldorf had seen Bayer Leverkusen taken beyond 90 minutes by Mainz, the scoreline temporarily locked at one apiece, only for the favourites to score three times after extra-time and dismantle their opponents 4-1. Thus, both northern sides knew it was to be Die Werkself who awaited the victors in May’s showpiece.
Despite the luxury of home comforts affording them an advantage, HSV were unable to make the visitors pay and it was the team in black and green who stole the initiative. Per Mertesacker was fastest to react when Diego’s curling free-kick struck the woodwork and it was the lanky German defender who slammed home the opener on 11 minutes. The home crowd were made to wait until the 67th minute before celebrating an equaliser, as Ivica Olić turned Guy Demel’s wayward strike past Tim Wiese to complete a swift counter and bring parity back to the tie – but that would be where the goals ceased and it was left to penalties to decide the tie.
The ever stoic Joris Mathijsen elected to take Hamburg’s first penalty and duly dispatched it, a feat that was swiftly reproduced by Bremen’s first taker, Claudio Pizarro, whose own effort planted a sloppy kiss on the post on its way in. Sadly for HSV, that was where their net-busting abruptly ended, as a trio of Jérôme Boateng, Olić and Jansen all fell short of Mathijsen’s example and failed to notch once between them.
In between Tim Wiese’s two spectacular saves, Mesut Özil and Torsten Frings tucked their penalties away, albeit the latter’s gratefully off the underside of the crossbar, meaning when Jansen’s shot hit the post to eliminate his side, all that was left for Wiese to do was to sprint the length of the field and leap the advertising hoarding between him and the single vibrating corner of triumphant greens, bouncing together in joyous celebration having dumped their rivals out of the Pokal on their own patch, one hurdle from the final.
Eight days on the sides met again in Bremen, with a curiously continental dispute to settle. Die Werderaner had experienced mixed fortunes abroad. Drawing four of their six Champions League group stage games, against the likes of Panathinaikos, Inter and Anorthosis, the club finished third in their group, subsequently dropping out of the competition and landing on the safety net that was the UEFA Cup. Once there, however, they’d overcome Milan on away goals, edged past St-Étienne, and come out of a two-legged, ten-goal extravaganza against Udinese to book their place in the last four.
Hamburg, alternatively, had made it to the same stage by seeing their way past NEC Nijmegen, Galatasaray, and Manchester City; all of which followed them topping a markedly eclectic group consisting of Ajax, Aston Villa, MŠK Žilina and Slavia Prague.
In a tense, absorbing encounter, a single back-post header from Piotr Trochowski, which grazed the fingertips of Wiese on its way into the Bremen net, was sufficient to see HSV depart the Weserstadion with the game’s only goal, and an advantage-signalling away goal at that. Seven days later, they came together again in Hamburg to do it all again and decide which side Germany would send to the UEFA Cup final in Istanbul.
The game was barely 13 minutes old when Olić found himself playing scarecrow – stood alone amidst acres of land, unforgivably vacated by a stretched Bremen back-line – as Mathijsen’s smart pass allowed the Croat to take a single touch to control the through-pass before dinking it over a panicked Wiese to put his side in the ascendency.
A few moments short of the half-hour mark, Bremen struck back. Afforded far more freedom than any mortal blessed with his talents should be, Diego was allowed the time and space to feed the ball into Pizarro, continue his carefree trot into the area, and receive it back from the Peruvian with not a care in the world to trouble him, before performing his best Olić impression in toeing a cute shot over the diving Frank Rost. The first half ended with the sides drawing one each, but with the home side still boasting an aggregate lead.
On 66 minutes, Pizarro received the ball to feet just a little way beyond the halfway line, facing his own goal. He turned, shrugging off one half challenge before evading another, and continuing his run. He carried on, not especially quickly, for blistering pace never was the forward’s forte, yet his run remained unchallenged and so, with precious few alternative options ahead of him, Pizarro shot. Pizarro scored.
Squirming under the block of a goalkeeper who mustn’t have expected the shot – it was truly a tame effort at repelling the Peruvian’s long-range effort – the ball skipped up off the turf and found a home in the net behind the HSV goalkeeper. With two away goals to their names, suddenly Bremen found themselves ahead.
Then, in the 83rd minute, came the game’s most infamous moment; the most infamous moment of the season, and perhaps the most infamous of any game spanning almost a near-century of Nordderbies. A moment so infuriatingly avoidable, so patently absurd, it demands every discerning observer laugh or else they cry – excluding only those of a Hamburg persuasion, who can do nothing to help but weep.
With less than ten minutes remaining in which to find the goal that would edge them back ahead in the tie, retaining possession was imperative. So it made perfect sense that while tracking back and chasing a loose ball, as opposed to seeking out row Z with a hurried clearance or simply thumping it forward, Hamburg centre-back Michael Gravgaard would look to play a sensible pass to his goalkeeper, who’d surely seek to keep the ball moving in the hope of carving out another priceless opportunity.
Yet, at the very instant Gravgaard attempted to pass the ball in-field with his left foot, it collided with a small balled-up piece of paper that had been sat unmoving on the turf, causing the football to bobble up and clatter off of Gravgaard’s shin, out for a totally avoidable Werder corner. The Dane sighed and, looking to his confused teammates, shrugged his arms in exasperation before back-heeling the irksome little orb off the field.
Gravgaard could never have imagined that such a simple and cautious endeavour would result in his placing such a needless and dangerous opportunity into the lap of his opponents, and his bemused frustration was quickly compounded, morphing into misery, when Diego’s corner was flicked on by Hugo Almeida and turned in by the stooping header of Frank Baumann. At the whim of the most ridiculous slice of fortune, Bremen’s aggregate lead was two and Hamburg were left needing to strike twice to turn the tide.
Hamburg would score again, once more relying on the predacious nature of Olić to keep them in the hunt, the Croat glancing in a fine inswinging cross from Boateng, but it wasn’t to be enough. The score would remain 3-2 on the night, 3-3 on aggregate, and Werder’s three away goals – the last put on a plate for them by a scrunched up ball of paper of all things – would see them into the UEFA Cup final, where they’d face Shakhtar Donetsk.
And, just as they had in the DFB-Pokal semi-final only two weeks before, Die Grün-Weißen turned their Volksparkstadion stand into an impromptu dancefloor. Sick with fury, Hamburg faces turned the colour of Bremen jerseys.
Before the evening’s end, journalist and television presenter Oliver Welke would allegedly take it upon himself to enter the field and grab that very ball of paper – which had been thrown onto the field by Hamburg fans – before handing it to celebrating Werder manager Klaus Allofs. That ball of paper would eventually find a home in a glass presentation box placed atop a suitably green plinth found in the Werder Bremen ‘WUSEUM’.
Though it was by some margin the most controversial and unforgettable of all Nordderbies, it wasn’t even the last of the season. Three days later, Martin Jol took his HSV team to Bremen one last time. With only four games remaining in the Bundesliga, his side found themselves in fifth place but just five points off of Bundesliga leaders Wolfsburg. knowing a win over their rivals would do their fading title hopes the world of good.
Werder, on the other hand, were stranded in tenth, with little to play for bar pride. Yet pride alone would prove sufficient. To the incalculable rage of all those connected to Hamburg, two goals in 15 minutes from Hugo Almeida would down the vexed visitors and leave them without a hope in the race for the Meisterschale.
Werder Bremen would finish the league in a hardly impressive tenth-place and, in the UEFA Cup final, would be narrowly beaten by Shakhtar Donetsk, 2-1 after extra-time, denying them the continental glory they so craved and bringing some meagre form of consolation to the heartbroken Hamburgers.
But the greens would vanquish Leverkusen by a single goal in the DFB-Pokal final, lifting the cup thanks to Özil’s solitary goal – and, of course, likely more important to many, they’d always have those four astonishing Nordderbies to treasure.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp