Young pretenders

A Hamburg club is rising quickly through the regional divisions thanks to a highly professional outlook. Matt Nation feels the need to defend his choice of Saturday afternoon entertainment

A classmate of mine once turned up to school on a Monday morning sporting a pair of sideburns. Although not quite in the family-butcher class, they were bushy enough to attract the attention of the PE teacher, who immediately went up to Mutton Chops, grabbed the offending whiskers, said “You’re too young to have sideburns” and lifted the owner six inches off the ground.

Hamm Utd are the footballing equivalent of that classmate. Just turned four, the club from east Hamburg are too young to be what, and where, they are. After starting out in the bottom division, they’ve been promoted every single season. Next May, they’ll probably be going up again, to the fifth tier, where they may be playing with the really big boys: SV Hamburg’s reserves, St Pauli’s stiffs, Altona 93. Illustrious heavyweights with a combined age of 230. Old lags that won’t take kindly to tradition-free whelps with ideas above their station.

Except that Hamm Utd are beyond the ideas stage. Their setup is four going on 44 and unsettlingly so. It’s not just the racks of sweatshirts and scarves next to the entrance, a rarity in a division where even the players are sometimes ashamed to wear club colours. It’s not just the fact that the refreshments are sold not by the usual pomegranate-nosed old soldiers with a Mr Kipling voice, but fresh-faced 20-somethings who stop just short of asking people whether they want something they haven’t ordered with something they have ordered. It’s not just the PA system with the crisp, clear announcements rather than something a logopaedics undergraduate would have to decipher during their aural exams.

It’s none of that. It’s the team. The line-up resembles the cast of Naked Gun, where ever-so-slightly has-beens seem to be taking a step backwards in order to progress. There’s a current Afghanistan international and a former Brazilian junior international (albeit one with an Alphaville mullet and the name Sid Marschall). There’s Kevin Hansen, who just a few years ago put one past Oliver Kahn in a Bundesliga game. There’s a bloke who scored more goals last season at this level than anybody else between Hanover and Denmark. In fact, every member of the team should only really be at a sixth-tier game for the same reasons that professional footballers go round schools and talk to pupils.

Things get a bit amateurish immediately before kick-off. The teams run out to Ballroom Blitz but it only gets as far as the bit where Mick says he’s ready, then dies a sudden death − but that’s the only glitch. The opponents are second in the table, yet Hamm Utd simply pulverise them. Hansen in particular is so superior that, were he a golfer, he’d be banned for gross banditry.

He’s clearly unfit – his lower body resembles the sort of shape a lava lamp would produce after it’s warmed up a bit – but makes up for it by always being in the right place, either doing the simple things well or making the difficult things look simple. Clubhouse acolytes throughout the land, the ones who constantly talk about how they could have “made it” if only they hadn’t started smoking, married young or told their youth coach to ram it, should watch Hansen. He’s somebody who actually did actually make it. And he wasn’t even a journeyman, he was a navvy, a teaboy of a pro, yet he’s still among the best 50 players in town. The storytellers would be so humbled that they’d never use the subjunctive again.

As the goals flow − Hamm Utd go nap without reply − the professional veneer gets just a little bit too glossy: the supporters start singing. Although unwritten rules are unheard of in Germany, it’s considered extremely bad form to sing at this level. The only people who make any noise at all are either students or the sort of bloke who used to crush tadpoles between his thumb and forefinger as a child and continued doing so into adulthood.

Yet a fair few attendees here (“spectators” would be stretching the definition of the word, as not many are actually watching the game) start warbling away about eternal allegiances to Hamm Utd and about Sid Marschall being a Fussballgott. Admittedly, it’s not uncommon for people in Germany to start crooning unexpectedly, particularly when it’s about “belonging somewhere” but even so, nobody’s making them do it.

Just like nobody’s making Hansen and co slum it. They’re here of their own free will. Although “free” is probably not quite true. Somebody somewhere’s invested a hell of a lot of something and it’s not only the time and selflessness that keep most sixth-tier teams afloat. The club’s “Outlaws of Sherwood Forest” nickname is not just geographically inaccurate, there’s a bit of historical manipulation going on too. Nobody’s robbing anybody (despite it costing one euro more to get in here than anywhere else), but it’s still not quite clear who’s profiting at the expense of whom.

If Hamm Utd had to be compared to any famous figure at all, then Guido Westerwelle, the fratboy leader of the FDP, the economic liberals who triumphed at the recent election, would be nearer the mark. Like Westerwelle, Hamm have, despite an unsavoury demeanour, got where they are because the people chose to follow them. And, as is most likely the case with Westerwelle, it’s difficult to explain why you chose to follow them without coming over all defensive.

Yes, it’s loud and garish but it’s still lower-league stuff, isn’t it? Yes, they’ve stripped other teams of their best players but they’re still all lads from this side of town. Yes, the bonhomie is artificial and loudspeaker-led but it’s what the people want. After all, there are 500 locals here who could be chainstore shopping downtown or even watching the Bundesliga leaders less than a dozen tube stops from here.

The scales clunk from eye to ground. Hamm Utd are a community club offering an afternoon of affordable, wholesome entertainment for fans and non-football people alike. You take hold of your sideburns and pull them until it really, really hurts but there’s no getting away from it.

From WSC 277 March 2010