Livescore Thursday, April 25
Newsletter
[gtranslate]

On Thursday night, the Bundesliga’s relegation play-off began. It likely ended, too.

Contested between the team finishing 16th in the first division and third in the second, it is a two-legged tie packed into four days of the early summer. This season, it has brought together the 2 Bundesliga’s Hamburger SV, from Germany’s north, and the Bundesliga’s Stuttgart, from its south west. And, as has become semi-tradition, the side from the higher division looks almost certain to retain their place. Stuttgart scored their first goal within a minute of the game beginning. By full time, they had missed a penalty, spurned a whole buffet of good chances, and yet still comfortably won 3-0.

For anyone raised on English football’s relegation system, it is a curious spectacle. Billed as German football’s “Hall of Mirrors” — somewhere to stare into your own football soul — it is a tie of outrageous jeopardy. Unlike the English Football League’s play-offs, in which there is an ultimate goal but no real penalty for not achieving it, these games are — in theory at least — loaded with peril.

They bring out the very best in German football. Stuttgart’s Mercedes-Benz Arena is a wide, cavernous bowl of a stadium. It remains partly under renovation on one side and with innards that are dusty and scruffy. But goodness is it loud — and the sense of danger and, eventually, relief, only make it more so.

Thursday was sauna-warm in Stuttgart. It was sweaty and close and the sun blow-torched everything in the city. It was only slightly cooler by kick-off and as the game began, blue and black smoke billowed out of the away corner, with great waves of noise shuddering from the other end. It was the last even moment of the game. Before that fog had cleared, Stuttgart had taken the lead from a corner and the game, with very few interruptions, had its rhythm.

For HSV, it was another cruel day. They were denied automatic promotion last Sunday by two stoppage-time goals from Heidenheim. The second was scored in the 99th minute and went in after the stadium announcer at Sandhausen, where HSV had won their last game of the season, had mistakenly congratulated the travelling fans on going up. As it transpired, none of them had any phone signal and had taken the tannoy’s word that Heidenheim’s game with Jahn Regensburg had finished.

It had not.

A jubilant pitch invasion quickly began to look like one of those picnics where someone forgets to bring all the food — and the joy. Sandhuasen issued an apology in the aftermath, but the rest of the country has not been gentle with its mirth.

Stuttgart’s misfortune has been simpler; they were in the wrong place when the music stopped. The Bundesliga’s relegation battle produced compelling if clumsy theatre since the turn of the year, with five teams clambering over and around each other in a scramble to survive. Hertha Berlin and Schalke went down automatically, VfL Bochum, Hoffenheim and Augsburg stayed clear, but after 34 games Stuttgart were left suspended over the trapdoor.

Among those teams, they actually scored the most goals and conceded the fewest and yet here they were, fighting for their lives. But they were an improving side — greatly so since Sebastian Hoeness, nephew of Bayern Munich’s former player and president Uli, took over in April.

Since last being German champions in 2007, Stuttgart have often languished in chaos. They’ve been relegated twice, promoted twice, and — during the last decade in particular — have laboured in muddy dysfunction. This season has been something of a throwback in that regard. Hoeness is actually the team’s fourth head coach of the season. Pellegrino Matarazzo began the season but only lasted until October. Caretaker Michael Wimmer relieved him and stood in until December. Bruno Labbadia — Das Big Sam, if you will — was a myopic move that only served to hasten Stuttgart’s swirl around the plughole.

In Hoeness, however, they seem to have got it right. He only lost two games of his 10 games before the end of the season and Stuttgart, while still fragile without the ball, have been playing with speed and menace.

Again — somehow — the joke was actually on Hamburg. They could have faced a more limited team and one suffering the neuroses that come from a poor season and the prospect of a relegation playoff. As it was, because football has that deviant sense of humour and HSV are so often the target of it, they were confronted by a rejuvenated opponent suddenly playing with belief.

It is their fault, too. HSV have far greater resources than either of the teams who won automatic promotion ahead of them — Darmstadt 98 and Heidenheim — and so while they were unlucky on that final day, they never really should have been in that position. Or this one. Losing 3-0 and with a home leg still to play, but with next to no hope of promotion. The better team won. The better team will likely be playing in the Bundesliga next season.

But forgetting Hamburg’s heft as a club and viewing the relegation play-off in the abstract, it is easy to understand why it divides opinion. The concept itself is harsh, of course, but at times it hardly seems a fair contest. This season, Darmstadt against Hertha Berlin — top of the second league versus bottom of the first — would have been an excellent game. But third against 16th? Stuttgart weren’t bad enough and HSV weren’t good enough for it really to be close. The result, arguably, is that the ratios of jeopardy and opportunity are rarely what they seem.

Recently, the fixture has overwhelmingly favoured the Bundesliga club. In the last 10 years, the side from the lower division has only won promotion twice: Fortuna Dusseldorf in 2012 and, most recently, Union Berlin in 2019. If there were a source of Hamburg optimism ahead of Thursday night, it was that Union beat Stuttgart in that game, condemning them in the process.

Union are a special case, though, and both of those results were outliers. More often, the threatened team is able to find just enough power when needed. Hertha Berlin did a year ago, again against HSV, when they suffered a 1-0 defeat in the Olympiastadion but then managed to overturn it with relative ease in Hamburg. The season before, an exhausted Holstein Kiel side snatched a 1-0 win in Cologne before being dismantled 5-1 on their own pitch. Twelve months prior, Heidenheim were held off by Werder Bremen on away goals. The game produces stories, but rarely fairytales.

And is that right? To those who say no, the relegation play-off is a second chance that a 16th-placed team don’t deserve, but also not enough of a reward for finishing third in the league below. A season’s worth of work should, for good or bad, have consequences that are more commensurate.

It is a strong argument. The financial disparity between the two divisions bolsters it. While promotion and relegation in Germany is not quite the binary situation that it is in England, the difference in revenue is still stark. The current broadcasting contract is distributed according to a four-pillar system: 50 per cent is shared evenly, but the other half is determined mainly by performance, with talent production and commercial value part of the equation but of far less importance.

The big figure, the one that really matters, is the difference between what the respective divisions receive. Next season, in 2023-24, the Deutsche Fussball Liga (DFL) will distribute €1.17billion (£1bn; $1.3bn) among the two leagues, but only around a quarter of that will be shared by the 2 Bundesliga clubs. Clearly, that is part of the argument against the relegation play-off.

And yet there remains a seductive case for its existence. The relegation play-off has melodrama and tragedy in spades and those are great currencies within professional sport. While not unique to Germany, the Bundesliga is currently the only one of the major European leagues to have one. At a time when the Bundesliga must do all it can to combat the financial advantages and stature of the Premier League, having standalone curiosities that attract international attention is hardly inconvenient — and particularly when they so vividly exhibit many of German football’s strengths.

At half-time on Thursday night, shortly before the players returned to the pitch, the home end suddenly lit up with dozens of burning flares and the crowd on all sides roared in response. It was a quite stunning spectacle and a show of captivating force from one of the loudest terraces in the country. The noise that greets the three goals is barbaric too, and it is difficult not to be charmed by such uninhibited and visceral relief, and any occasion that teases out such febrile joy.

Being there also feels special. Before the game, on the long road down to the stadium from the station, a lone guitarist riffs wildly in the early evening. The mood around is different from what you’d expect. In fact, if I have an early observation about German football, it is that rival supporters mix easily and rarely with any tension. Thousands travel down from Hamburg and as they make their way to the ground — on the trains, buses and on the streets outside — they snake around and among great numbers of red and white VfB shirts, but with no friction.

Later, everyone leaves in the same way. The guitarist is still there in his leather jacket, hammering at his axe. The mood around him doesn’t change either. Despite the drinking, the sun and the divergent fortunes, everybody behaves. The police hold little groups back and stagger road crossings here and there but, despite a situation that should be combustible, the atmosphere is benign. Even when shoved up against each other in the packed train carriages back into town and after the chants about HSV have become mocking and cruel, nobody loses their temper or their cool. It is still vibrant and no doubt there is some darkness behind a few of the neutral HSV expressions, but the social contract holds and everybody goes their separate ways.

They will see each other again on Monday; the Volksparkstadion will be full to its 57,000 capacity. The tie is over, though, and everybody knows it. There is drama in the relegation play-off — there is colour, fire, noise and rogue guitarists too — but rarely any miracles or rewards.

(Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)



Read the full article here

Leave A Reply