The question has come up once or twice a season for the last 80 years: who is number one in the north? We’re talking about the north of Germany, home to Hamburg and Werder Bremen, two of the biggest and most successful clubs in the Bundesliga.
It is not hard to understand the long-running rivalry between the pair: they are the leading clubs from the biggest conurbations in the north of the country, and the regions from which the clubs draw their support overlap, as the former Hanseatic League cities are only 100km or so apart.
The first time the green-and-whites of Werder contested the north German championship with HSV was on 13 March 1927. A modest crowd of 7,000 saw Hamburg triumph 4-1, marking the start of the club’s record unbeaten run, a stretch of 12 games without defeat including nine wins. Bremen’s first victory in a competitive fixture did not arrive until November 1952.
In the years preceding the formation of the modern Bundesliga in 1963, the two clubs dominated the regional Oberliga Nord and were arch-rivals for the northern championship for decades. However, with one notable exception, the honours always ended up in Hamburg. “We beat HSV a few times, but then dropped points to pub teams,” Werder legend Arnold 'Pico' Schutz grumbles to this day.
Facts and figures
Hamburg and Bremen have crossed swords on almost 150 occasions. The Nordderby has a place of its own in the annals of German football as the most-often contested fixture in Bundesliga history. Hamburg were founder members and have never been out of the modern top flight, and Bremen’s unbroken run in the Bundesliga dates from its second season.
Taking the long history of the fixture as a whole, the honours are broadly even, as Hamburg have 48 wins to Werder’s 50, with 41 draws. The pair have met most often in the Bundesliga (93 matches), followed by the Oberliga (32), German cup (11), UEFA Cup (2) and the DFB League Cup (1).
Goals have been abundant down the years - the first goalless draw did not come until the 39th meeting back in 1964. Five years prior to that, Hamburg set two new records with a 9-1 rout of their near-neighbours, the biggest margin of victory in the fixture and the highest aggregate goals total in a single match.
In the all-time Bundesliga table, Hamburg and Werder have been battling it out near the top for years now. Bremen are currently second behind Bayern, just six points ahead of Hamburg. The clubs’ records of 2,471 points to 2,465 in the course of 48 Bundesliga seasons underlines the closeness of the teams.
Tales of derbies past
In recent times, the men in green have tended to outperform Die Rothosen (the Red Shorts), although back in 1983, HSV edged a dramatic two-horse race to the tape. The clubs finished level on points at the top of the standings that season, only for Hamburg to edge out their rivals on goal difference.
Schutz, who crossed paths on the field with many big names over the years, including revered Hamburg legend Uwe Seeler, retains largely fond memories of battles between the giants of the north: "Whenever HSV visited us at the Weserstadion, there was a 30,000 full house. It was packed to the rafters."
The rivalry between the teams reached fever pitch during a three-week period back in 2009, when they met four times in the space of 19 days. The unprecedented string of fixtures between 22 April and 10 May ended well for the men in green: Bremen won a German Cup semi-final 4-2 on penalties in Hamburg, and then reached the UEFA Cup final on away goals after losing 1-0 at home but winning the return 3-2. Finally, Werder won a Bundesliga fixture between two exhausted sides 2-0 at home.
An incident which has passed into German footballing lore, but which rates as one of the most painful in Hamburg’s history, was the build-up to Bremen’s decisive goal in the UEFA Cup semi-final second leg. With just eight minutes to go, Hamburg's Danish defender Michael Gravgaard prepared to receive a pass near his own corner flag, intending to find keeper Frank Rost for a long clearance upfield. However, the match ball took a wicked bobble off a rolled-up paper ball lying on the field and deflected off Gravgaard’s left shin for a corner, from which Frank Baumann delivered Werder’s knockout punch. "This much bad luck is impossible. I fully concentrated on the ball and suddenly it took a bad bounce," the despondent Dane rued afterwards.
The infamous paper ball was retrieved by staff of the matchday TV broadcaster, who later passed the historic item to Werder managing director Klaus Allofs. "I’m taking it with me. It’ll occupy a very special place in the Werder museum," Allofs grinned. To add insult to injury, it emerged that the offending object had been thrown by a Hamburg fan after being used as part of a choreographed crowd mosaic in the build-up to kick-off.
The rivalry today
The match at the Weser stadium on 1 May 2004 was almost as painful for Hamburg and their fans. Bremen racked up a 6-0 triumph, their biggest margin of victory in the fixture, and went on to win the title that season. Since then, the men in green have lost only three of 19 meetings with their rivals, winning on nine occasions.
In the 2005/06 campaign, the Hamburg Volkspark yet again proved a happy hunting ground for Bremen. It was the last day of the Bundesliga season, and the stakes were far higher than normal, as both teams chased a guaranteed spot in the UEFA Champions League. Bremen won and sealed their berth in Europe’s elite club competition, leaving HSV to fight it out in the qualifying rounds.
Seven seasons have passed since Werder last won the league, and Hamburg’s most recent title triumph came fully 19 years ago. Yet the battle for bragging rights in the north of Germany continues to provide incident and action aplenty, grist to the mill of pre and post-match debate, and fuel for the bitter rivalry between the two sets of fans.