When a club spends the majority of their history plying their trade outside the nation’s top flight, the average football fan wouldn’t normally give them a second look. But FC St Pauli are not an ordinary lower league club. This is St Pauli, where football meets left wing politics. Where football supports society’s outsiders and free thinkers.
On the docks of the German port city of Hamburg, lies the provincial club St Pauli. Unremarkable on the pitch and completely remarkable off it. The club’s stadium – Millerntor Stadion – is situated just a stone’s throw away from the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s notorious red light district. The fans fly the skull and cross bones flag– which is the emblem of the club and symbolizes the poor taking on the rich. This is a world away from the prawn sandwich brigade who silently turn up to watch top flight football over here in England, whilst spending a small fortune in the process. You won’t find any £6 burgers on sale here. St Pauli is everything modern football isn’t, huge sponsorship deals and star signings… they just don’t want to know.
St Pauli have traditionally had the shadow of their city neighbour’s Hamburg SV loom large over them. Before the eighties they were just your average run of the mill lower league club with underwhelming attendances, but it was during this decade the club took a unique path. With the local area falling into disrepair and dock workers being laid off, the local economy nosedived. This was the economic and social backdrop to St Pauli becoming much more than a football club. Some could say they transformed into a cult, a ‘cult club,’ but I would rather see them simply as a football club who gave those without a home a place to belong… and a voice to the unheard.
An alternative fan culture emerged, with left wing politics, social activism and where watching a game became a party. This is the time when prostitutes, anarchists, poets, punks and the city’s squatters began to fill the decaying stadium. Oh, and let’s not forget the Hamburg SV fans who turned their back on their club, due to the rather large right wing element within their support. This was not and is still not, just a matter of watching a football match, but where a vast range of society’s marginalised groups are accepted and integrated into the St Pauli way of life.
Amongst all of this, the club became the first in Germany to ban any right wing nationalist activity within its stadium. This was at a time when fan trouble was often inspired by fascist elements, not just in Germany but across Europe. Antihomophobic and anti-sexism campaigns were to follow. It is these beliefs which were crucial in attracting fed up and disillusioned punters – by the 1990’s attendances of 2000 had risen to an astonishing stadium sell out of 20,000.
The Squatters’ Movement played a huge role in helping to form St Pauli’s new identity. When the city was set to evict the people squatting in the Hafenstraße (Harbour Street), mass protest took place in support of the squatters, these protests eventually came to fruition when the city gave in and allowed them to remain in these properties. It was this spirit that has been integrated into the St Pauli fan ethos which is so admired today.
The popularity of the club was not just confined within the borders of Hamburg as word spread about a football club that believed there was more to the game than money and turning a quick profit; fans began to come from across Europe to watch their adopted club on match days. Attracted by St Pauli’s fan inclusion policies where supporters have set up ‘club principles’ to dictate how the club is run not only on the pitch but off it as well; here they can set up charity events and protest on local issues all in the club’s name. Their popularity means only the giants of the Bundesliga can outperform St Pauli when it comes to merchandise sales.
As FC St Pauli’s fan culture continued to grow, football on the pitch was uninspiring to say the least, with the club yoyoing up and down the German football ladder. Promotion to the Bundesliga was achieved in 1988 where they were to stay for three seasons, before sliding down the footballing pyramid. By 2003 the club had hit rock bottom on the pitch, playing in the semi-professional Regionalliga Nord League. These relegations also put the club on the brink of bankruptcy, a fund raising game was organised where none other than Bayern Munich were the opponents. The club that financially had nothing was given a helping hand by the club that had everything.
Nowadays, such is the international popularity of the club, day trippers make appearances at home games as part of the tourists’ itinerary when visiting Hamburg. To feed this demand there is a huge availability of club merchandise, books being published in multiple languages and the recent kit sponsorship deal with Under Armour – the world’s sixth largest manufacturer of sporting goods – who sponsor some of the biggest sporting personalities on this planet as well as the US military.
In the face of this growing commercialism a question needs to be asked – Are St Pauli in danger of losing their core values which have made them so special? It is a question that needs to be posed especially when comparing it to our Premier League where the old adage ‘knowing the cost of everything but the value of nothing’ is worn like a badge of honour. However, it seems St Pauli are, quite sensibly, willing to engage in commercialism but will not sell their soul… and you can be certain the fans will not allow this to happen.
With the 2016/17 season seeing the club playing in the second tier of German football and never one to conform, St Pauli have revealed their new players tunnel. Its graffiti design, surely made from the stuff of particularly deranged nightmares, is likely to unhinge the minds of many visiting footballers as they run out onto the pitch towards a large skull and cross bones, with the slogan ‘Welcome To Hell’. How very comforting.
Nothing would please me more than to see St Pauli promoted and once again come toe to toe with the likes of Bayern Munich and a 1-0 win for the visitors at the Allianz Arena wouldn’t go amiss. Now, how much is a ticket to Hamburg?