The Sex Pistols of the German football league

With anarchists and prostitutes among their smoking and drinking fans, FC St Pauli are the punk rockers of footie.

Viral Shah

Topics Politics

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Germany’s football league system, the Bundesliga, holds the best attendance records in European football. The fans are as passionate and loud as any in the world. And this season, the decibel count will rise higher still because of one little side from Hamburg. Yes, St Pauli – the club from the town’s red-light district – have been promoted after an eight-year absence from the German top flight.

In 2006, St Pauli were in the German third division, where the average league attendance was roughly 2,000 – yet the club’s Millerntor-Stadion regularly pulled in crowds of 15,000. So what was so special about this small side, which always seemed to be in the shadow of its neighbour, SV Hamburg?

Principally, the club’s cult status derives from the extent to which it has represented the underdog. Initially the fanbase consisted of local dock workers, but this changed in the 1960s when immigrants arrived, followed soon after by students, leading to an eclectic mix of cultures.

The left-wing politics for which the club is now renowned first came to light during the 1980s when the Hafenstraße area of St Pauli was up for redevelopment. The local government was attempting to evict residents so the building could undergo demolition and reconstruction instead of repairs (subsequently found to be the cheaper option by an official report). In a massive protest, students, intellectuals and other political activists squatted on the property and their left-wing politics were gradually embraced by the growing, local fanbase of a previously conservative club. The skull and crossbones flag flown by protesting punks even became the unofficial emblem of the club.

The alternative lifestyle offered in the Reeperbahn – the centre of St Pauli’s red-light district – attached itself to the club as the dockers and prostitutes were joined by bikers, anarchists, punks and anti-fascists along with several other politicised groups from the area. Little wonder that St Pauli were the first German side to ban right-wing activities at a time when such organisations attempted to infiltrate football fanbases.

The club was also forthright in its staunch anti-racism, anti-homophobia and anti-sexism policies. It is fitting that former (having stepped down just this summer after seven years at the helm) club president Corny Littman was one of the few openly gay men in European sport. Typically, the club celebrated its centenary year in May with a friendly against FC United of Manchester, the rebel offspring of the now debt-laden, US-owned Manchester United.

It is because of St Pauli’s political lustre that attendances at the games rose rapidly through the 1990s. The worldwide fanbase has been reported to be anything between 11million and 20million, and there are about 200 registered supporters’ clubs.

People didn’t just come for the match now, they came for the party. Drinking beer and smoking are still allowed in the stands, a rarity in modern football. The raucous atmosphere is no surprise given the locals’ immersion in pop and rock culture – The Beatles resided in St Pauli for a few years in the early 1960s. The team even run out to ‘Hell’s Bells’ by AC/DC, and every St Pauli goal is celebrated by a rendition of Blur’s ‘Song 2’.

However, promotion to the Bundesliga top division may offer some problems for a club devoted to its political principles. Previous promotions have almost bankrupted a club that historically has struggled financially, often relying on charitable donations and high-profile friendlies to raise funds. There may have to be a compromise concerning the ideals of the club to survive in Bundesliga 1.

The Millerntor-Stadion is being renovated at a cost of €30million and works are expected to be completed in 2013 to raise the capacity from 23,000 to 28,000. The principles of the club are not being let go without a fight though, as the standing areas – crucial to the atmosphere – are not only going to be retained but expanded. But it does seem that the club will have to make concessions to commerce in order to survive in the top-flight. Moreover, the town itself is undergoing a change, too, as gentrification kicks in. It seems that St Pauli can no longer be the social utopia its fans want it to be.

The club is fighting hard to remain the voice of the underdog. After all, no player at the club earns more than €600,000 a year. In the bubble of the football world, where weekly wages of £100,000 are regularly mentioned as the norm, St Pauli’s players don’t seem quite so removed from the average man on the street. Which is why reports in May that St Pauli had offered Sol Campbell, then a free agent, £70,000 a week were frighteningly wide of the mark. Instead players such as former Germany striker Gerald Asamoah and ex-Arsenal defender Moritz Volz have signed, not to be paid massive wages, but to provide top-flight experience to a youthful side.

A strong team spirit has been fostered under the stewardship of manager Holger Stanislawski and the side strive to play entertaining, attacking football. They scored 72 goals last season to achieve promotion, making them the joint-highest scorers in Germany alongside giants Bayern Munich. They have even been nicknamed the freibeuter der Liga (the Buccaneers of the league) because of their attacking prowess.

If the anti-capitalist aura of the club does have to be compromised, some solace can be sought in the footballing philosophy upheld by St Pauli. Whatever happens this season, St Pauli fans are guaranteed to be in for one hell of a ride – the Hamburg side surprisingly lost to fourth division side Chemnitz FC in the first round of the DFB Cup last weekend, before storming to a 3-1 win at top division rivals SC Freiburg on Saturday.

Viral Shah is a freelance football writer and a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy. He currently blogs on LiberoFootball.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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Topics Politics


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