Plugging away in Germany’s second tier, with no trophies to its name and no players of note, it would be easy to brush off FC Sankt Pauli as a lesser brother of city rivals Hamburger SV. Instead, political affiliation and a strong fan movement ensures this Hamburg city district isn’t just famous for its Reeperbahn, but its football too.
Walk through Temple Bar’s side streets and you may be surprised what you find. Nestled in amongst overpriced cáfes and quirky clothes shops, you may be struck by the bright yellow and red facade of a shop on Crow Street. Here stands Casa Rebelde, which according to its heading is “Clothing for the discerning football fan and revolutionary”.
Inside one finds retro jerseys going back to the 1960s, ultra t-shirts from the Pro-Pyro initiative – a protest popular in Germany and Austria against the the banning of fireworks in stadiums – and a host of St Pauli merchandise.
The owner, Michael Dickson, is a St Pauli fanatic. “Yeah, we are heading over to the away games against Rostock and Dresden this year”, beams Dickson.
As well as the shop, Dickson watches St Pauli games in Murrays pub on O’Connell street, along with other members of St Pauli’s Dublin fan club. A group whose Facebook page has 1,700 likes.
St Pauli is hardly the most immediately inspiring club from continental Europe. They currently reside in the upper half of Germany’s second Bundesliga, after finishing bottom of the Bundesliga last season – only their second appearance in the Bundesliga in the last decade.
But what St Pauli lacks in sporting prowess, they make up for in a strong fan movement. “Sankt Pauli is famous for being a left-wing club. You get this whole argument, there’s no place for politics in sport, but a small team like Sankt Pauli, who are the first club in Europe to ban anything to do with racism. It shows what fans can do, if they act together as a group,” enthuses Dickson.
Formed in 1910, St Pauli hasn’t always been so popular. Average attendances throughout the 1970s were 4-5,000, but as the district grew an increasingly punk element – people who were also drawn to the club – St Pauli grew due to the ostensibly all-inclusive nature of its fans. By the late 1980s and into the 1990s, St Pauli were regularly selling out their 20,000 capacity Millerntor stadium. Estimates of St Pauli support today rise up to 11 million people in Germany alone, who have at least a casual support for the club.
The astonishing success lies in its political roots “The vast majority of Sankt Pauli supporters are politically motivated. Why pick Sankt Pauli when you can pick the big team HSV (Hamburg), if you are not interested in the left leaning of the team”, admits Dickson.
The political fan movement encompasses anti-fascism, anti-sexism and anti-globalisation – a famous St Pauli fan banner reads “Sankt Pauli – Unestablished since 1910”.
This politicalisation has brought the club into conflict with other German club fans whose political affliation lies to the right of the political spectrum. Derbies with north German rivals Hansa Rostock have been particularly nasty affairs, and this season St Pauli will meet Rostock, along with other teams with infamous fan groups, like those from Dynamo Dresden and Eintract Braunschweig. As a result, this year’s 2. Bundesliga has been dubbed “the most expensive 2. Bundesliga in German history,” due to the cost of security.
The phenomenon of St Pauli has spread throughout Europe. The Jolly Roger, which the fans have embraced as one of their emblems is recognisable throughout Europe. Here in Dublin, “St Pauli gegen Rechts” (St Pauli against the Far Right) stickers are emblazoned on lampposts and traffic signs throughout the city, while fans of Celtic FC have long had a mutual love for all things St Pauli.
The history of the club in the affairs of the district is long, which echos the famous mantra of Barcelona FC of being “more than just a club”.
“Most young men, I might be stereotyping here, have an interest in football. If then their only interest in politics is from standing on a terrace watching football, and not sitting down at boring meetings for two hours, then that’s not a bad thing. They see an active inside of it”, says Dickson.
This has led St Pauli fans to support movements and issues both inside and outside of the football stadium. In September of this year, following a match at their Millerntor stadium, St Pauli fans demonstrated against a decision to erect fencing around a bridge at a harbour. The bridge was designed to prevent the homeless from seeking shelter under the bridge at night. As a result of the protests, the fencing was later removed.
Incidentally, this has given added meaning to one of the most famous St Pauli songs, where fans link arms, jump up and down and sing in unison “we are the leeches, the anti-social leeches. We sleep under bridges or in train stations”.
Inside the stadium, the fans have organised a movement entitled “Bring Back St Pauli”. With the recent renovation of the stadium, more corporate seats than ever are now in the stadium, which many fans argue goes against the ideals of the club. Club fans were furious when a local strip club had opened up in a VIP box, with the ladies stripping for customers every time St Pauli scored. Due to the protests, the girls have remained, but will have to wait till after a match to get their kit off.
The protests are normally organised through the club’s “fanladen”. A group of St Pauli supporters who operate independently – including financially – of the club itself, even having their own offices separate from the stadium. They help to coordinate activities between different fan groups as well as offering help to the club’s supporters throughout the world.
One of the most active fan groups is Ultras Sankt Pauli (USP) – an ultra group who are responsible for a lot of the fan displays – although this doesn’t necessarily mean the ultras and the rest of the fans stand shoulder-to-shoulder on all issues. During the 2009-10 season, violent clashes between St Pauli and Hansa Rostock fans led the police to restrict the travelling Hansa Rostock fan numbers for the return fixture at the Millerntor stadium. St Pauli ultras were furious with the police for what they felt was interference. As a result, they staged a protest, ironically in solidarity with fans of Hansa Rostock, where the terraced section behind the goal – the area where USP supporters stand – would be boycotted for the first five minutes of the game. As many fans in this area were not USP members, they wished not to partake in the boycott, but were physically denied access to the stadium by the USP. This led to confrontations outside the stadium and on the terrace between St Pauli supporters.
The allure of St Pauli brings with it its own problems. The more popular the club becomes, the more money can be made, which brings the possibility of more corporate sponsorship and corporate box seats. More revenue after all means more success on the field. But as the “Bring Back St Pauli” initiative shows, winning isn’t everything to the fans. It’s their club and they want to feel a part of it.
St Pauli stands at this moment as a fascinating microcosm of a footballing world, where success on the pitch can conflict with the ideals of its fans. How this game will play out makes St Pauli as fascinating as ever.