How did FC St Pauli, a middle-ranking team in Germany’s Bundesliga 2, garner 11 million fans around the world? The answer has a lot to do with punk, politics – and the soul of football
(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, January 2014)
For those who don’t know what going to a football match is normally like, going to watch FC St Pauli is perhaps equivalent to getting on a plane where they’re playing the Ramones at full-volume, the air stewardesses are wearing leather jackets and ripped jeans, and the messages on the intercom are protests against capitalism.
In these days of highly corporatised all-seater stadiums, FC St Pauli is that unique. It’s a rainy Friday night, and I’m in the Millerntor Stadium, bang in the heart of Hamburg’s lively St Pauli district, known for its docks, its left-wing activism and for the infamous neon-hued Reeperbahn, the bustling street that forms the backbone of Europe’s largest red light district.
In the South Stand, with the team about to take on FC Köln in Germany’s second division, everything’s different to most grounds. There’s no advertising, just entire walls covered in quality street art; the loos are covered in punk and political stickers; just about everyone is wearing St Pauli’s iconic skull and crossbones emblem; and lots of people seem to be collecting money for something, whether it’s clean water for the developing world or a community playground. Before the game, as the crowd launches into the chorus of AC/DC’s Hells Bells, someone unfurls a flag reading “Refugees Welcome”, a reference to a recent fan campaign against immigrant stop-and-searches.
“This isn’t like any other football club,” says the amiably tipsy Christian Evachenko, an American army vet whose large frame is dominating the walkway in his St Pauli leather jacket covered in anti-capitalist and punk badges. Evachenko, who was posted to Germany before the Berlin Wall fell and has stayed ever since, had no interest in football until his son got into the game 10 years ago. They started coming to St Pauli and, as he describes it, “I was hooked like a fish. It’s like heroin.”
Formed in 1910, FC St Pauli was a fairly normal working class football club until the mid-1980s, when the club became the antidote to a rising tide of far-right hooliganism on German football terraces.
Earlier in the day, I got the story first-hand from Sven Brux, who might just be the living embodiment of FC St Pauli’s recent history. He’s a former punk with a glint in his eye, who still wears an earring, smokes roll-ups and meets us in the stadium offices in a pair of battered black Reebok trainers. He founded the club’s supporters’ group and its first fanzine, Millerntor Roar, and has been involved with St Pauli since 1987. Today he’s the club’s head of organisation and security, a big job given that the club boasts roughly 600 worldwide supporters’ groups and 11 million fans – the same number as Tottenham Hotspur in England. He’s also an elected chairman of the Jolly Roger, the legendary fan-owned bar near the stadium.
“I came to Hamburg to do my civil service in 1985,” he says. “I’d been into football as a young boy, but then I got into the punk scene and football fans became the enemies. Nazis and hooligans were ruling the terraces, and if you saw football supporters at the central station, there’d be trouble.”
He became aware of FC St Pauli, which in the early 1980s was lucky to draw 3,000 fans to a home game. “Hamburger SV had been the only club in town, and St Pauli was deep in the shadows. But when the far right started to take over in the ’80s, people started to say, ‘We can’t stand side by side with Nazis.’
“At the same time, there was a harbour crisis in St Pauli, and the dock workers were being replaced by squatters, artists and other alternative types. As they started going to the football, the people disenfranchised by Hamburger SV started to see that they could come to St Pauli and not get any trouble. Suddenly, you had all these people in the stadium who you’d never see at football.”
Nothing that followed was planned, says Brux – like the time that Doc Mabuse, the singer of a local punk band, stole a skull and crossbones flag from the Hamburger Dom carnival next to the stadium. The skull and crossbones – which had long been associated with St Pauli on account of legendary pirate Klaus Störtebeker – became the club’s unofficial emblem, and is now so iconic that it’s been worn by countless bands and you can barely pass three shops in the area without seeing it. You can buy St Pauli skull and crossbones hoodies, iPhone holders and even jewellery at the airport. As Brux says, “It suited us immediately. It spoke of a little club, of the little guys against the big guys. When we were promoted in 1988 and went to play the likes of Bayern Munich, we became known as the pirates.”
Fast forward 15 years – a few promotions and relegations later – and what’s changed? Brux accepts “you can’t run a football club without money”, and at press time the club was in a court battle over the rights to sell club merchandise, including the skull and crossbones (they’d sold the rights cheaply in 2003 to save the club from bankruptcy). The three or four people in the club’s office have swollen to almost 50, and Brux seems almost rueful when he points out that there’s now a corporate identity department.
Still, it remains unique. According to Brux, the worldwide Football vs Racism movement was born at FC St Pauli in the 1980s, and the club’s fans founded the Alerta anti-fascist network, which today includes supporters from clubs as diverse as Atletico Bilbao, FC Bordeaux and FC Minsk. St Pauli fans organise a biannual anti-racist supporters tournament, and the club has played friendlies in Cuba as part of a policy of left-wing solidarity. In 2006 (during the World Cup) the club was the site of the FIFI Wild Cup, for states not recognised by FIFA – Northern Cyprus beat Zanzibar in the final, with Gibraltar third and the Republic of St Pauli fourth.
Around 30,000 of these fans turn up to most games – even, as Brux says, “when it’s pissing with rain and the football is complete crap.” The reason, he says, is because “we are here for the supporters like no other club. The new stand is 50 per cent standing because the fans wanted that; and the stadium name will never be changed because the fans decided that. If fans say we don’t want commercial shit, we listen. It works because we get higher attendances than most Bundesliga 2 teams, and have one of the best attendance percentage records in Europe. We can look ourselves in the mirror and say that we make our money the right way.”
The rain and crap football comment turns out to be prescient that night, as a much sharper FC Köln run out 3-0 winners, with the home side reduced to 10 men in the second half. Yet what’s most interesting is what happens off the pitch, starting with a minute’s silence before the game for recently passed St Pauli club hero Walter Frosch, a merciless defender and a German football icon. With his floppy hair and moustache, Frosch was known for his off-field antics (he could smoke 60 cigarettes in a day) and for getting so many yellow cards (18 in the 1976/77 season) that FIFA introduced a one-match suspension for players after four (it’s five today).
St Pauli like their club icons atypical. Cornelius “Corny” Littmann, who was club president from 2002-10, was not only Europe’s first openly gay football club president, but the theatre impresario and owner was instrumental in saving the club from oblivion in 2003. Today he runs the Schmidt Theater and Schmidt’s Tivoli on the Reeperbahn.
A classic example of the curiosities of FC St Pauli came a few years ago, when Reeperbahn strip club Susis Show Bar installed a pole in their corporate box. The fans, who boast that they have more female supporters than any other club, launched an inevitable protest, reaching a compromise that there would no stripping during matches. The stripping pole is still there, as is a model train that trundles around the stadium with hot dogs on it (like much inside the stadium, it was built by a fan).
What’s interesting is that the St Pauli fans seem to sing even louder when they go 3-0 down, culminating in a cacophonous chorus of You’ll Never Walk Alone. After the game, they clap the players off the pitch as if they’ve just beaten Bayern Munich – and the players look bashfully grateful.
As Brux told me earlier, the criteria for being a St Pauli player “is about your head as much as your ability”. All new players are taken on a tour of the immediate area, so they understand its unique heritage, and many former players own bars and run charities in the area, including the near-ubiquitous Viva Con Agua, an initiative to provide drinking water to developing countries that was started in 2005 by St Pauli player Benjamin Adrion.
After the game, I head to the supporter’s club downstairs, which looks like a basement punk bar in 1970s Greenwich Village. It was funded, built and decorated entirely by supporters, and the walls are covered in a mix of graffiti, stickers and black and white archive images of the Millerntor Stadium, creating a kind of punk living museum. Leather- and denim-clad figures are bouncing around in the red, smoky light. I’m tired, and can’t really hack the pace, or the pounding of the Dead Kennedys, so head home to bed (note: light sleepers should avoid hostels on the Reeperbahn).
The next day I go back to the Jolly Roger, the fan pub that was too packed to get into the night before. Before the day’s Bundesliga 1 games are about to kick off on the TV, I ask if we can take pictures of the patrons at the bar (it’s dark and covered in stickers and graffiti, but you’d probably guessed that by now). Led by one girl in a Cockney Rejects beanie, they decide they’re unimpressed I’m from an airline magazine, and will only grant photos if I buy the whole bar a drink. I’ve never made this manly gesture before, and am sweating as the barman plonks 13 tiny bottles of Kuemmerling herb liquor on the bar. After throwing it back, I only stop grimacing when the barman tells me how much it has cost me: “Thirteen euros,” he says. I’m definitely not in Norway.
Later, I’m watching the Bundesliga matches under a scarf commemorating a match between St Pauli and FC United, when I get talking to Michael Dickson, a Celtic fan who’s over from Dublin to watch St Pauli (Celtic, like Standard Liege, have a special relationship with the club). Dickson owns Casa Rebelde, a shop that specialises in retro football gear, and tells me that FC St Pauli is his best-selling brand of merchandise. “There’s something about this club that resonates with people,” he says. “Going to watch Celtic these days is nothing like it.”
Dickson regularly comes to St Pauli games and used to have a season ticket. “Guys from the Fanladen [supporter’s club] here came to my wedding, and I went to theirs,” he says, before reeling off a rush of FC St Pauli anecdotes: about the St Pauli/Celtic parties that draw 400 Celtic fans to Hamburg; or the tradition of hiring two rail carriages for the final away game of the season, emptying them save for a bar each, and installing a DJ. “There’s usually a dress code, and you’ll have a couple of hundred people dancing the journey away.” For him, like St Pauli’s millions of fans, the club represents a time when football wasn’t about transfer deals worth tens of millions, and when clubs were there for the supporters. In central Hamburg, surrounded by an intoxicating blend of hip bars, neon-lit strip clubs and anti-capitalist squats, that ideal still exists.