Kick-off was still a good ten minutes away when I entered the north stand of the Millerntor Stadium, home of the FC St. Pauli. However, the crowd was already warm and sang as though the match had already begun. Then, the loud sound of a bell rung and the whole stadium erupted in deafening noise, which was accompanied by an explosion of color in the form of waving flags and a flurry of little bits of white and brown paper. AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells blared from the stadium’s sound system as both teams walked out onto the pitch, but the song eventually gave way to the crowd’s chant of “Forza St. Pauli.”
The FC St. Pauli is probably Hamburg’s best-known export. Though the FC St. Pauli has not achieved that much success ever since it was founded in 1910, this second-division club is known around the world and has passionate supporters’ clubs with chapters everywhere from New York City to Buenos Aires.
Now, even though I am not a St. Pauli fan, I do wish them well (except when they play against Dynamo Dresden or Union Berlin). I had seen them a couple of times (in Sandhausen and Berlin) before moving to Hamburg, but never in their own ground—the legendary Millerntor Stadium. That changed when I met Einar, a Norwegian St. Pauli fan, through Couchsurfing (I know he’ll read this so “Hey, dude!”). He first found out about St. Pauli not through the game but the politics, as St. Pauli’s fan-base is largely left-wing, and that was his gateway drug into the amazing world of football!
Long story short, Einar was planning on flying from Norway to Hamburg to attend a game at the Millerntor Stadium. I hosted him and got a ticket to the game too, which was against FC Ingolstadt. The match itself was terrible; St. Pauli lost 4-0, but the atmosphere and support were very decent. We watched the game from the Nordtribune, where the support was rather sporadic; clear across the pitch, in the actual block, the Ultras didn’t stop supporting until the match ended.
The Pirates of the League
The fun began after the match, as the unofficial Fan Clubhouse (the famous Fanladen) is at the stadium itself, right below the Gegengerade (parallel tribune). Inside, Punk Rock blared from the speakers, and people in Motörhead shirts handed out shots. A mosaic featuring the crests of supporters’ clubs adorned one of the walls, and symbols of Kurdish resistance, Basque and Catalan Independence, and Irish Unity graced the place everywhere I looked. It was clear that that was no place for racism or homophobia, and the patrons were in good spirits despite the crushing defeat.
St. Pauli is a club that is associated with left-wing politics. To be exact, it represents the German left, which is very different in terms of identity to the Irish Republican, the Basque, or the Catalan equivalent. However, St. Pauli fans, and I am talking the true kind of Old School Punk and Skinhead fan here, embrace all the different causes across the political spectrum of the left, so it is not uncommon to see fan friendships with other antifascist teams from around the world—most famously Glasgow Celtic and Standard Liège. This association now transcends football and has turned the club into a statement.
The club, which is based in the neighborhood of the same name, is very present in the streets of Hamburg. The area of St. Pauli, otherwise known as Kiez (German for “hood”) is Hamburg’s top entertainment destination, and is also home to Germany’s most famous Red Light district. The identity of the area and that of the club have become intertwined to such an extent that having one without the other is now unthinkable.
The club’s motto is “non-established since 1910.” However, FC St. Pauli was not always a club with antifascist supporters; rather, it became that in the late 70s and early 80s as a reaction to the rise of right-wing hooligans over at Hamburger SV, the local first-division team. Why St. Pauli? Because the social climate of the area was just right, as punks and squatters had just made the neighborhood (particularly around the Hafenstraße) their home. Back then, FC St. Pauli was not the phenomenon that it is today but rather a small and financially unstable club, and a new fan culture started to grow from the ground up. Many left-wing fans actually switched teams, and went from supporting the HSV to supporting St. Pauli, giving priority to politics over the actual game.
The association between Punk and the club is now part of the so-called “St. Pauli Myth.” I actually first encountered the FC St. Pauli in Punk concerts, as seeing the club’s logo gracing vests, sewed on between screen-printed patches and surrounded by pins and studs, is not particularly uncommon at such events.
To be fair, there are many clubs out there that also represent the left and whose crests now also stand for noble causes such as anti-racism and anti-homophobia. Some examples of this are Livorno, AEK Athens, Cliftonville FC, or Rayo Vallecano; in Germany you have Babelsberg 03, FC Carl Zeiss Jena, Chemie Leipzig, and Union Berlin. However, none of them have the global status of St. Pauli due to one very simple reason: Marketing. This very point has also earned the FC St. Pauli a lot of detractors, particularly here in Hamburg. The FC St. Pauli, like the FC Barcelona, is definitely “mès que un club” now—it is a brand.
Enter Modern Football
Lemme ramble here for a second and throw out an analogy: St. Pauli is like Slayer. They are both recognized as pioneers in what they do, and their legacy is pretty much untouchable. There are many rabid Old School Slayer fans who still go see them everywhere they play, and the name still commands respect among Metalheads; however, commercialization happened, and now you can buy Slayer t-shirts at H&M and sport them like Kim Kardashian without actually caring about Thrash Metal at all.
Well, St. Pauli is basically the Slayer of football: Old School Punks and the Black Bloc, the Ultras, the fans from New York City and the occasional Irish Republican create some of the best support at the Südkurve of the Millerntor stadium. However, there’s also the expensive VIP lounge, the St. Pauli body-wash, the countless MINIs bearing the club’s trademark Jolly Roger that zip around Hamburg, and the club’s “non-established” fashion line. That’s because the club successfully marketed the fan culture from the 80s and made it into its own corporate identity.
The point here is that the FC St. Pauli is just as fashionable as it is Punk Rock.
And no, I am not hating here; this disdain for the commercialization of the club is shared by many St. Pauli fans, many of whom have even chosen to start going to the games of more anti-establishment clubs in Hamburg, such as Altona 93 of TSV Bergedorf. Luckily though, true fans and ultras are still the majority, and the atmosphere at the Millerntor stadium is still very enjoyable. Home matches are usually sold out, and even friends who support other teams in Germany have told me that it’s always a pleasure to see their club play against St. Pauli.
While the FC St. Pauli is now firmly part of modern football, going to see a match in St. Pauli is still a great experience. There is no doubt that St. Pauli has a lot of dedicated and die-hard fans, and that the hipsters who like the fashion aspect of the club are the minority here—like with Slayer.
Bottom line is: St. Pauli is still Punk Rock. Let’s hope it stays that way.
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