Punk, pirates and politics — welcome to Germany’s FC St Pauli (AKA the ‘Brothel Of The League’) who, says ShortList’s Christian Koch, could teach the sporting world a thing or two about equal opportunities
Down by Hamburg’s St Pauli port district, the Jolly Roger flag is everywhere. Hoisted aloft from pubs, storefront windows and sleazy-looking tattoo parlours, it watches over bomber jacket-clad street workers and sex shops offering all manner of bedroom paraphernalia. In the midst of this mayhem is the Millerntor stadium. Inside, its team — wearing a golden-brown kit — pile out to the strains of AC/DC, while a motley menagerie of fans drink beer and wave skull-and-crossbones scarves in the air. Stamford Bridge this is not.
FC St Pauli is the world’s most left-wing football club. Dubbed the ‘Brothel Of The League’ due to their ground being a brassiere’s throw away from Hamburg’s Reeperbahn red-light district, the team represents the dockers, prostitutes, anarchists, transvestites and ordinary volk who live and work in the city’s blue-collar St Pauli enclave. Friendly matches are sometimes played in Communist-controlled Cuba and at heavy- metal festivals. Jack Daniel’s once sponsored them.
Their former president was openly gay, while fans take asylum seekers to games and protest when ‘sexist’ advertising appears in the stadium.
After a decade spent skirting bankruptcy and playing in amateur leagues, last year St Pauli clinched promotion to the Bundesliga (Germany’s top tier) — a victory made even sweeter given that 2010 was the club’s centenary. The Brothel Of The League’s renaissance had begun… Before the Eighties, St Pauli was a run-of-the-mill lower-league club living in the shadow of neighbours, HSV Hamburg (a recent Millerntor banner read: ‘HSV is curable’). But things changed in 1986 upon the team’s promotion to the second division, or 2. Bundesliga.
Suddenly, a scruffy ensemble of about 60 punks, many from St Pauli’s squatting community, could be glimpsed behind the manager’s dugout during home games, bellowing anti-fascist chants. At a time when European football was mired in violence, this was a departure. “I stopped watching football when I became a punk because of right-wing hooligan mobs,” recalls fan Sven Brux. “But all types of people were accepted at St Pauli. I was like, ‘Yes! I can go to football again!’”
These beatniks adopted the skull-and-crossbones flag (the Totenkopf) as their emblem. ”Squatters would bring the flag as a joke, but it spread,” says Brux. “It symbolised the poor against rich clubs such as Bayern Munich.” St Pauli’s dilapidated stadium soon became swamped with new fans: alternative types identifying with its new-found radicalism, locals spurring on the club’s ‘underdog’ status and HSV defectors fed up with the neo-Nazi element at their own stadium.
Promotion to the Bundesliga followed in 1988, but the on-pitch success didn’t last. Three years later St Pauli were relegated, and by 2003 had reached their nadir: playing in the semi-amateur Regionalliga Nord league. What’s more, the club was heavily in debt. The fact that Gazza reputedly considered joining the team at this time says everything about that washed-up era.
Only one thing could save them: the fans. The same people who had given St Pauli their identity (by now the Totenkopf was emblazoned on team kits) leapt into action, staging fundraising events such as ‘Drink for St Pauli’, with local landlords donating 50 per cent from each beer sold.
While finances improved, St Pauli’s lefty leanings stayed in tact: they played Cuba to show solidarity with leader Fidel Castro and organised the 2006 FIFI Wild Cup, featuring unrecognised footballing nations such as Tibet.
Then, last May, after eight years ricocheting around the lower tiers of German football, St Pauli beat Fürth 4-1, a result that elevated them back to the Bundesliga — 100 years after the club’s foundation. “No filmmaker could have written a story like that,” says Brux.
The same month, their president, Corny Littmann, a Reeperbahn theatre owner, stepped down. Having presided over St Pauli since 2002, he’d squared the club’s balance sheet (it now sells about £7.3m of merchandising a year) with little of the homophobic terrace abuse levelled at Elton John during his Watford chairmanship.
St Pauli now finds itself in a position where the alternative fans from the Eighties are running the club. Brux, who founded the club’s first fanzine, is now head of fan relations and security, with former comrades occupying senior positions on the board.
The Millerntor even has beer pumps built into selected seats, while a model railway whisks hot dogs from the club kitchens to the VIP section (Karl Marx would be appalled). The current squad may not have players like Eighties’ goalkeeper Volker Ippig, who lived in a Hamburg squat and left the club for a season to help the poor in Nicaragua, but socially conscious values still remain — midfielder Fabian Boll spends half his week working as a policeman.
The club’s anarcho-libertarian ethos has also chimed globally, with more than 200 fan clubs worldwide. In the UK, supporters meet at London’s Zeitgeist pub or Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Bar every Saturday afternoon to watch games. Celtic and St Pauli fans, in particular, have forged a strong kinship, while the ‘Birmingham Boys in Brown’ raised £1,370 for the club during its financial woes by staging a ‘Brownstock’ benefit gig.
John Wadmore, a teacher from Portsmouth, co-runs a UK fan forum site. “Part of the appeal [of watching St Pauli] is that it’s like travelling back 30 years to a time when you could stand on terraces in England, having a drink and a smoke, for under £15,” he says. “When the final whistle goes, nobody leaves the ground. That’s when the party starts — people stay for 25 minutes, dancing and drinking beer.” For away games, fans sometimes charter a train, replete with ‘disco coach’ and DJ. Meanwhile, in Germany, there’s Ultrà Sankt Pauli — a group of 18 to 25-year-old fans who pick up refugees in a van every Saturday, taking them to the match and feeding them for ‘a nice day out’.
No surprise, but rockers have also taken the team to their bosom. Everybody from Icelandic band Sigur Rós to The Gaslight Anthem have worn St Pauli’s kit on stage, while the team opens home matches with AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells and blasts Blur’s Song 2 after every home goal.
Art Brut singer Eddie Argos composed 2007 track St Pauli about the team (occasionally played in the Millerntor), having supported the club since an early German tour.
“I was in Hamburg, feeling slightly depressed,” he says down the phone, having just finished a St Pauli painting for the New York supporters’ club. “Everybody seemed to be wearing their shirt and I thought, ‘I’m so lonely, I wish I could be part of that team.’ I also loved the fact they were sponsored by Jack Daniel’s — and played like they were drinking it.”
But for all their hip cachet and tribe-like devotees, St Pauli have churned out few players you’ll have heard of (unless you count Bolton Wanderers’ Ivan Klasnic). As Wadmore says, “If you took a straw poll among British fans and asked why they go, it wouldn’t be the football. Most supporters have a politically left-wing stance and like the club’s culture.”
Currently sitting mid-table in the Bundesliga, St Pauli are struggling to get to grips with being a top-flight club. Recent reforms, such as introducing business seats and a VIP box sponsored by Reeperbahn strip club Susi’s Showbar (which featured women pole-dancing during matches), have led to accusations that the club is selling out.
Sozialromantiker (‘Social Romantics’), a fan pressure group, emerged in response. Although Susi’s strippers were eventually banned, Sozialromantiker regularly wave the ‘Jolly Rouge’ (red pirate flag) in protest during matches.
The commercialisation furore proves one thing: St Pauli’s rebel spirit isn’t dead. But the team’s real miracle is its legacy. Many of the liberal values that the Eighties’ squatter-punks helped foster are now enshrined in law at football clubs across Europe. All this with a virtually empty trophy cabinet.
As Brux says, “We’re just a club without one single sports success in our history and a tiny ground in a red-light district. It’s amazing this has happened.”