Tucked away in a district inside Germany’s second city, Hamburg, lives a football club which boasts a global following. No, we’re not talking about Hamburger SV – although that would make sense. HSV are one of the traditional giants of German football, having won six Bundesliga titles, three DFB-Pokals, a UEFA Cup, a European Cup Winners’ Cup, and even a European title. Instead, we’re talking about Hamburger SV’s local rivals, FC St. Pauli.
On the surface, St. Pauli appear a completely unremarkable football club. They’ve never won a German domestic title and have never qualified for a European competition. In fact, FC St. Pauli have only spent a total of eight years in the top flight of German football in their history and currently reside firmly in the country’s second tier. But despite their lack of success or level of prestige in the annals of German football, St Pauli boast over 400 registered supporters’ clubs across the world. From ‘Raj Pauli’ in India, to the ‘East River Pirates’ in Brooklyn, New York, FC. St Pauli sell more merchandise than Hamburger SV and most other sides in the Bundesliga.
The matches played at St. Pauli’s Millerntor-Stadion are oftentimes lacklustre in quality. But what is never lacklustre is the atmosphere at the club’s home ground. For what attracts fans the world over to this football club is its culture: the ‘Kult’ of St. Pauli. A small club once in the shadow of its Hamburg neighbours has become a home for the alternative punks and squatters of Germany’s second city and has emerged as a symbol for progressive politics and left-wing activism.
The St. Pauli quarter of Hamburg is situated at the heart of the city and on the north bank of the river Elbe. Long before St. Pauli adopted its punk image did the district become a hub for alternative sub-cultures and social activism. For within St. Pauli lives Hamburg’s famous Reeperbahn – the centre of the city’s night life and its red-light district. Bars, night-clubs, sex shops and brothels litter the Reeperbahn, giving the street the nickname Die Sündigste Meile – the Most Sinful Mile.
The Beatles found a home in St. Pauli and played in several clubs around the Reeperbahn before finding worldwide fame. John Lennon famously remarked, “I might have been born in Liverpool – but I grew up in Hamburg.” Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, punk music found a home in St. Pauli and the district continues to be a hub for alternative music to this day.
The modern St. Pauli can find its origins in the early 1980s. The club was founded in 1910, but only earned promotion to Germany’s top flight for the first time in 1977. Their stint at the top was short lived and they were relegated after just one season. In 1979, and on the verge of bankruptcy, St. Pauli were forcibly demoted to the third tier. In 1981, the team was averaging a home attendance of just 1,600 spectators.
As a left-wing counter culture was growing in Hamburg, the 1970s and ’80s was witnessing the rise of organised football hooliganism. The majority of football clubs in the English Football League had their groups of hooligan fans, who organised themselves into militant groups. These ‘mobs’ or ‘firms’ – as they were often called – could be found all over the country. There was Arsenal’s ‘The Herd’, Chelsea’s ‘Headhunters’, Millwall’s ‘Bushwackers,’ Birmingham City’s ‘Zulus’, Rangers’ ‘Inter City Firm’, and so many more. Each ‘firm’ was organised with the intention of intimidating rival fans or arranging violent attacks on other hooligan groups. These groups were often nationalistic in spirit, largely responsible for the racism which stained English football at this time, and sometimes had ties to right-wing political organisations like the National Front.
Football hooliganism was often referred to as a ‘British disease’ – one which reached its ugly peak with the 1985 Heysel Disaster. Rioting Liverpool fans at that year’s European Cup final caused the deaths of 39 Juventus fans. English clubs were banned from European competition for five years and the British government began to clamp down more severely on hooliganism. However, the problem of football ‘firms’ was as much a European issue as it was a British one.
The same problem was being witnessed in Germany. In 1982 a far-right hooligan group emerged within the Borussia Dortmund fanbase – The Borussenfront. The group became notorious for brawling after matches and targeting people of Turkish ethnicity in Dortmund. Mz-Army ’84 was created for FSV Mainz 05 fans and it was not long until a far-right fringe emerged within the terraces of Hamburger SV. In December 1984, it was reported that far-right fans from HSV and Borussia Dortmund attacked houses near to St. Pauli’s Millerntor-Stadion with Molotov cocktails. It was enough to put many fans off from attending anymore Bundesliga matches.
“They say that you can never change your football club but in Hamburg in the 1980s that was different,” said Jörg Marwedel, a Hamburg-born author and journalist. “I grew up a HSV supporter but the whole situation with the neo-Nazis became too much for me — and I wasn’t the only one.”
FC St. Pauli was ideally positioned to become a home for a football fanbase interested in an alternative ideology. Opposed to fan-on-fan violence, race hate, and other right-wing ideologies, the supporters who started the gather at St. Pauli fixtures were more dedicated to social justice and punk rock. From the mid-1980s, the ‘Black Block’ – as the dedicated fans on the terraces of the Millerntor-Stadion have become known as – started to take shape.
#MATCHDAY! Das heißt auch: 1910-#Containerday und #Weinbarday. Vor + nach dem Spiel sind wir vor der “Süd” + in der Gegengerade für euch da. Shoppt + trinkt uns den Tresen leer – und helft mit, ein Museum wie kein anderes zu bauen! | 📷 https://t.co/1iqy840GYx #fcspfci #fcsp pic.twitter.com/ST2QMtWohs— FC St. Pauli-Museum | 1910 e.V. (@1910eV) February 23, 2019
“It was in the 1980s when more and more alternative people, left wing types and squatters moved to the St Pauli area,” explained Sven Brux, a former punk-rocker who has been involved with St. Pauli for over 30-years. He is currently the club’s head of organisation and security. “They said, ‘let’s go to football’ and they decided to act inside the stadium as they did outside, so they did not accept any racism or right-wing hooliganism.
“It was this generation that started the opposition to fascism.”
More than just fans of a football club, St. Pauli fans grew to identify themselves by their beliefs. They claim to be anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-homophobic and anti-sexist. The club’s supporters became involved in protest and demonstration movements around Hamburg, particularly over the rights of squatters and those who live in low-income housing.
Then there’s the Totenkopf, the adopted symbol of FC St. Pauli which has become a worldwide symbol for nonconformity. The story goes that local Hamburg punk rocker, Doc Mabuse, decided to bring a Jolly Roger (a skull and crossbones flag) attached to a broom stick to a St. Pauli game. Football fans everywhere will recognise the black and white diamond of HSV’s badge, but you don’t need to like football to instantly connect with St. Pauli’s Totenkopf. Along with the club’s official badge, the Totenkopf has become the most recognisable symbol of St. Pauli, which helped them earn the nickname ‘Freibeuter der Liga’ – Buccaneers of the League.
St. Pauli soon became the first football club in Germany to officially ban right-wing nationalist groups and activities from its stadium at a time where fascist groups and football hooliganism was becoming an ugly stain on the beautiful game across Europe. By the 1990s, St. Pauli’s modest home attendance of no more than 2,000 had grown to a point where they would frequently sell-out their 20,000-capacity stadium.
St Pauli’s club philosophy has remained strong to this day. In 2009, they became the first club in Germany to adopt a set of guiding principles, thus immortalising their passionate fanbase’s ideology. Music continues to be an important part of the culture within this district of Hamburg. At each home game the teams enter the pitch to the rocking anthem of ‘Hells Bells’ by AC/DC, while after every St. Pauli goal ‘Song 2’ by Blur is played. Bands such as Rise Against, Parkway Drive, Sigur Rós and The Gaslight Anthem have all been seen sporting FC St. Pauli shirts at live shows.
“The community built nearly everything FC St. Pauli is about,” admits Club President Oke Göttlich. “We are one of the most well-known football clubs, without being successful yet, which is a pity, and people are fascinated about this mixture of having a community owned model, together with this cultural aspect, and value setup that we are living.”
A St. Pauli flag right in the middle of the protests against the far-right in Chemnitz last Saturday. pic.twitter.com/hP6IA7i3Ij— Felix Tamsut (@ftamsut) September 3, 2018
FC St. Pauli are far from becoming a footballing powerhouse, but their importance within European football should not be understated. At a time when organised fan violence and racism has re-emerged on the footballing landscape; St. Pauli continue to be a shining beacon of progressive politics and inclusivity within the beautiful game. Fans of FC St. Pauli may not necessarily identify with the club’s players, but they certainly connect with its spirit. It is the culture and community of St. Pauli which has captured hearts of the fans to world over, whose community effort to fight hatred has inspired other liberal fan groups across the world to follow in their footsteps.
Written By George Peckham
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