Despite playing in the German second division without much success, a new book explores why St. Pauli are an enduring source of fascination to left-wing fans the world over.

Despite playing in the German second division without much success, a new book explores why St. Pauli are an enduring source of fascination to left-wing fans the world over.

FC St. Pauli’s status as a cult club has its roots in the early eighties and the rise of Hamburg’s squatters’ movement. In protest at plans to demolish a row of houses on the Hafenstraße (or “Harbour Street”) in the St. Pauli quarter of the city which had been earmarked for glossy redevelopment, a loose group of activists occupied the buildings. 

Against a backdrop of high youth unemployment and a lack of affordable housing in Hamburg, the squatters – who came mainly from working-class families – embraced radical left-wing politics. They founded people’s kitchens, infoshops, beer halls and gig venues and, soon enough, Hafenstraße became a symbol of popular rebellion. 

Daubing the buildings with graffiti, bright murals and countercultural slogans, the squatters would spend over a decade in fierce conflict with the city authorities. Many of them would also start supporting FC St. Pauli – an otherwise unassuming football club conveniently located barely a mile away.

Those supporters helped to lay the groundwork for what St. Pauli is today: a club which is explicitly anti-fascist, anti-discrimination and anti-establishment, in sharp contrast to the apolitical pretence maintained by most of its competitors. With the club’s ground, the Millerntor, situated near Hamburg’s docks, the red light district and the feverish nightlife of the Reeperbahn (a street nicknamed “Die Sündigste Meile” or “The Most Sinful Mile”), the surrounding area had long been popular with workers and marginalised communities. 

With the arrival of the Hafenstraße squatters, subcultures flourished inside the stadium. They also fostered a party atmosphere, helped by their links to the punk and alternative music scene.

Now, there are few professional clubs as active in their local community as St. Pauli. Run by its members – of whom there are almost 30,000, an impressive number given that the team currently competes in the German second division – the club is democratically accountable in a way which the vast majority of its English counterparts are not. 

St. Pauli’s fan-led initiatives include free training sessions and subsidised away trips for local kids, fundraising to provide accommodation for the homeless, organising anti-racist grassroots tournaments and helping to set up a team for refugees and migrants, FC Lampedusa. 

Inside the Millerntor, there is a large mural which reads “Kein Fussball Den Faschisten” (“No Football For Fascists”), a slogan which players have previously sported on their kits to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the stands, fans have organised choreography in support of the LGBTQ+ community and regularly display banners with messages like “Refugees Welcome” and “No-one Is Illegal”. 

This is not a recent phenomenon: in the early nineties, St. Pauli was the first German club to officially ban racist chanting and neo-Nazi symbolism at matches. In football’s increasingly corporate landscape, St. Pauli’s long-standing support for left-wing political causes marks it out as doing things differently.

It’s led to an enduring fascination with the club for people who identify with its politics, including many who had otherwise fallen out of love with football. St. Pauli fan groups have sprung up across the globe, which is fitting, given the club’s internationalist outlook. Britain is a particular hotspot with groups in Yorkshire, Glasgow, London, Manchester and Brighton, among others, several of which have replicated St. Pauli’s activism and advocacy locally. There are other groups as far afield as Catalunya, Athens, New York and Brazil.

It’s not uncommon to see fans overseas adorned with St. Pauli’s famous skull and crossbones motif, the Jolly Roger, which harks back to Hamburg’s medieval history as a haven for pirates – the original anti-establishment rebels – and was popularised by the Hafenstraße squatters. Nor is it uncommon to read about St. Pauli, which has provided a rich vein of material for writers and academics over the last few decades. The latest love letter to the club, St. Pauli: Another Football is Possible, was published last month. 

The authors, Carles Viñas and Natxo Parra, initially intended to write an article on St. Pauli’s history for the Catalunya fan club but ended up with enough material for a book. “At the end of the eighties, I started to hear about St. Pauli and read articles in alternative press or fanzines… I sympathised with the club,” says Viñas. “Our idea was to use the history of the club as a thread to explain a story: the history of the neighbourhood, the history of Hamburg, the history of Germany, the history of the Bundesliga… in other words, to use football as an excuse to explain something else.”

Despite their obvious affinity with the club, Viñas and Parra insist that they do not want to contribute to its “mythification”. The book goes into meticulous detail all the way back to the birth of German football when the sport was dismissed as an “English disease” and described as “absurd, ugly and perverse” by patriotic German gymnasts. 

It also explores the darker corners of St. Pauli’s past, from the club hierarchy’s “ambivalent” attitude towards the Nazi regime in the thirties and forties to a minority of neo-Nazi fans who were chased out when the Hafenstraße squatters arrived. With the left adopting St. Pauli at the same time as a far-right boom on Germany’s terraces – a phenomenon which drove many fans away from HSV, Hamburg’s most successful club by far, and saw them switch allegiances – the book also chronicles numerous violent clashes between supporters.

St. Pauli fans were regularly targeted by the far-right and were labelled “zecken” (“parasites”) by their opponents. In true St. Pauli style, they appropriated the term and wore it as a badge of honour.

The club’s lack of silverware and success relative to HSV – six-time German champions and one-time winners of the European Cup – has only made it more attractive to nonconformists. They are natural underdogs or, to quote Viñas and Parra, “the eternal loser that everyone likes and many feel sorry for.” 

That said, there is a fundamental tension within the club between the need to compete and the need to preserve its cult status. “Like every professional team that plays in a professional league and generates and spends millions of euros, it has its contradictions and we did not want to hide them,” says Viñas. “Nothing is perfect, not even St. Pauli.”

There is an ongoing debate among fans at the Millerntor as to the club’s place in football’s Daliesque financial landscape, with a group dubbed the “social romantics” (“Sozialromantiker”) spending much of the last decade pushing back against growing commercialisation. Having run into financial problems in the early noughties, the club’s attempts to grow its revenue with executive boxes, VIP areas and controversial marketing stunts alienated hardcore supporters to the point that some decided to go and watch lower-league side Altona 93 instead. 

As the club’s popularity has grown, fans have had to get used to routinely seeing the Jolly Roger on merchandise and, inevitably, sometimes used as a fashion statement. Where some are happy for the club to market itself in the pursuit of success on the pitch, others have struggled with the idea that St. Pauli has been co-opted by the mainstream and want to preserve its anti-establishment heritage.

For Viñas, that is why it is so important to understand the club in its full historical context. “[We wanted] to move away from this cool vision that makes St. Pauli just a fad,” he says. Ultimately, with most professional football clubs long ago deciding that they were businesses first and community institutions second, St. Pauli is one of the few clubs where commercialisation, consumerism and the ethical implications of capitalism are even up for debate. 

Throw in its fans’ continued commitment to activism, equality and anti-fascism and it’s little wonder that – even with all its contradictions – St. Pauli is still so admired on the left.

St. Pauli: Another Football is Possible is out now on Pluto Books. 

Follow Will Magee on Twitter.

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