A loveable, eccentric little club - by Patrick Natahnson for the Financial Times
It has been a memorable summer for German football fans. The national team surprised most pundits by reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup where their hopes were finally dashed by Italy. It was a tournament that captivated the nation, leaving many optimistic about the future of German football in the post-Jürgen Klinsmann era after the national coach’s decision to quit.
However, thoughts of World Cup glory and lavishly paid international stars will be far from the minds of the players and fans of FC St Pauli on Saturday as they begin their season in the German third division against Wuppertal.
Situated in Hamburg’s red light district, St Pauli are no ordinary club. Indeed, in recent years they have become a symbol of alternative German culture.
A colourful assortment of punks, prostitutes and anarchists fill the terraces and fans have adopted the skull and cross bones as the unofficial club badge. The club is run as a democracy, ensuring that supporters have a significant voice in what goes on.
Furthermore, St Pauli have taken an active role in political campaigns against the forced eviction of dockers and squatters from Hamburg’s harbour area, as well as being the first club in Germany to ban racism in the stadium. Advertising hoardings for a men’s magazine were once even removed from the pitch-side after supporters complained about what they perceived to be the sexist representation of women. The Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass, who this year spoke out against the growing commercialisation of football, has staged readings from his works inside the ground, while numerous German punk bands have penned songs about the club. Even the players’ shirt colour of brown is most unusual in football.
For Corny Littmann, the St Pauli president, the club’s distinctive character stems from the history of the local area.
“In former times, St Pauli was one of several working-class football clubs in Hamburg,” he explains. “But this area has its own special identity and not just because of the red light district. Historically, it lay outside Hamburg’s city walls and so it was as if its people were outcasts who did not belong to the city. Then, in the 1980s a lot of squatters began moving in to the area and going to St Pauli games. This leftwing image was created, which is now very attractive for a lot of Littmann himself is hardly the stereotypical football boss. A prominent gay-rights activist and owner of a theatre on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, he has been known to dress up as a woman as part of his on-stage persona.
“The worlds of theatre and football have a lot in common,” he says. “The audience has to be entertained and so does the crowd. Even the structures are similar – only that instead of a coach, in the theatre you have a director.”
Despite languishing in the third tier of German football, St Pauli regularly sell out their dilapidated 20,000 capacity stadium and boast more season ticket-holders than many Bundesliga teams. Recent research even put the number of St Pauli fans around the world at more than 10m.
Chris Sanderson of the Birmingham Boys in Brown, a UK-based St Pauli supporters’ group, is one such foreign fan.
“It all came about six years ago when myself and a friend went over to Hamburg for a weekend,” Sanderson says. “We got talking to a group of St Pauli fans and really liked the libertarian attitude they had. They were very welcoming and immensely passionate about their team. Six months later a group of us from Birmingham went over again and we took it from there.
“They are a loveable, eccentric little club. Put it this way, I don’t know how many other clubs in Europe could have got fans from Birmingham City, Aston Villa and West Brom together to go and watch football!”
St Pauli’s achievements do not stop at uniting fans from Birmingham’s rival teams. Every week the stadium is opened to youths from Hamburg’s large immigrant community so that they have a pitch to play on for free, while for the last 10 years supporters have been sponsoring a women’s team in Nicaragua. In addition, a project begun by the former St Pauli player Benjamin Adrion, who recently retired at the age of 25 rather than play for another club, brings clean water to schools in Cuba, where St Pauli once triumphed over the Cuban national team in a friendly.
The club even has a supporters’ organisation, the Fanladen, that provides social support for fans with drug, alcohol and legal problems.
“We are basically an organisation that exists to make life that little bit easier for St Pauli supporters who are struggling,” says Heiko Schlesselmann, a leading member of the Fanladen. “The club and the fan groups are definitely a very important part of the local community.”
The Fanladen also organises an annual tournament for fans from 40 clubs across Europe to try to create a network of anti-racist supporters’ groups.
“In the Bundesliga, tickets are expensive and the fans are constantly watched by cameras. But racism in the lower leagues is still there and it is growing,” warns Schlesselmann.
midfielder Adebowale Ogungbure was attacked and racially abused by Hallesche supporters as he left the pitch. A week later, rightwing fans from Chemnitz FC attacked Turkish-owned shops before a game against St Pauli.
Ian Joy, St Pauli’s American defender, believes more fans should follow the example set by St Pauli supporters.
“A St Pauli home game is an experience that everyone should witness once in their life,” Joy says. “The fans are so special. You have 18,000 people showing their feelings against racism, all standing together, supporting you whether you win, lose or draw.”
One side that will be thrown into this unique atmosphere are the giants of German football, Bayern Munich, who have been drawn against St Pauli in the first round of the German Cup. Ironically, Bayern knocked St Pauli out of last season’s competition after a fairytale run took the small Hamburg club to the semi-finals.However, Littmann is in no doubt as to where St Pauli’s priorities lie for the forthcoming campaign.
“Success in the Cup last season was nice but our main aim for this year is definitely promotion,” says St Pauli’s flamboyant president. “We have to get back into at least the second division. I think German football as a whole misses us not being there.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006