This story is about football, although football is not the main thing in this story. Or rather, not football as we are used to hearing about daily, the kind consisting of hard-fought victories and well-deserved triumphs, champions paid their weight in gold, epic characters, Cups and Championships. Also because if we are talking about athletic performance, the team in question, FC St. Pauli of Hamburg is nothing special. One hundred and ten years of history and no championship won. Unless you count some victories in the German third division. Aside from those, seven seasons in the Bundesliga, Germany’s top league; a German Cup semi-final, countless years hanging on in Zweite Liga (the second tier league) and a historic 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich, the country’s richest team the year it won the Intercontinental Cup. And yet in New York, there is a bar, near the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn, where once a week a handful of fans gather to watch the St. Pauli match, and they are not German immigrants. The club is so insignificant in the world that the match is broadcast on tape delay. But it doesn’t matter: the fans don’t miss a game and the bar is always full. That’s because St. Pauli—whose full name is one of those typically German tongue-twisters: Fußball-Club St. Pauli von 1910 Eingetragener Verein—has become a worldwide phenomenon with tens of thousands of fans in all reaches of the globe, more than 500 official fan clubs outside their home city and a plethora of supporters despite the club having never won anything. Beautiful, very popular and losers. All this because, as its young president Oke Gottlich repeats at every interview, “at St. Pauli, it’s only about the football per se to a certain extent.”
St. Pauli is to modern football as the Sex Pistols are to rock history. It is a disruptive agent in a matter that is dead flat and invariably akin to itself, a field where today, more than yesterday, only money, plays and results count. “Unlike practically all football clubs in the world, St. Pauli is the result of a political experience specific to the city of Hamburg,” explains historian Marco Petroni, who dedicated the book St. Pauli siamo noi, We are St. Pauli, to the German club. To understand what kind of specificity it is, all you need to do is set foot in the Millerntor, St. Pauli’s stadium: one of the bleachers reads “Kein Fussball den Faschisten,” No football for fascists, in block letters. The opposite bleacher reads: “Kein Mensch ist illegal,” No man is illegal. For 40 years, the values of anti-fascism, anti-racism and tolerance have been at the heart of the philosophy of St. Pauli and its fans.
Petroni goes on to say: “To understand the appeal of the German team we need to look back over the last 50 years of the history of the district whose name it bears.” About 30,000 inhabitants out of a total of almost two million, St. Pauli is one of Hamburg’s 105 districts. Overlooking the Elbe, it has always been a poor and peripheral district, an area of dockworkers and laborers, prostitutes and foreigners, smugglers and revolutionaries. At least since World War II, its main street has been the Reeperbahn, the red-light district that has become a magnet for the whole of Northern Germany and the British military stationed in the country. As the years went by, the port’s dockworkers disappeared, the proletariat changed its atmosphere, the district became the typical harbor receptacle for wrongdoers and desperate people. “When AIDS struck at the end of the ‘70s, the area became one of the most infamous places in all of West Germany, stripped of its historical settlements and in the hands of the underworld” explains Petroni. But the history of modern cities teaches us that all empty spaces soon become occupied, and this is what happened in Hamburg, too. “Between the end of the ‘70s and the beginning of the ‘80s, Hamburg became, with Berlin, the heart of German Autonomy. Anarchists, penniless, autonomists, and marginalized students occupied twelve buildings along the Hafenstrasse, the road that runs alongside the Elbe. With them came punk, the desire to have fun all the time and the idea that every act of daily existence is a political act.” What does all this have to do with football? Apparently, nothing, extreme left-wing militancy and football seem to be at two opposite ends: for many intellectuals, football is another opium of the people.
If it weren’t for the fact that St. Pauli is a small district, and at its heart is Millerntor Stadium, four concrete bleachers crowded with a thousand disappointed fans every week. The team carried on with not much sporting satisfaction, fighting in the Regional Liga just in the years when the city’s other team, Hamburg Sv, was winning national championships and won the Champions Cup. And yet a few hundred self-employed people living in the neighborhood started to go to the stadium. “The score didn’t matter much, they cared about drinking beer and having fun,” explains Petroni. But that those were the years in which, in the grandstands of German stadiums, usually quiet and apolitical, neo-Nazi groups started showing up, never missing a chance to show off their racism and put up a fight. And the autonomists can’t help but be autonomists in everything they do, so politics landed on the bleachers of Millerntor. “The motto at the time was: ‘Never again fascism, never again war, never again 3rd division.’ Luck would have it that the team had an unexpected sporting success: in two years it went from the C series to the Bundesliga” It’s 1988, they were relegated after three seasons, but the fans don’t care about that. Now they have adopted the players in brown uniforms and want to make St. Pauli an anti-system team like they are.
“They can legitimately do so because Germany applies the so-called 50+1 rule, a rule that sets sports clubs apart from any other European club. Teams are not corporations as they are in Italy and Great Britain, but rather multi-sports clubs owned by members,” says Nicolò Rondinelli, who has written a book on the social aspects of the St. Pauli phenomenon. In the case of the Hamburg team, FC St. Pauli 1910 is only the football branch of a multi-sports club that has both male and female teams in a variety of sports, from rugby to baseball but also chess and bowling. “While elsewhere a season ticket holder is just someone who goes to matches, here the members are really part of the club, they participate democratically in the life of the club, and in fact they control it,” explains Rondinelli. This is the key that makes the St. Pauli phenomenon possible.
In 1989, when the club planned to build a new modern stadium and was confronted with the protest held in the bleachers, the social identity of the district and the football team began to merge. These were the years when the Jolly Roger—the black flag with a skull and crossbones—appeared on the Millerntor’s bleachers. As in all things St. Pauli, there is a legend about who was the first to bring the flag into the stadium. Apparently, it was Doc Mabuse, the singer of a Hamburg punk band who lived not far from the Millerntor, in one of the squats on Hafenstrasse. One Saturday he tore the flag off a stand in the area, took a broom handle and made it into a flag. This flag has now become the informal symbol of the team and appears on all its merchandising.
In true punk style, the supporters used to print and currently print their own fanzine, Millerntor Roar, which discusses little about football and a lot about politics and anti-racism, police brutality, and squatting. “This strange group of supporters were as interested in the team as they were in the neighborhood,” says Petrone.
In Germany, however, these years were marked by clashes, the neo-Nazi skinheads brought violence to the stadiums, violence from which the St. Pauli fans did not flee. When a punk fan died, anarchists and autonomist St. Pauli fans decided to get their act together. It seems a contradiction in terms, but they organized an independent fan association, the Fanladen, which managed everything for their fans, from travel to police relations, from fanzine printing to supporter clubs in other cities. “It worked so well that over the years the Deutscher Fußball-Bund, the German Federation, changed its name to Fanprojekt and extended the model to all professional sports clubs,” says Massimo Finizio, an Italian transplanted to Hamburg in the early 2000s and one of the club’s managers. “Since then, they have been committed to the growth of sports culture and the development of youth sectors. And they do it in a very concrete way: enabling young people who can’t afford it, to practice a sport”. Where? Obviously in the club’s facilities, which are owned by the municipality but loaned to the club for 99 years.
The concept that principles are much more than words and can never be waived, is seen in another recent story. In October 2019, Turkish-born midfielder Cenk Sahin was fired because of a post on Instagram. The player had openly supported the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in northern Syria: “I am alongside the heroic Turkish military. My prayers are for you.” The club immediately dismissed him from training and meetings, explaining that they decided to do so because “the expression of solidarity with an act of war goes against the club’s values.” As if that were not enough, to emphasize the team’s difference also in the field of union rights, Sahin remained on the payroll until he found a job at another team.
In all this, the team has become an international brand. So much so that large companies have approached it to associate their name with the quintessential alternative club. A few years ago, a Mini Cooper was launched with a skull and the club’s colors. Nike made limited edition trainers (500 pieces) with the club’s logo and its must-have Jolly Roger. Spurred on by Under Armour, an American sportswear company, for a couple of years, the team toured the United States to expand its supporter base. Is this the end of an idea? “No, it’s a very contemporary way of living it, without being maximalists, being careful to use the word marketing which is frowned upon in this setting, but taking advantage of all the possibilities given by ‘capital’ to pursue an idea, spreading it more and more. And besides, the philosophy that governs our club is that profit must be divided and redistributed. Two-thirds of the income is redistributed to the youth sector, while in other German teams that’s done with no more than 30%,” comments Finizio.
This is pure associative spirit, and the fans love it. The team has been settled in Zweite Liga since 2011, but few care about it. Indeed, the stadium that now has 30,000 seats has been completely sold out for every match for nine seasons. Not even Barcelona has achieved that. For every match the players step onto the pitch accompanied by AC/DC’s Hells Bells as they did 20 years ago. The locker room at Millerntor still looks like the bar of a community center; the access passageway to the pitch like the tunnel of an underground disco embellished with skulls, graffiti, slogans and red lights. As often happens in the world of counter-culture, important messages are drawn on walls or posters. One of them summarizes the team’s story: “We don’t have a trophy case; we have a story to tell.” And that’s worth much more than any victory.
In true punk style, the supporters used to print and currently print their own fanzine, Millerntor Roar, which discusses little about football and a lot about politics and anti-racism, police brutality, and squatting.
But it is mainly thanks to the 50+1 rule that supporters make their voice heard within the club. Whereas in the early years there were only a few thousand members, now there are over 30,000. “They pay 120 euros a year, half of that for those who are unemployed or retired, to feel part of the St. Pauli family,” explains Finizio. Money that is not paid to watch the matches, but to participate from the inside in the life of the team. And when it is needed, they make themselves heard: not to choose who goes on the pitch, but for matters of principle. The stadium’s current name, Millerntor, was voted by the club members in 1998. Its previous name, Wilhelm-Koch-Stadion, despite being the name of a historic team president, was unwelcome: it seems that Wilhelm-Koch had spent time in the National Socialist Party.
In 2001 the club risked going bankrupt, and it was the involvement of the supporters that saved it. They promoted the Retteraktion campaign, selling 160,000 t-shirts with the word Retter, meaning rescuer and savior, in six weeks. The local breweries supported the campaign: for every mug of beer sold, 50 cents were donated to St. Pauli. Two million euro were collected, and the team was saved. In those years Cornelius Littmann became the president of the club, an openly gay theatre director in a world as homophonic as football, someone who knew little about football but was active on the city’s cultural and political scene. In his two terms of office, the team further increased its political engagement.
Thanks to the idea of a former footballer, Benjamin Adrion, the project “Viva con agua de Sankt Pauli” was launched. The initial goal was to buy water dispensers to donate to schools in Cuba, and now it has become an international NGO affiliated with the team. It involves 10,000 volunteers, has projects in Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa, to support itself by bottling water with the team’s logo that it sells not only at the stadium. In conjunction with the World Cup held in Germany in 2006, they organized the World Cup for countries without a state and hosted it on the grounds of the Free Republic of St. Pauli. The teams represented places such as Tibet, Greenland or Northern Cyprus. Football is becoming more and more a means of expression of political ideas at every level, not just in the neighborhood. “Participation is the word that underlies everything, making football a popular sport again. Having an awareness, for better or for worse, of the social role of sport in contemporary society,” continues Finizio.
Awareness that is certainly not lacking at Millerntor. So, in 2009 St. Pauli adopted a series of Leitlinien, guiding principles that became part of the club’s charter and with which those who work with and for St. Pauli must comply. The first one specifies that “FC St. Pauli, in its totality of members, employees, supporters and volunteers, is part of the local community and as such is affected directly and indirectly by societal changes in the political, cultural and social spheres.” The second one makes it clear that St. Pauli accepts its social responsibility that goes beyond the sphere of sport. Social responsibility that is due to the city district where it is rooted and the people who live there. Awareness that is certainly not lacking at Millerntor. But just as importantly, the guiding principles make it clear that FC St. Pauli is a way of life and is a symbol of sporting authenticity, which must lead people to identify with the club independently of any success it may achieve on the pitch. “The heart of the St. Pauli phenomenon is based on active participation and aggregation” stresses Rondinelli. It is the triumph of a different philosophy of understanding the game of football. Politicized and cooperative football becomes FC St. Pauli’s effort against the rise of modern football dominated by big capitals and televisions. And it is the only professional club in the world to do so consistently and constantly.
So, they opened a nursery school under the bleachers of the stadium which is open all week, even on match days when the fathers come to watch the match with their children, or—more often—park them there. And they participated in the life of the city. For example, in 2012, there was a major crisis in Hamburg with almost 3,000 asylum seekers arriving from Lampedusa. The government wanted to send them back to Sicily, but part of the city acted, defended, and hosted them. St. Pauli and its fans did not hesitate. In addition to collecting donations and acting, they founded the Lampedusa Flüchtlinge, an amateur team in which only refugees from Lampedusa play. Their motto is: “Here to stay, here to play.”