The Gospel Of St. Pauli - According To Maia Freeman
by Maia Freeman
Sunday, Hamburg, half an hour until kick off. Within the streets of the city the crowds are building in their thousands, heading slowly towards the open gates of the Millerntor-Stadion. Emblazoned upon shirts, flags, scarves: the image of the skull and crossbones, wicked and grinning from ear to ear. Present as ever upon the terraces are the Ultrá Sankt Pauli, gathered beneath the floodlights and the banners which have since become known across the world, banners which advocate and inform and warn against. The warning in question is plain to see – bigotry and discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated in these stands.
Amongst the bourgeois glamour and hubris of the modern-day sport, within the midst of ballooning price inflation, rotten ownership and corrupt governing bodies, buried between the headlines which read of growing political uncertainty and a rise in reactionary extremism at both shades of the spectrum, F.C. Saint Pauli is a rare and welcome reprise. It’s a welcome which comes at the most crucial of times, a welcome which sings of unity and compassion and showcases the very best of traditional German brotherhood. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, it says. All are welcome.
Founded in May of 1910, Hamburg’s second-largest football club has been a staple of St. Pauli identity and culture for over a hundred years, located within the vibrant heart of a city quarter home to Hamburg’s infamous red-light district, the Reeperbahn, and a vast expanse of water-front and dockyard which overlooks the flowing current of the Norderelbe. However, traditionally, F.C St. Pauli has somewhat languished in the shadow of its bigger, more successful rivalling club, Hamburg F.C, a top-flight juggernaut which has only recently suffered its very first relegation from the Bundesliga to date. Having only a handful of appearances in the top flight of German football and none of the domestic and European glory that some of the country’s other footballing giants can attest to, it might seem difficult at first for the casual observer to understand how this fairly conservative 2. Bundesliga team manages to attract so much attention both at home and abroad. The answer, however, lies just past the transitory attraction of the modern footballing club, instead presenting itself within the very identity of F.C. St. Pauli – as a huge cult phenomenon, both in Germany and further afield. As a voice for the underdog, the non-conformist, the oppressed, the anti-establishmentarian. It is, as the locals would say, more than just a football team - it’s a Kult club.
Although St. Pauli has existed since 1899 and was officially founded in 1910, its presence as a hyper-political cult phenomenon was affirmed only in the mid-1980s, when the club was also able to turn its location beside the Reeperbahn, the centre of the city’s nightlife and infamous countercultural scenes, to its advantage. From the roots of this unique red-light culture a new, local movement of people was born, dubbed the Sozialromantiker, or the Social Romantics, by former club president Corny Littmann, a movement dedicated to stamping out the worrying rise of alt-right fascism within football culture across the continent.
From this, a new breed of alternative fan presence affiliated with the club soon emerged, inspired by the Social Romantics movement and built upon the principles of their left-leaning politics and social activism, as well as the relaxed, party atmosphere of the team’s matches, an atmosphere perhaps borrowed from the presence of the city’s red-light district so close to home. During the years in which fascist-motivated football hooliganism threatened to tear the game apart from within, the years of organised violence and heavy police presence and tragedy striking far too often across Europe, St. Pauli became a small, tentative beacon of hope, officially banning right-wing, nationalist activities and displays in the Millerntor-Stadion. Their stance on such issues clearly resonated within the local community: by the late 1990s they were selling out their 20,000-seater stadium, a stark contrast to the 1,600-average crowd in 1981.
F.C. St. Pauli has never been a successful football club in terms of glory, trophies, or results, but it’s quite clear to see that, for the supporters, that’s never been the reason why they follow the team. The fans have countless tales of their political and social heroics, including the occasion when Corny Littmann, aforementioned former club president, was subjected to homophobic abuse during an away match simply for being the first openly gay club president in German football. In response, the St. Pauli fans filled the stadium with rainbow flags for the home tie, a moving demonstration of their unequivocal support for him. The fans have regularly marched in solidarity with those currently squatting or living in low-income housing in the Hamburg district and have set up various schemes to support those who sleep rough, such as the, “Yes, we camp!” campaign, a direct response to the ban on rough-sleeping communities, which saw the club work with the Entenwerder camp in order to open the Millerntor overnight to 200 demonstrators protesting the legislation. In 2006, the club hosted the breakaway international tournament ‘FIFI Wild Cup’, a competition that aims to allow unrecognised nations such as Tibet, Greenland, and Zanzibar to play competitively against one another, with St. Pauli themselves participating as the ‘Republic of St. Pauli’. When the fans, who boast the largest proportion of female supporters in German football, judged the advertisements within the stadium for the men’s magazine Maxim to be sexist and derogatory towards women, they successfully protested until the club removed them. In 2011, the club banned lap dancers from performing before guests in corporate suits during matches following fan complaints.
None of these campaigns were influenced by results on the pitch, or inspired by important victories during difficult ties. None of these demonstrations, protests, or organised marches were the result of a successful season or a surprise promotion. For these supporters, the club means much more than simply a game of football played over ninety minutes; they see it as a shining opportunity to support the community in which they come from, a chance to be socially responsible and politically aware, an avenue to genuinely improve the lives of those less fortunate than themselves. Although few clubs are quite as politically embroiled as St. Pauli, the supporters do boast strong relationships with other fans across the world, with the likes of Ternana, Rayo Vallecano, SV Babelsberg 03, Partizan Minsk, Hapoel Tel Aviv, AEK Athens, and Celtic, just to name a few. They also have a somewhat special friendship with the ultras group Schickeria München, of the German giants Bayern Munich, with the flag of the Ultrá Sankt Pauli occasionally being shown at the Allianz Arena and the banner of the Schickeria displayed within the Millerntor in return.
Amidst a world in which football is inching ever-closer towards a complete gentrification with every hiked season ticket price, every dubious foreign take-over, every option taken to shut out the ordinary working class in order to exploit the expensive and profitable tourist market, St. Pauli has taken real, tangible steps to preserve the integrity of the club for not just its present, but its foreseeable and eventual future. In 2009, the club became the first in Germany to integrate their own set of Leitlinien, or Fundamental Principles, to dictate how St. Pauli should be run. These principles focus heavily on the club’s social, political, and cultural responsibility to its community and supporters, as well as advocating for a sense of encouragement and enthusiasm among fans no matter the results on the pitch. Their fifth principle reads: "Tolerance and respect in mutual human relations are important pillars of the St. Pauli philosophy,” a dictate as simple as it is respected among supporters.
In 2018, a club such as St. Pauli and a subculture such as their supporters, with the work that they put in to combat sexism, racism, homophobia, and bigotry in all walks of life, seems unbelievably refreshing. They are not a political party or a member of parliament, able to vote in laws and draft legislation at will – they are something much more important than that. They are an extension of their own community, a reflection of an identity that means so much to the punks and the rebels and the activists of this industrial dock-yard quarter of Hamburg. They are a living, breathing reminder that, when a community of people join together under one common cause – the human cause, the cause to improve lives where and when they can – wonderful, revolutionary things might just happen; and F.C St. Pauli is nothing if it is not wonderful and revolutionary, in all aspects of the club. It is nothing if it is not responsible, in all aspects of the word. F.C St. Pauli is nothing if it is not human.
Words by Maia Freeman. Artwork by FATC Staff. All rights reserved.