© The Fan Experience Company 2020
St Pauli: The cult German football club that wants to change the game forever
Money talks in football. It attracts the best managers, buys the best players – it even helps bring the game back from a global pandemic.
It supposedly leads to glory and joy. For some of the world’s smaller sides, it often feels like the only path towards the top.
But one club, tucked away in Germany’s second tier, does things a little differently. St Pauli are Hamburg’s unapologetically political team.
The football here has never been distinctive. There is no grand silverware to display. St Pauli have spent just eight seasons in the Bundesliga in their history and, in 2011, finished bottom in their only top-flight campaign of the past 18 years.
This term they came close to relegation to the third division, yet merchandise sales exceed all but three of Germany’s biggest sides. On match day, in more normal times, there is rarely a ticket going spare.
St Pauli’s fervent global support has little to do with what happens on the pitch and everything to do with the culture surrounding it.
And now, at a time when many clubs will be left on the brink in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, they offer a window on a more sustainable future in the modern game.
Banners and signs rejecting fascism, racism, homophobia and sexism are customary furniture at the Millerntor, the 29,500-capacity stadium where St Pauli’s “way of life” is put on bold display.
It wasn’t always this way. St Pauli were founded in 1910 but did not emerge as the unlikely beating heart of its working class district until the mid-1980s. Even then, the rebirth occurred through chance and circumstance.
Home to Hamburg’s infamous red light district and the neon-lit “mile of sin”, known as the Reeperbahn, the social dynamics in the port city’s rebellious quarter provided the foundation for an identity which now unites more than 400 official supporter clubs across the globe.
There was no grand plan when a supporter from the local Hafenstrasse squats waved a pirate flag defiantly on the terraces as a light-hearted representation of poor St Pauli taking on the rich. But it was then that St Pauli was adopted as a footballing home for those seeking a different way.
The humble Millerntor, once attracting gates of just a few thousand, was transformed. The message behind the Jolly Roger symbol consolidated a fanbase prioritising social and political values. With an inclusive party atmosphere reflective of the district’s alternative scene and aided by a rise from the third division to the Bundesliga in 1988, attendances boomed to sell-out crowds of more than 20,000.
Ever since plans for a new multi-purpose stadium were scrapped following organised fan protests in 1989, St Pauli have continued to stand proudly as perhaps the game’s greatest tribute to fan power – as Michael Pahl, chair of the club’s fan-founded museum, can attest.
“St Pauli is about authenticity,” he says. “It’s about doing things differently, finding your own way and staying true to your values as much as possible in a very commercialised environment.
“That’s what St Pauli has been trying to do for decades. And it will forever remain a struggle.”
Though the challenges have evolved, the club remains inseparable from the gritty activism ingrained in its fanbase.
The values central to St Pauli’s ethos are protected by 15 guiding principles, ranging from a commitment to the club’s social responsibility to lobbying for supporter-friendly kick-off times.
An open dialogue with supporters is key. The fans have voted against selling the stadium’s naming rights at a cost of millions to the club. The minutes before each game are kept free from publicity to allow uninterrupted chanting. Sexist men’s magazine adverts have been driven out of the stadium which, during the 2006 World Cup, hosted a tournament for nations unrecognised by Fifa.
The football is undoubtedly important, but it has to align with the bigger picture.
Pahl, co-author of the club’s 100th anniversary book in 2010, never looked back after attending his first game aged 14 in 1987. Hooked by the scenes on the terraces, his fascination with the club developed with his own political awareness.
“The club has developed a culture of listening to everyone’s opinions and trying to find a compromise,” he says. “It’s not always possible to make everybody happy but it is something St Pauli is known for and I value a lot.
“The do-it-yourself spirit is very strong in the fan community and something that is very different. It defines what St Pauli is about. If I want to change something I can. When fans get active and organise, a lot of great things can happen.
“St Pauli really is my club. I can decide who is on the board and I can voice my opinion. To me, that’s outstanding and sets the club apart.”