GERMANY: A PIONEER OF THE BEAUTIFUL GAME and one of the most successful footballing nations on both the club and international stage. Following the national team’s triumph at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the buzz around German football has never been stronger.
When it comes to the domestic scene, there are a number of clear images that spring to mind: Bayern Munich dominating both German and European competition; a Yellow Wall of 25,000 spectators going wild in the continent’s biggest Kop stand; fans creating epic scenes in Berlin, Gelsenkirchen and Mönchengladbach.
Older fans may even recollect a time when Hamburger SV were fighting for Europe’s top honours. However, when it comes to atmosphere and fan culture, it is the secondary club of Germany’s second city that steals all the headlines. The actual team is almost unheard of, and their worldwide notoriety stems solely from the brilliance of their ultras. Welcome to St. Pauli and their infamous Ultra Sankt Pauli.
Whilst the quality of football on show at some of the top Bundesliga clubs is a massive draw, one of the main attractions of the German scene right now is the nationwide appreciation of supporters. In an era when fans across Western Europe are becoming disillusioned with skyrocketing ticket prices and alienation from players, it is refreshing to see that clubs in Germany still acknowledge the importance of those standing on the terraces.
There is a real sense of unity between club and supporters in Germany and that sentiment echoes around the Millerntor-Stadion louder than any other, which makes St. Pauli’s fans stand out from the crowd. Thousands of visitors flock to see the 2. Bundesliga club every season – and it certainly isn’t for the quality on the pitch.
St. Pauli are one of the few clubs in world football that garners universal praise despite boasting a team with extremely modest achievements. On the pitch, the club has largely remained in the shadow of Hamburger SV, whilst their chances of ever challenging the superpowers of Bayern or Dortmund are virtually non-existent. However, rather than trivialising their motives, it serves as extra vindication for the club’s beliefs.
When it comes to this loyal set of ultras, upholding club traditions is everything and subsequently winning trophies pales in significance. St. Pauli is more than a football team; it is a symbol of identity.
The German outfit are universally accepted as one of the most left-wing clubs in world football, which is a direct upshot of the district’s history. St Pauli itself is a port district of Hamburg and is unsurprisingly a very multi-cultural area, with over a quarter of its population being immigrants. This is important to understanding the united front that spreads across the entire borough and is probably best personified by its football ultras.
St. Pauli were one of the first teams to show public demonstrations of anti-racism, anti-fascism, anti-homophobia and general anti-discrimination. These campaigns started way back in the 1980s, setting a precedent for other organisations to follow suit in later years – whilst the club hasn’t ever made a real impact on the pitch, it most definitely has off it.
That united stance can be attributed to the diversity of people living in the province. The progressive nature of the club was underlined in 2006 as the Millerntor-Stadion played host to the FIFI Wild Cup, just weeks before Germany held the World Cup, which allowed non-FIFA recognised countries to compete for a trophy.
Apart from the left-wing stance, their outlook on finance is another facet that sees St. Pauli crowned as football’s most alternative club. The organisation is a solid part of a community that is used to battling against financial hardships and they are proud to stand against their richer adversaries. This is where the origins of the famous skull and crossbows emblem are located.
The instantly recognisable Jolly Roger supporters’ logo is arguably the most famous of any ultra group in world football and it also offers a fantastic insight into their beliefs. It started life as a bit of a joke and plays on the instant connotations of pirates, symbolising the ever-lasting battle between rich and poor. However it quickly became a mainstay of the St. Pauli match experience.
Locals are proud of their heritage and do not shy away from their working-class backgrounds. This was verified to perfection in 2010-11. As owners tried desperately to find ways of raising the funds needed to compete in the Bundesliga, fears that the club would lose its identity began to creep in. Fan concerns included the increased monetisation of the mach experience and the fact a newly built stand holding twice as many corporate boxes as originally planned.
Perhaps most worryingly, one of those boxes had been rented to a strip club who had arranged for pole dancers to strip naked whenever the team scored. The Ultra Sankt Pauli were outraged and duly responded by adopting a red version of the Jolly Roger, demonstrating their displeasure. Eventually matters were resolved and the board even agreed to never sell naming right to the Millerntor-Stadion. The team were relegated, but supporters were happy to see that the club’s integrity had been preserved. Whilst the disputes were an unwelcomed distraction, the resolution did at least highlight the solidarity between fans and organisation.
While the progressive background politics certainly gain universal recognition, the primary motive for tourists to visit the Hamburg club is to witness the Ultra Sankt Pauli match day experience firsthand.
Home games at the Millerntor provide a party atmosphere like no other in world football. The ground is an outlet for people from all walks of life to congregate as one. You’ll find an eclectic mix of people that simply cannot be matched on any other terrace in world football. This includes transvestites, students, dockers, anarchists and even prostitutes. In fact, the stadium itself is located just yards from one of Europe’s best-known red-light districts.
It’s a weird scenario, especially in a sport that is often followed by the right-wing, but it produces one of the best experiences that you could ever gain from following the game. The Ultra Sankt Pauli will provide plenty of sights that you’ll never witness anywhere else in the world, but the most prominent feeling is one of passion; for their area, for their heritage, for their team.
Whilst the dozens of Jolly Rogers, which are also hoisted around the local area in every possible destination, offer a very distinct aura, it is the unique atmosphere that generates the real charm and allure of watching St. Pauli.
One noteworthy aspect is that before kick-off there is a period of time in which no stadium announcements are made, leaving the supporters to generate a crescendo of noise. Those levels of atmosphere are upheld throughout the following 90 minutes, whilst the use of confetti, banners, tifo and smoke bombs help produce an electric environment that could rival any other in world football. This club genuinely does symbolise a lifestyle and the alternative punk vibes are omnipresent.
Inevitably, there have been a number of confrontations with rival supporters throughout the years and the Ultra Sankt Pauli are not afraid to bring their natural fighting spirit to a physical battle. However, fascism is still the eternal enemy.
Without being a powerhouse on the pitch, St. Pauli are one of the most loved clubs across Europe, as over 200 European based fan groups attest. Outsiders might not necessarily care too much for the players, most probably couldn’t even name any members of the squad, but a lot of people can relate to their fans. Even if they don’t, you can’t help but admire the manner in which they stand for their beliefs; their ability to spawn an atmosphere doesn’t hurt their status either.
FC St Pauli – one of European football’s gems.
By Liam Newman. Follow @thatliamnewman