ACABAB, reads one of the regular banners in St Pauli’s famous Hafenstrasse block. It’s not a typo, but an adaptation: All Cops Are Bastards, Apart from Boll. The banner sums up the ethos of the Hamburg club: firmly anti-authoritarian, but always making room for their own. Fabien Boll, a former St Pauli star, doubled as a police inspector.
St Pauli have never been the greatest football team. While their history is spattered with short-term appearances in the Bundesliga, the German top tier, and impassioned wins against fierce local rivals HSV, it’s what goes on off the pitch that truly makes the ‘braun-weiss’ an interesting phenomenon, one that’s right at the very heart of the ‘Against Modern Football’ movement.
In ‘St Pauli: Another Football Is Possible’, Naxto Parra and Carles Vinas explore the journey that’s brought the Pirates of the Elbe to the point where victory on the pitch is simply not a core priority.
That sense of simply being and representing rather than chasing victory seems to stand out at every game. I visited the club five years ago, and saw them play Union Berlin, their stands draped in slogans slamming Sky Sports for moving the game to a Monday night. The space outside the stadium was crammed with ghetto blasters and punk tunes and fans supping beer, and once you got inside, the fans joined in, at times, with similarly left-leaning Union fans to chant together. The ample standing terraces had a distinct smell of cannabis, and afterwards, there was a rave under one of the stands.
It hasn’t always been this way, of course, and much of this book documents how St Pauli became a bastion of anti-corporate rebellion. The club were initially a fairly conventional side, albeit based on the fringes of Hamburg’s notorious Reeperbahn, a party-hub meets red light district of some repute. Along the way, we learn that the club even had some light, though disputed, links to Nazi party members in the 30s and 40s.
The club developed its cult edge in the mid 80s, when squatters from the nearby Hafenstrasse started to combine their political activities with visits to ground, where they flew pirate flags and chanted against the development of the area and landlordism, and in favour of squatters’ rights.
The side of the late 80s and early 90s was particularly iconic, engaging with various issues and marches encouraged by the fans, and dismantling the walls between professional football players and those who watch them perform.
There have been some iconic St Pauli moments over the years and some dark ones, from the vibrant tifos that have become common-place, to rivalry with right-wing Hansa Rostock fans that led to violent clashes. The Rostock rivalry was stoked by Deniz Naki – an activist Kurdish player who wrote the foreword to this book – who celebrated a goal against Rostock by grabbing a St Pauli flag from the away followers and firmly planting it in the Rostock turf, to ample controversy.
The ground, covered in murals created by the club’s fans, is a beacon of brightly-coloured calls for rights for all kinds of minorities. This is echoed in the club’s supporter make up, which includes the largest percentage of female fans at games in Germany, regular invites extended to refugees to attend for free, and various cult ultra groups, many of whom pursue their own movements for social change.
Currently, St Pauli is in the process of expanding its community connections, and the fans have an ever developing power base within the way the club is run, often vetoing sponsorships and rallying against the commercialisation of the club. In the past, they’ve prevented the insertion of a police station in the ground, insisting on a club museum instead, set up a famous series of trains to away games that are noted for their alcohol-fuelled chaos, and stayed silent for periods of games to protest capitalist changes to German football, before bursting into colourful life.
It’s clear St Pauli are a stark symbol of progressiveness and anti-corporatism, and one that football, many would argue, badly needs competing anywhere near the upper echelons in a major European country. Their popularity even extends to an Irish fan club.
The cult history varies from police clashes and squats, to fierce anti-sexism and anti-homophobia protests, like the time a corporate sponsor was harried out of an executive box for featuring pole dancing for guests, and the famous day on which whole stands became rainbow flags. On the retirement of popular player Marius Ebbers in 2013, the pitch was flooded with soft toys at full time at his request, as the fans made donations to underprivileged preschoolers.
St Pauli will probably never win a whole lot, and that’s okay. It’s not what they’re about, after all. ‘Glory hunting’ is the distinct opposite of their ethos, and football needs competitors who don’t fit what’s become a very restrictive mold around what a football club should be. What Parra and Vinas do here is highlight just how alien to your standard club set up St Pauli are.
Of course, while in some sense St Pauli’s success in representing the ‘outside’ has been a tremendous success, it also contains an inbuilt irony. The commercialisation of the brand hasn’t gone down well in some quarters, and many of the original supporters of the club in that 80s cult-shifting phase have moved on. Many have simply gone down the road to vibrant amateur upstarts Altona ‘93, who now fly the flag for Hamburg’s ‘true’ outsiders, away from the tourist anti-glam of their second-tier cousins.
St Pauli continue, though, to be engaged with the community in a way that puts most football clubs to shame, whilst functioning – just about, from a playing point of view – in a professional environment. How that all comes together is something all fans of football in a modern context should engage with.
St Pauli: Another Football Is Possible is out now from Pluto Books.