Wednesday, 5 March 2014

St Pauli are a unique football club

Why would a group of football fans from Yorkshire make regular trips to Hamburg to watch a club that doesn’t even play in the top league? It’s to do with St Pauli’s commitment to fighting racism, sexism and injustice. 
With the German football season once more underway after its mid- season break, a group of Yorkshire football fans have resumed their backing for one of the most radical clubs in the world.
The Yorkshire branch of the FC St Pauli fan club was formed two years ago and membership numbers are approaching three figures. The group organises regular visits to home games at the Millerntor Stadium in Hamburg’s St Pauli district, an area that was heavily squatted until relatively recently and which has a number of social problems. The nearby Reeperbahn is one of Europe’s most infamous red-light districts. The football club was formed in 1910. It has yet to win any major German competition and has generally played most of its football in the second league – with occasional appearances in Bundesliga 1 – but is currently among a group of sides battling for promotion.
Despite playing in Bundesliga 2, St Pauli regularly attract capacity crowds of 28,000. St. Pauli’s growth is the result of the club turning its location to its advantage by building an alternative fan scene in which racism, sexism and homophobia are opposed and refugees are welcomed. The fans’ adoption of the pirate skull and crossbones symbol was to show they were a poor club. This was so successful it is now the official club symbol.
Such radical politics has not only attracted more Germans to follow St Pauli but has helped the club build an international following. There are over 500 supporters branches and an estimated eleven million fans across the world. One of the most active is the Yorkshire St Pauli branch.
As an example of the Yorkshire fans’ commitment, late last year some of them attended the Sandhausen game that finished 0-0 and was the backdrop to celebrations amongst home fans about their club’s involvement in a campaign against homophobia and sexism.
The following night the English visitors joined other St Pauli fans to watch United Glasgow FC play Lampedusa, a side composed of Libyan refugees who have taken sanctuary in a local St Pauli church and are fighting for the right to stay in Germany following a boat trip across the Mediterranean to Italy. Yorkshire branch members also took part in a demonstration in support of the refugees and they have shown the
“We agreed at the start of the season that part of our subscription would be donated to the Leeds-
based organisation Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (PAFRAS) and so far we have donated £500,” says Scott Stubbs, a one-time regular at Leeds United who has no regrets leaving behind what he feels is a sterile atmosphere at Elland Road for the more lively and cosmopolitan terraces of downbeat Hamburg. Fellow Leeds fan Mick Parker agrees – both welcome the opportunity to back a side with “good politics”.
Parker says he is “disgusted by the contempt English clubs show for their fans – and the price they charge to watch games is astronomical”. Neither St Pauli fan is too worried – except in the local derby match against Hamburg SV – about how well their side do. Stubbs, like thousands of other fellow fans, stayed drinking and enjoying himself for an hour inside Stuttgart’s ground when his side were beaten 3-0 there last season in the German cup.
Another Yorkshire-based fan, Nicole Cunliffe – who retains a strong affection for Barnsley FC – says: “I couldn’t believe how friendly St Pauli was when I first went there.
I also found that male supporters had serious conversations with me about the football and that doesn’t usually happen at English football grounds.”
The organisation of German football is more democratic than England’s, where foreign billionaires now own many of the major clubs. Clubs must be majority-owned by club members and there are also tight regulations on the use of debt for buying players. Even for the very top matches, ticket prices are well under half that paid for similar games in England and the continuing use of terracing ensures an atmosphere that is much superior.
More money is also spent on youth academies and this has continued to ensure a regular stream of talent is available for a national side whose record is second only to Brazil’s in the history of the game.
St Pauli nevertheless remain unique in German football as consultation and the everyday involvement of fans is very much part of the club. It is not unusual to see players stay on the pitch after a match and discuss with fans the events they have just witnessed.
The fans have ensured that once the current redevelopment of the club’s stadium is completed it will not – unlike Manchester City or Arsenal – be named after a corporate giant. Such a decision inevitably impacts on St Pauli’s revenue stream and makes it more difficult to compete against the likes of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, the two German giants.
Fans also have their own punk bar, the Jolly Roger, which on a number of occasions has needed defending when right-wing fans from visiting clubs have attempted to gain entry to smash it up.

With a neat historical twist, the Yorkshire St Pauli branch fanzine is called the White Rose, but this is also the name of an anti-Nazi resistance group based in Munich in early 1942. They included Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans. All had been shocked to receive a letter from Sophie’s boyfriend, soldier Fritz Hartnagel, in which he recounted atrocities being committed by Germans on the Eastern Front, including the mass killing of Jews.
“When anti-Nazi leaflets calling on Germans to passively resist were produced and distributed by the group it quickly led to their arrest. Sophie, Hans and their friend Christoph Probst were found guilty of treason and beheaded. As St. Pauli fans we are proud to associate ourselves with these brave German young people,” says former regular Rotherham United fan Rob Carroll.


A new book about the club, Pirates, Punks & Politics, by Nick Davidson, has just been published by SportsBooks

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