The club that stands for all the right things … except winning
There are two reasons the young man on the bicycle doesn’t register with me. The first is that I don’t expect him to arrive on a bike. The second is that I’m craning my neck to look at the roof of St. Pauli’s clubhouse.
Three flags are flying atop the building. The middle one carries the FC St. Pauli crest and club colors, brown and white. The one on the left advertises a crowdfunding project to raise money for underprivileged residents of St. Pauli, the working-class quarter of Hamburg. The one on the right is the gay pride flag.
While I’m squinting against the bright sun, the young man gets off his bicycle.
“Hey Uli,” he says. “How’s it going?”
I turn around. I’d last seen Oke in 2002. Back then, fresh out of university, he was working in Freiburg, south of his hometown, Hamburg, for a Sunday newspaper. He was 10 years my junior, but I liked him instantly. We had some good conversations about football and music.
Oke supported St. Pauli and had written for one of the club’s fanzines. During the few days I spent in Freiburg, his team suffered a devastating 4-0 defeat at the hands of Energie Cottbus. It was becoming obvious they might go down again after only one season in the top flight.
Oke told me that he was part owner of a small music label which published the sort of offbeat electronic music and neofolk that I knew little about. He also said he was becoming interested in how to sell independent music through the internet.
“I’ll be with you in 10 minutes, OK?” Oke says after we’ve shaken hands and he’s locked the bike to a railing. “There’s a few things I have to take care of, but it won’t take long.”
During the 13 years since our last encounter, I might have crossed paths with him on many occasions. We could have met in one of the Bundesliga press rooms where we spent many afternoons, covering the game as football journalists. Or we could have met as fans—Oke often traveled with St. Pauli and once sent me a Facebook message when the team hit the town where I lived. (Unfortunately, I was away.) Or we could have met in some dingy basement club, checking out the same obscure band.
But who could have imagined we would meet again because I had officially requested an interview with the new president of FC St. Pauli, a music entrepreneur by the name of Oke Göttlich?
Not far from the security door behind which Oke has just vanished, there’s a wall-mounted poster display case. One poster urges me to join a booster club trying to raise funds for the construction of a St. Pauli museum. “We don’t have silverware,” the poster says. “Instead we have something a lot better. We have a story to tell. The incredible story of how a community-based club from Hamburg becomes one of the most famous football teams in Europe. Without big trophies. Without big money.” The story of how an unruly bunch of anarchist squatters transformed what used to be a regular football club three decades ago is unique. And St. Pauli are undeniably popular across borders. A few days before I met Oke that day, the first Italian-language book about the club was published (Ribelli, Sociali e Romantici—which probably needs no translation—by Nicolò Rondinelli), a year after Nick Davidson’s Pirates, Punks & Politics, the first English- language book to look into the club, came out.
St. Pauli’s appeal is not confined to Europe. If you’ve ever seen a gig by New Jersey rockers the Gaslight Anthem, chances are you spotted the club’s iconic skull-and-crossbones logo somewhere onstage, because guitarist Alex Rosamilia is a devoted fan. (When the band toured Germany in October 2012, he finally had the chance to support his team from the stands. Typically, St. Pauli were 3-0 down before the first half was over.)
There’s a St. Pauli supporters club in New York City calling itself the East River Pirates. “We watch FCSP matches tape-delayed in convivial camaraderie,” they announce, “while upholding the proud St. Pauli tradition of standing firmly against racism, sexism, homophobia, and fascism.” This echoes a 2006 piece in the Washington Post, which marveled how the team was “opening its tattooed arms to free spirits, left-wingers, outcasts, punks, dockworkers, the homeless, and transvestites.” No surprise then that, four years ago, CNN declared St. Pauli to be “soccer’s coolest club.”
From a distance, St. Pauli must indeed seem cool to anyone who sees football as more than just a game. The club says the right things, does the right things, and wears the right clothes. It’s a welcome antidote for people who have become disillusioned with the greed, the hype, and the emptiness of modern football, and the perfect alternative for those who find following a big, rich and successful club like Bayern Munich too easy, too slick.
These people will love the story of how Bayern traveled to St. Pauli in October 1989. The cover of the match program was graced by a well-known St. Pauli character, Tattoo Theo. He had his right fist raised, the socialist salute. Above his head and below the fist was the headline: “Class War.“ Bayern’s business manager was so enraged, he won an injunction that stopped the program from going on general sale. (Bayern won the class war, 2-0.)
In Germany, however, things are a bit different. Among hardcore supporters, particularly the ultras groups, there has been a backlash against St. Pauli during the last decade or so. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve heard that there are only two German clubs people actively choose, like a pair of new sneakers, so they can bask in reflected glory: St. Pauli and, yes, Bayern. This view says the self-styled rebel club has become a mere fad, like the ubiquitous hooded sweaters bearing St. Pauli’s skull-and-crossbones logo.
In a way, both attitudes, the affirming and the critical, are based on the same assumption—that the club is not really about football. It’s a tempting thought that also seems to explain why it made someone like Oke—a relatively young and inexperienced member of both the subculture and the active fan scene—the new president.
But actually watch a game in St. Pauli and you realize this is total baloney. Yes, you’ll run into the occasional football hipster who’s come to savor what he’s been told is an incredible atmosphere. But he’s easy to spot, and he’s in a tiny minority. Everyone else here is not cool. Like the guy at the beer stand who has a sticker on his leather jacket that says, “The Clash—London,” and who carries a “Refugees Welcome” gym bag on his back. Or the music-venue booker who’s been from the third division to the first and then back again with this club and who educates me about a self-help initiative for St. Pauli fans who suffer from clinical depression. These people are not cool. They are just being themselves.
To understand where these people are coming from, all you have to do is stretch your legs. The football ground is smack in the middle of a colorful quarter. There are pubs and bars, cheap flats for students and tenement blocks, used-record stores, and private theaters, all within spitting distance of St. Pauli’s venerable Millerntor-Stadion. The St. Pauli Piers, in this largest port in the country, are just a mile away. It’s less than a 10-minute walk to the Reeperbahn, the famous red-light district where the Beatles grew from boys into men, and a short ride to the tiny club where, eight years ago, the Gaslight Anthem played one of their first shows outside North America.
Take this stroll on a match day and you also quickly realize that football is not just an afterthought here. Quite the contrary. Almost every car, from run down Volkswagens to sleek Mercedes, sports a St. Pauli sticker. Almost every house is adorned by a flag or a banner. One of them declares, “Fuck you, third division!”
That, you see, is the problem. It really is about football. And the football isn’t good. Actually, it’s so bad that less than five years after winning promotion to the Bundesliga, FC St. Pauli are in grave danger of being relegated from the second division.
The smell of cotton candy wafts through the streets as I walk toward the ground. Three times a year, a large fair is held next to the stadium. It lends football at St. Pauli a special, somewhat surreal atmosphere, especially at night, when you can see the fair lights, including those from an illuminated Ferris wheel, from three of the four stands.
Particularly impressive is the view from the Main Stand. Next to the Ferris wheel you can make out, in the distance, Hamburg’s new Philharmonic Hall. It’s a marvelous building, and a disaster of demonic proportions. The concert hall, which should have been finished in 2010, might open in 2017. Originally, it was supposed to cost the city ¤114 million, about $127 million. The sum has risen to a staggering ¤789 million. While still under construction, the hall has become a monument to delusions of grandeur.
Then there’s an amusement ride called the Flasher. It’s basically a giant pendulum. Since the Flasher is almost right behind the East Stand, it sometimes looks as if it is catapulting people from the fair into the ground, which would be fitting, really, because the fair played a crucial role in the history of the club. Almost three decades ago, in 1987, St. Pauli were a second-division club normally watched by 6,000 people. This was not depressing; it was exhilarating. Just a few years earlier, St. Pauli had been so destitute that the German FA demoted them to amateur football. On a good day, the team played in front of 2,000 diehards. But good days were rare. In 1980, when FC St. Pauli celebrated their 70th birthday, the few remaining business partners told the board to stop advertising their names because they no longer wanted to be associated with such a pathetic club. The players had to take to the field with patches hastily sewn over the logo of their shirt sponsor.
From 1980 to 1987, different people came to watch St. Pauli play. Some had grown up as fans of the city’s big club, Hamburger SV, but walked away in disgust over that team’s sizable right-wing following. Some were punk rockers drawn to St. Pauli the neighborhood, because of its thriving underground scene. Some were squatters occupying a row of houses south of the stadium, near the river. Some were political activists who had come to Hamburg to defend the squatters’ rights against the police or neofascist groups. Some people, like a young man who called himself Doc Mabuse, were all four.
It was Mabuse, named after a fictional European supervillain, who hit upon the idea of attaching the Jolly Roger—a pirate flag—to a broomstick and taking it to a St. Pauli game. His original Jolly Roger came from the fair next to the ground, where skull-and-crossbones flags have always been on sale. Mabuse says he introduced the pirate logo to St. Pauli sometime between 1981 and 1983, though circumstantial evidence strongly suggests it happened in 1987, when a young and exciting St. Pauli team that had just bounced back from the third division almost reached the Bundesliga. (St. Pauli went up a year later.)
Ten years ago, St. Pauli were again on the brink of bankruptcy. Things looked so grim that none other than Bayern Munich came to town and played a benefit game with all proceeds going to the class enemy. (The match raised 200,000 badly needed euros. Bayern won again, 1-0.) In a desperate attempt to save the club, the president at the time—a gay theater owner with the unlikely name of Corny Littmann—sold the bulk of merchandising rights to a local company.
This means the club made very little profit from its own merchandise. When I discuss the situation a few days later, Oke tells me that he can’t say much because the courts are dealing with the matter, except to say that St. Pauli make only between a fourth and a sixth of what their competitors earn from licensed sales of fan regalia.
There is no open boycott of the club’s merchandise (after all, St. Pauli do get a small slice of the cake), but the muddled situation explains why some supporters prefer homemade St. Pauli gear. It also illustrates the club’s unfortunate penchant for making bad decisions—not only off the pitch. When I sat down with Oke, FC St. Pauli were in a relegation spot with only six games left in the season.
The game against Nuremberg, who suffered a shock relegation from the Bundesliga last summer, had to be won. But it tells you all you need to know about the entire depressing season that St. Pauli’s best player of the night was their 26-year-old goalkeeper Robin Himmelmann. Only he, with help from the woodwork, kept the home team in the game. With a minute left on the clock, there was still no score.
“Problems like these don’t arise overnight,” says Thomas Meggle, who played more than 170 league games for the club before a short stint as its manager. “They are always the result of a slow process.”
He has joined Oke and me outside the pub next to the clubhouse. I’ve asked him why St. Pauli are having such a difficult year.
“The club got stuck in a comfort zone,” he continues. “There was a general feeling here that St. Pauli would always be among the top 25 teams in the country. The club had become complacent. It failed to realize that teams which had not been on our radar—new clubs with money, like Ingolstadt and Leipzig, but also tradition-laden clubs like Kaiserslautern and Düsseldorf—had overtaken us.” Meggle is 40 years old. He finished his playing career on account of a dodgy knee in 2010, the season St. Pauli won promotion to the Bundesliga.
“Our problems began with the derby,” he explains, referring to one of the most famous games in recent St. Pauli history. In February 2011, the team won away at Hamburg. It was not only St. Pauli’s first derby triumph in more than 33 years, but it also put the team in a comfortable 12th place in the top flight. Everything seemed rosy. But, as Thomas says, it was the beginning of a downward spiral.
“A lot of things went wrong,” Oke agrees. “There was no structure. There were no proper—and I know this is a term not many people at this club like to hear—control mechanisms.” He fixes a friendly gaze on me. “I’m sure you’ve heard people say that it’s not really about football at St. Pauli.” I grin and want to say that this is all total baloney, but Oke interrupts me. “Well, they were right! There was no sustainable scouting system. No professional video analysis. Why are small clubs like Mainz and Freiburg competitive? Because they focus on their core business: football. St. Pauli forgot about it.”
He searches for the right words. “You can only position this club well for the future by being communicative. You have to talk to the fundamentalists as well as the pragmatists. What counts is that you’re being authentic and that, at the end of the day, you look people in the face and say, ‘Dear fans, this club stands for something—but unfortunately we also have to be professional.’ ”
I’m surprised. One of my sources had referred to Oke as “this so-called fan president, who’s a joke in this position.” When I asked Davidson, the author of Pirates, Punks & Politics, what people thought about the new president, he said: “The general consensus seems to be that the people who run the club now are more in tune with the active fan groups and the St. Pauli ethos than they have been for a long time.” So Oke—whose digital distribution company, started 12 years ago, had become successful beyond his wildest dreams—was brought in by the supervisory board to make the club more professional, more efficient, more up to date?
“St. Pauli is and will always be a social, caring club,” Oke explains. “We will always take a stand against racism and homophobia, always look out after the weak and the poor, because it’s important for us. It’s in our blood.” Warming to his subject, he pounds the wooden table. “But we want to see that same passion and effort on the football pitch! It’s got to be about football. We have to ask ourselves, What kind of football do we want St. Pauli to play? And the answer has to be: football that will thrill the people here.”
They certainly weren’t thrilled by the Nuremberg game. When St. Pauli took a corner in the 90th minute, it was only the team’s second of the match. The fans behind the goal were singing “Forza St. Pauli” as the cross sailed into the box. St. Pauli’s center back Lasse Sobiech rose and met the ball seven yards in front of goal, heading it toward the right corner. There were 14 players in Nuremberg’s box; they all turned their heads to follow the flight of the ball. It hit the inside of the post and bounced into the net. The roar that went up must have rattled every one of the 2,200 glass panels of the Philharmonic Hall.
After the final whistle, Oke waited at the end of the tunnel to hug each player and thank him for the crucial win.
Two weeks later, with German train drivers on strike, he put a post on Facebook asking fans driving to the away game in Kaiserslautern if someone could give him a lift.
A feature article from issue 06. Subscriptions to Eight by Eight are available in our Shop.
Photograph Credit: Alexander Koerner/Bongarts/Getty Images