FC St Pauli is a football club based in Hamburg, Germany, which prides itself on its anti-fascist values and inclusive community spirit. We visited—and were charmed by what we found.

“SAINT PAU-LEE. SAINT PAU-LEE. SAINT PAU-LEE”

Saint Pau-Lee
Image via Paul Tucker

It was as if an aeroplane was taking off over the stadium. I couldn’t just hear 29,000 FC St Pauli fans chanting—I could feel their guttural roar.

Red, white and brown flags whirled. Banners condemning violence and fascism were proudly raised. With the game about to kick off, the atmosphere inside the Millerntor Stadium was electric.

FC St Pauli has never been a successful football club. But since the mid-1980s, the Millerntor has enjoyed sell-out crowds thanks to the club’s kult status among discerning football fans.

The fan base comprises punks, squatters, sailors, students, social activists and those with liberal beliefs—the kind of people who for decades have flocked to the Hamburg docks to enjoy St Pauli’s countercultural scene.

 

The “Social Romantics”

The Social Romantics
Image via Betfair

Back in the middle of the 1980s, an alternative fan culture developed at FC St Pauli. Locals, calling themselves the “Social Romantics”, rallied against an ugly wave of fascist-inspired football hooliganism that threatened the game right across Europe.

Spurred by the actions of the Social Romantics, FC St Pauli rose to the forefront of the anti-fascist movement and became the first team in Germany to officially ban right-wing nationalist activities and displays in the stadium. Instead, St Pauli fans started making flags and banners promoting diversity and inclusivity.

The Millerntor—and indeed the streets of St Pauli—are filled to this day with anti-fascist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic banners.

Doc Mabuse, a singer from a local punk band, introduced the club to its iconic skull and crossbones flag. Legend has it Doc drunkenly picked up the flag from a nearby fairground on the way to a match. The unofficial emblem of the Social Romantics quickly became FC St Pauli’s official logo, symbolising the club’s anti-establishment attitude.

The Jolly Roger logo can be found throughout the district on people’s bags, jumpers, hats, car windscreens—even on the corner flags at the stadium. The phrases “Refugees Welcome” and “No One Is Illegal” are ubiquitous.

 

A progressive club

Progressive club
Image via Josh Ferry Woodard

The stadium has a festival atmosphere on match days but the football is rarely so exhilarating. The “buccaneers of the league” were languishing in the relegation zone during my visit but the buoyant fans didn’t let on. They were happy to explain what the club meant to them.

“It’s about standing up for the little guy. Standing up for what you believe in,” said one particularly tall Hamburger with a Jolly Roger hat pulled over his forehead.

“When I started coming here 15 years ago, you’d have people standing on a mound of mud. It was more like a pigsty than a professional stadium. But we loved the DIY aspect of it,” said another, smiling through squinted eyes.

As the game elapsed into the latter stages of the second half without any goals, I was inundated with stories highlighting the club’s progressive attitude.

This included the time former President Corny Littmann, the first openly gay President in German football, was subjected to homophobic abuse at an away match so the fans filled the stadium with rainbow flags for the home tie.

 

"It's about standing up for the little guy. Standing up for what you believe in"

 

Or the time the supporters—FC St Pauli has the most female fans in all of German football—protested against advertisements from the men’s magazine Maxim in the stadium because of their sexists depictions of women.

And the story of how FC St Pauli welcomed a roster of disputed territories, such as Tibet, Greenland and Zanzibar, to the Millerntor for the 2006 FIFI Wild Cup—a tournament giving unrecognised nations the chance to compete with one another.

The noise ratcheted up whenever “the boys in brown” got even remotely close to the opposition goal, but it was clear that being here meant more than just supporting a football club.

“The fans, the people of St Pauli, like to engage with the club’s liberal values. This means even when we lose—and we’re losing a lot this season—we still have our community. We still sing,” said the tall Hamburger with the Jolly Roger hat.

And, true to his words, the electrified supporters continued to fill the stadium with noise…even after conceding a late goal that consigned the “buccaneers” to another bitter defeat.

 

St Pauli the district

St Pauli
Image via Josh Ferry Woodard

Sitting on a grassy bank after the match, beneath a brown and green metal palm tree with a crowd of refugee children playing basketball behind me, I looked out over the river Elbe at Hamburg’s gloriously ugly dockyards—an endless tableau of jagged cranes, iron stanchions and industrial mist. I was struck by the contrast between St Pauli’s abrasive aesthetic and its welcoming atmosphere.

The bank I was sitting on was part of a community project called Park Fiction. The park is heralded as a symbol of St Pauli’s resistance to the privatisation of public space. It was built by local residents who fought off interest from property developers and secured rights to build a recreational zone.

Walking towards a restaurant on the other side of the district, I was forced to cross Hamburg’s most infamous street. The place where The Beatles played nightly concerts before they were famous: the Reeperbahn.

“The sinful mile”, as it is known in Germany, was swamped with casinos, clubs and, inevitably, erotic venues. But the garish lights and tacky sex signs swiftly dissolved into friendly neighbourhood bars, tenement housing blocks, independent cinemas, art exhibition spaces and currywurst vendors.

 

Put your money where your mouth is

Put your money where your mouth is
Image via Josh Ferry Woodard

In 2009, FC St Pauli became the first German club to implement a set of “Fundamental Principles”, designed to dictate how the club is run. The principles focus on the social responsibility of the club and its fundamental relationship with the people of St Pauli. And, from what I witnessed, the principles are upheld.

While tucking into an extravagant seafood platter at La Sepia, a Portuguese restaurant just around the corner from the Millerntor Stadium, I spotted a couple in their fifties enjoying a three-course dinner. The man wore a St Pauli hat, while the woman had the Jolly Roger logo emblazoned on her black jumper.

Later on in the evening, as I was readying to leave, a dishevelled man with a spindly beard started asking people in the restaurant if they could help him buy some food. The man in the St Pauli hat put down his knife and fork, reached into his pockets and handed the bearded man some money.

 

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