A rainbow-coloured flag flapped at the corner of the field as the spectators began to fill in. On all four sides, each of the 29,546 seats – of which about half were standing only – had been taken. On the right, the scoreboard, on the left, a small section cut out for away supporters, and in the front, the back and below, a steady rain. Just before the 3:30pm kickoff, Matthias Bause and his father took their seats in the special lounge for the final match of the season.
For decades the men had been FC St Pauli supporters. Matthias, 47, had attended every home game at Hamburg’s Millerntor stadium for as long as he could remember. But this time was special: the special seats were a birthday present to his father, a dream that had been on the older man’s bucket list.
St Pauli, who finished 15th last year, had by May 2016 hauled themselves up to a fourth-place finish in 2.Bundesliga. A respectable improvement, and a minor triumph for an ordinary club.
But St Pauli isn’t an ordinary club. A rainbow flag isn’t simply a multi-coloured on-field accoutrement; it is a statement against homophobia. The skull and crossbones symbol isn’t a random ode to pirates, it is the punk-chic club logo. A woman in a honeybee costume isn’t a garden variety cheerleader, she is trying to sell you bee-friendly plants.
Okay, so she was a cheerleader in a manner of speaking – for the environment. On match day she was out there working the crowds, trying to get people to buy seeds to help arrest the decline of the bee population. Let me remind you of the location again: a football stadium. This was just another day with FC St Pauli: supporting causes and mixing advocacy with football.
The great big crush of humanity surging towards the Millerntor stadium began its march two hours in advance. Minutes away is Reeperbahn, the country’s most famous red-light district, where naked women adorn the hoardings and sex can apparently be had in exchange for €39. But the real pleasure centre is further down the road, where scores of desperate men and women held up signs all afternoon saying “Suchen Ticket” (searching for ticket). On paper plates, on scraps of cardboard, some specifying the stand of their choice, how could the laws of supply and demand ever bend to meet their needs?
I had been among the naïve who thought one week was time aplenty to buy a ticket for the last game – a game of no real consequence – at the end of the season. Sven Brux, who runs the organisation and security at the stadium, quickly disabused me of that idea in a succinct email: “Buy a ticket? Are you joking?” he asked in his mail. “The match is already sold out, as most of our matches.”
A press pass served as my entry, allowing me to see why St. Pauli consistently sell out their matches. The honeybee lady aside, the place buzzed with a zingy energy. The stadium art included stickers like “Sometimes Anti Social, but Always Anti Fascist” and “St Pauli Fans Against the Right” and the shop sold t-shirts that said “Refugees Welcome”. The club rules threatened dire consequences for anyone who said anything racist or discriminatory, including the possibility of being thrown out of the stadium. It was hard to tell if this was a football team or a civil rights movement.
Brux took me around the stadium, pointing to the wall art, which he said was renewed every year. In the seats for the wheelchair spectators, he stopped to speak to a few fans, one of whom apparently told him he had got a new pair of legs. A strong whiff permeated the air. Brux sniffed. “Someone has been smoking weed here,” he said, as if it was the most natural thing to do. “I think it is the guy with the new legs.”
Walking around the Millerntor, Brux was quick to keep saying, “This is special no? We are different here.” What is this famous St Pauli atmosphere, this melting pot of politics, goals, campaigns and family-ness?
In the 1980s FC Pauli was just a small football club, dwarfed by the much bigger, richer and more successful Hamburger SV. As the port industry, the heart of Hamburg’s economy, came into decline, the character of the St Pauli district began to change. “More so-called alternative people moved in,” said Brux. At the same time, as right-wing groups and neo-Fascism began to rise and permeate football, some began looking for an alternative club to support.
“This was a club on the other side of the road,” said Bause, who switched allegiances in the eighties. “It is a normal [i.e., not rich] club. The results are not important.”
Since then, the second division club has been avowedly political, espousing pro-refugee, anti-fascist sentiments, fighting against homophobia and racism and indulging in the kind of activism that has for long now earned it the image of an alternative, crusading football club. The St Pauli neighbourhood itself is studded with graffiti, progressive banners and unabashedly political messages. “Life around us is political anyway, so we have a responsibility to society,” said Brux.
The club is currently collecting money with the aim of building a museum. But wait, of what? “The only thing we don’t have is the big cups,” said Brux, smiling in self-deprecation.
But they have everything else: colour, character, and this visceral, unpindownable sense of family.
That day was the last game of the season, and Brux was nonchalant about the match itself, saying it wouldn’t be very interesting. As it turns out, he was wrong. St Pauli entertained, winning 5-2 in a game awash with goals. Each was met with the standard stadium anthem of Blur’s Song 2, and the expectedly exuberant ‘Toor Toor Toor’ (Goaaal) on the screen.
After the game had ended, the victory lap concluded and the bulk of the fans gravitating to the beer flowing outside, I went around speaking to people. Some had travelled long distances to be here, despite having nothing to do with the city or the district.
“It has been a dream to come here,” said Massimo Tartuferi, 43, who had travelled from Frankfurt. “The fans are not like regular fans but more like family.”
The club’s coolness quotient has long outstripped its achievement index, and its image as the poor underdog up against the bigger, richer clubs has been crucial to building its cachet and its fan base. “The atmosphere here is really different,” said Marion Thaler, 43, who had come from Stuttgart with her husband. “Even if the team loses, the fans keep supporting them.” She also supports FC Bayern Munich. “It is okay,” sighed Thaler, “but it is not special.”