Visiting goalkeeper Robin Himmelman’s miskicked clearance in the 90th minute undid all the hard work. Union Berlin’s Sebastian Polter tapped into an empty net to condemn FC St Pauli to a 14th league defeat. Twenty six games into the season, St Pauli have just 22 points. Once dubbed ‘the world’s coolest club’, they are now in danger of losing that trendsetting tag by becoming a footballing irrelevance. But the team from the port city of Hamburg have been there before and weathered the stormy waters to survive and prosper.
While their cross-city rivals Hamburger SV yet again struggle to hold on to top-flight status, something they have managed to retain since the league’s inception and thus earning the nickname the Dino (dinosaur) – St Pauli have become a tourist attraction in their own right, despite operating in the second division.
German football continues to draw new followers as the reputation for exciting goal-filled games combined with wonderful fan displays, inexpensive tickets, and supporter-owned clubs, is proving an alternative at a time when the Premier League has signed off on an almost grotesque new television deal. Pundits in the UK have joined supporters groups demanding that the money trickle down to facilitate cheaper entry but no one is holding their breaths that player salaries and transfer fees won’t continue to explode.
Plane loads of football fans from around Europe fly into Germany each weekend. The two big draws are obviously Champions League-contenders Bayern Munich and, although struggling, Borussia Dortmund and their eccentric but instantly likeable coach Jurgen Klopp. And of course, it is also the home of the self-styled ‘league of the world champions’ where the majority of Germany’s World Cup winning side are on show.
A cult following and traditional but progressive stances against issues like racism and homophobia – seemingly now increasingly widespread in the modern game – make St Pauli a footballing anomaly.
Their Millerntor Stadium, though partly renovated, is a modest affair, situated in the city centre of Hamburg itself, at the top of the famous Reeperbahn and its famous red-light distractions and once the launch pad for an up-and-coming band from Liverpool called the Beatles. Money can’t buy you love but St Pauli’s humble surroundings and traditional reputation as a club of the outcasts has won it 11 millions fans worldwide.
By contrast HSV’s Imtech Arena is a gleaming modern structure a train and shuttle bus ride away in the Volkspark. Renovated for the 2006 World Cup, it is a super ground, if indistinguishable from somewhat soulless modern football stadia.
St Pauli fans look more like heavy-metal music followers. The club shop attached to the ground feels more like a punk nightclub but, like any major football brand now, the famous skull and crossbones club crest adorns everything from baseball caps to sandwich toasters.
For a time last season, St Pauli flirted with the promotion play-off spot while HSV occupied the same position above the Bundesliga trap-door. Such a meeting, with so much at stake, would have sent the port city into lock-down. Derbies can be ferocious affairs and a headache for the local police though both sides are known for their friendly relationships with visiting clubs – HSV have historically close ties with Glasgow Rangers and are known for their bond with Hannover 96. St Pauli hosted Glasgow Celtic in pre-season and carry the Scottish club’s crest on some of their own merchandise.
St Pauli’s own badge is visible everywhere in the city alongside ‘FCSP’ graffiti, no more so than in the Jolly Roger bar, meeting point for matchday fans.
“A lot of squatters from the well known squats down at the docks in the 1980s brought a skull and crossbones flag to the club, as a joke, but it spread,” Sven Brux, a lifelong supporter and former head of fan organization, previously told CNN.
“It’s a symbol: we, the poor, are against the rich, rich [clubs] like Bayern Munich. Like pirates fighting for the poor against the rich. Now it’s an official club symbol.”
In the 80s, a mix of squatters, prostitutes, students and punks began filling the terraces. This alliance and outspoken views on issues beyond football meant success on the pitch didn’t necessarily become a driving force.
Promoted back to the Bundesliga in 2010, St Pauli’s stay was brief but noteworthy for the 1-0 away win at Hamburg, the first since 1977. Prior to that, St Pauli last graced the top flight in 2002, finishing bottom with just four wins. Relegation to the third tier soon after almost killed them off for good but the arrival of Corny Littmann, the first openly gay president in German football, revived their fortunes.
Though boasting a global fanbase of millions, St Pauli are again precariously perched above the drop to Bundesliga 2. With just five wins all season, Ewald Lienen took over as new head coach mid-campaign, replacing Thomas Meggle, who became the new sporting director, after an eight-game losing streak.
If the unthinkable happens and they go down, it remains to be seen if St Pauli can retain that attraction. German football may have its allure but if that still translates to fans jetting in to watch third division fare could quite literally be the million Euro question. St Pauli have survived before and come back to capture the imaginations of football followers worldwide. For those on society’s margins who helped resurrect the club, you get the feeling losing football matches might not be the most important thing. Sometimes what a club represents matters more.
Main image @xho