Picture this: emerging onto the curve of the Haupttribüne, the steep all-standing eastern terrace at FC St Pauli’s Millerntor Stadium with Hamburg’s tallest skyscrapers smearing the horizon, the roar from the crowd deafens and the flare smoke blinds. Great flags befitting Prussian imperial regiments drape the ground, championed by punks transplanted from west London and Brooklyn of the 70s, and offering messages of solidarity with minorities and refugees rather than daunting intentions of conquest.
You’re handed a “FUCK THE AFD” sticker by a couple with perfect English to your left, and a pint just in time for kick off. Not only is beer legal at football grounds here; they do rounds among strangers. You’re still drenched in flare smoke, so that you can barely see your beer never mind the football match.
At least; it’s easy to visualise such an atmosphere while zoning out from the stadium tour guide.
When you become even marginally disillusioned with the hold-all cipher known as “modern football” – the extortionate ticket prices, exhaustive commercial crossovers, open business relationships with fascist regimes, growing homogenisation of European football, and the all-round crushing sense of ennui – St Pauli enters stage right as its antidote and corrective.
Established in 1910, the club has never won anything, and have spent most of their existence outside the Bundesliga, German football’s top division. They came to prominence towards the tail end of the 80s, when their working class, socially liberal heritage manifested in grassroots anti-fascist and anti-racist campaigns against the return of Nazi fringe groups in German football. Their vocal socialism, progressiveness, and stones-throw proximity to Hamburg’s Reeperbahn – one of the largest red light districts in Europe – has over the decades garnished a loaded mythology, both as lazy shorthand for the “political” football club, and also as some sort of edgy, id-satisfying mecca.
I’m in Hamburg to try the fish, brace the techno nightlife, and live the real St Pauli.
Only, it turns out I’d got the dates wrong, so a stadium tour and dose of imagination will have to suffice.
I arrive at the ground early, so wander around the club shop, where my cynicism over the St Pauli mythos kicks in. The proud outsider, the rebel club, selling club-branded dog bowls and skull-and-crossbones beanie hats. An adult club jersey sets you back 75 euros. Staunchly anti-consumerist indeed. I’m first to arrive at the club museum, where the tour begins, and am met by the comically wide grin of our guide-to-be Bern*, a six foot fiveish cuddle of a man, radiating humility and kindness.
Given I’m the last tour, we grab a beer before starting and he runs by me the various characters he’s had on the tour today, including a London stag-do where he had to tell one of them to stop climbing the fence. He leads me and the only other people present, a local guy and his two young kids, through the arteries of the stadium, stopping by an immaculately detailed model replica of the Millerntor, where its most remarkable touch is one of the hundreds of fan figurines wearing a Celtic top. We stop by the home team changing rooms, which wouldn’t look out of place down your average Sunday league pitches, hardly the most hi-tech environment for professional footballers. The keeper, a St Pauli season ticket holder growing up, has his locker more stickered with club paraphernalia than any side street on the Reeperbahn.
We then get to the match tunnel, and it’s brilliantly intimidating, seedily red LED lights illuminate a vast skull and crossbones painted across the floor, while to your left is scrawled ominously “welcome to hell”. You don’t need a vivid imagination to conjure the nerves opposition teams would feel shuffling down this hallway while the walls physically shake; the tunnel quaking under legions of fans jumping in unison. Then we get to the terrace itself.
Bern speaks for a while to the German fella and his kids in their native tongue while I breathe in the St Pauli stench. It stinks of stale cigarettes, lager stains, the sweat of unfettered fan passion, decades of history and memory implanting itself into concrete. Bern namechecks the LGBTQ society, the refugee workshops, that 40% of people who come through their gates are women. There’s graffiti throughout all four stands of men kissing men and women kissing women. There’s an archway proudly declaring “football has no gender”. One stand has a banner draped across its entire length: “kein mensch ist illegal”; no one is illegal. It’s emphatic.
Inspired by the club’s affiliation with sex workers, the “posh seats” include separate commercial rooms with quirky interior design conceptualised to evoke the character of brothel rooms. A sordid, almost childish, slice of architecture. The one we’re shown is intended to imitate a Catholic chapel as well as a brothel room. Even more sordid and childish. This, though, is their only reference to the Reeperbahn at all, and Bern is keen to dispel the fantasy that St Pauli is all hedonism.
There’s also a music room to teach kids punk rock, and only punk rock; they don’t believe in that post punk nonsense. The room is sponsored by Levis. I ask Bern about the sponsorship, and he sheepishly grins, saying quite fairly that “needs must”. With that, the tour’s over. I stroll into the crisp night, our loveable bear of a guide wishing me a good weekend and a brisk “fuck fascism” before the door swings shut.
I have a pessimistic intuition, not just of St Pauli but Hamburg generally, that the relentlessness of anti-consumerist and anti-racist messaging throughout the city has traces of performative wokeness. What do stickers and flyers mean materially? What meaningful effect does all this have in counterattacking the encroachment of far right populism and growing inequality?
After the AfD won 12.6% of the national vote in the 2017 general election, the club released a statement condemning the fascist party’s entering the Bundestag, demanding a uncompromising opposition from not just all German football clubs but civil bodies against their politics of fear and bigotry. The club are also running dozens of charity campaigns including the refugee-aiding Kick the Borders initiative, setting up a football camp for refugees in Sicily.
That’s material. That’s meaningful. St Pauli is more than a mythology, more than a lifestyle; it’s an ideal, and though a fallible ideal, an absolutely worthwhile one.
*Bern is a pseudonym.