Monday, April 26, 2010

St Pauli in a world of their own making

Source: The Times

April 26, 2010

A club who reflect the alternative lifestyles of their supporters are closing in on a return to the Bundesliga

Nick Szczepanik

After trekking across northern Europe to watch their team draw 0-0 with Hamburg in the Europa League on Thursday, it is a pity that more Fulham fans did not stay on an extra day to watch the club that offer the most refreshing antidote to Uefa’s corporate football ideal.

St Pauli, based in the German port’s red-light district, beat Koblenz 6-1 on Friday evening and the entertainment did not stop at the touchlines, the fans not so much a backdrop as part of the experience.

The core of the club’s support is left wing, anarchic and hedonistic, including many with “alternative” lifestyles that reflect the area. “We like to feel we are underdogs, fighting against big money,” Uwe, a magazine seller, said. “Antiracist, antifascist and internationalist.”

If a Clash reunion tour were possible, this would be its audience, except that they do all the singing. Often in English, it lasts the full 90 minutes and includes nods to the Beatles, who spent their early years around the corner at the Kaiserkeller and the Star-Club. The choirmasters are four fans with megaphones, perched on the perimeter railings behind the goal in a manner that would give British safety officers heart failure.

Attending a match at the Millerntor is like stepping back 20 or 30 years into a slightly altered, improved football universe: the old Den without the menace. With beer and smoking allowed on the terraces — yes, standing remains part of Germany’s football landscape — it even smells like an old ground. In a good way.

The motto “Non-established since 1910” says everything about the club whose team wear brown and are cheered on by fans waving the skull and crossbones. Its centenary will be celebrated not with a prestige friendly against a mega-club but against FC United of Manchester.

St Pauli could also be celebrating promotion back to the Bundesliga after relegation in 2002 was followed by several years in regional football. One win from two remaining matches will ensure that Bayern Munich and the rest will be visiting the Millerntor again next season.

They will find that the tatty but atmospheric ground is being rebuilt to hold 28,000 rather than the present snug 23,000, but it will never be confused with Hamburg’s Uefa five-star venue. The standing areas are being expanded rather than replaced by seats.

“It was a hard fight to keep standing areas in the 1990s,” Sven Brux, a former fanzine editor, now a club administrator, said. “You gave up too easily. It wasn’t standing that killed people at Hillsborough, it was mistakes by the police. That’s why so many British fans come here. English football is boring.”

This was anything but. For the first 40 minutes after the teams took the field to AC/DC’s Hells Bells promotion jitters were evident as St Pauli missed a penalty and a retake. But the crowd sang on as if they had scored and two goals in as many minutes just after half-time settled the nerves.

After the final whistle, celebrations spilt on to the nearby Reeperbahn, while 500 or so headed for their traditional watering hole, the Jolly Roger pub, to continue drinking and talk about the match and the plans for the rest of Friday night.

What they did not discuss was whether success will change St Pauli. How could it, when Corny Littman, the president, is a theatre and nightclub-owner and one-time performer in gay cabaret? “I’ve been president for seven years but a fan for 30, so I understand what they want,” he said. “I believe in the identity and you have to take care of it.”

“You only have to look around to feel the atmosphere, to understand the flair of St Pauli. I’m not afraid that we’ll lose it, even in the Bundesliga. I don’t really want to talk about it because we’re not there yet. If we are, we may change the atmosphere of the Bundesliga, but it won’t change us.”