"FC St. Pauli is a way of life." Those who know the Hamburg outfit will undoubtedly agree with the club's self-styled description, but what exactly has enabled a Bundesliga 2 side with no major titles to its name and only eight seasons in the Bundesliga to establish a loyal fan base across the globe?
Allow bundesliga.com to explain…
Although the club's full name, Fußball Club St. Pauli von 1910 e.V. suggests otherwise, it was actually founded three years earlier, even if the football department was not integrated into organised competition until 1910.
Die Kiezkicker, so called because of the locally named Kiez neighbourhood in Hamburg in which they are based, played in regional leagues for a number of years but were not allowed to take part in the inaugural Bundesliga season in 1963 because the German Football Association would only permit one team from each city to participate. Local rivals Hamburg got the nod instead.
Eventually, though, they made it into the world of professional football in 1974 and even won promotion to the Bundesliga in 1977. Sadly – and as has been the case in several of their top-flight campaigns - they were relegated straight back down again.
They have yo-yoed between divisions ever since, featuring in the Bundesliga in a further seven seasons – recording their best-ever finish of 10th in 1988/89 – and even slipping down to the regional leagues before their last top-flight outing in 2010/11.
A Cult Sensation
So far so unglamorous, right? Perhaps, but it was not until the mid-1980s that the club's distinctive 'cult' aura truly began to shine. In this period, a group known as the 'Black Block' began to congregate on the terraces behind the dugouts of the Millerntor Stadium. The ever-growing crowd drew heavily from alternative subcultures and the club quickly gained a reputation as the football home for those without a home in football.
In contrast to the rise of violent hooliganism in other parts of Europe, this booming fan scene focussed on social issues and political activism. With their home games taking place near Hamburg’s famous Reeperbahn, St. Pauli became a magnet for bohemian dwellers of the Hanseatic port's red light district from all walks of life. The football on the pitch was not necessarily the best, but the ambience in the stands was electric.
Their anti-establishment sentiment became evident to everyone after the pirate skull-and-crossbones became their defining symbol. In appropriate fashion, it was man known as “Doc Mabuse” who first brought the flag to the stadium. At the time, he lived in a nomadic commune with 40 other squatters who also identified as punks. Such a combination was a common sight at the Millerntor and naturally fostered empathy with the poor and the downtrodden.
Symbols and values
Club executives initially did not recognise the symbol's marketing potential, which allowed some supporters to open an independent fan shop in 1989 that became an instant hit. Several years later, the penny finally dropped at board level and St. Pauli bought the symbol’s license outright. It is now an unmistakable part of the fabric of the club's identity, equally as important as the coat of arms.
As powerful as symbols can be, at St. Pauli it goes deeper. The ideas that the pirate flag represent are also spelled out in the club's mission statement. In 2009, they became the first club in Germany to adopt a set of guiding principles by passing a resolution the club's AGM.
These values include social responsibility and promoting the interests of members, employees, supporters and volunteers beyond the sphere of sport; tolerance and respect and social responsibility. The club is regularly involved in solidarity actions with a wide range of causes.
The Millerntor Stadium, a party with a pitch
The club’s alternative appeal is not limited to the political realm. St. Pauli have made it their mission to turn the party at the Millerntor up to 11 whenever possible. Every time they score a goal, fans join in on a hearty “woo hoo!” to the rhythm of Blur’s “Song 2”, the iconic title tune of FIFA 98. Last year, the club’s sponsor rewarded fans for their loyalty by giving away free beer after the Buccaneers successfully avoided relegation.
It’s no wonder then that their 29,500 capacity ground is almost always full. Around half of those seats are taken by season ticket holders and the waiting list to become one is reportedly in the thousands. These numbers are well in tune with the club’s membership statistics as St. Pauli boasts 25,600 official club members as of 2018.
From the current crop of Bundesliga footballers, probably the best-known of them is Werder Bremen’s Max Kruse. The outspoken striker played 96 games for the club with 22 goals to his name between 2009 and 2012. Other successful former Buccaneers include Fin Bartels, Bastian Oczipka and Matthias Lehmann.
Want to see them?
American soccer fans had the chance to get up close and personal with the St. Pauli experience over the summer. The Hamburg side toured the US with two fixtures on the calendar against Detroit City FC (19 May) and The Portland Timbers reserve team (22 May).
Watch: Detriot 2-6 St. Pauli
If you’d rather see them in their natural habitat, you’ll have an easy time locating their official fan shop and their stadium, all in the vicinity of Hamburg’s famous Reeperbahn, the red light district that attracts thousands of curious tourists every year.
Watching St. Pauli play in the Bundesliga 2 might require some early planning though, as their average attendances are close to capacity every season. However, their fans are known for their solidarity and a friendly query might just get you invited into the hottest party in German football.