Meet the St. Pauli Fan Clubs Springing Up Across the Globe
In recent years, admirers of the German second-division side have grouped together as far afield as Glasgow, Athens, Brazil and New York. We spoke to them about supporting St. Pauli and activism overseas.
EPA Images/Marcus Brandt
For the uninitiated, the idea of a St. Pauli fanclub residing in Yorkshire might seem strange. To the people of Leeds, however, Yorkshire St. Pauli must increasingly seem like part of the furniture. Brought together by a broad affinity with Hamburg's famous left-wing football club, the group has grown considerably since its inception and become ever more conspicuous in the community. They support local charities, they watch St. Pauli matches at the Wharf Chambers Co-operative Club, and a team of members regularly plays football with refugees at Powerleague Leeds Central. While they may be a niche part of Yorkshire's footballing landscape as a whole, they are making a social, sporting and political contribution to Leeds in their own modest but meaningful way.
While they are one of the largest and most organised St. Pauli fanclubs outside Germany, Yorkshire St. Pauli are not alone in cultivating the spirit of the Millerntor-Stadion abroad. Held in seriously high regard among many of their fellow fanclubs, they have served as the inspiration for several groups which have been established since their own inception in 2011. Elsewhere, St. Pauli supporters' groups have sprung up of their own accord in places even further removed from Hamburg than the post-industrial heartlands of Yorkshire. In fact, overseas St. Pauli fanclubs are now something of a phenomenon, with groups of various scopes and sizes dotted all across the globe.
In an approximate sense, there seems to be a Venn diagram on which St. Pauli's international fanclubs fall. On the one hand, there's a space for those who enjoy meeting up, getting the drinks in and settling down to watch 2. Bundesliga matches on weekends; on the other, there are those who are most interested in the political side of things, whether that means volunteering, aiding local causes or engaging in demonstrations and protests. There's obviously a considerable overlap, which is hardly a surprise given the political principles that are an inherent part of St. Pauli's identity. The club and its fans have been a vocal part of Germany's 'Refugees Welcome' movement, while rumour has it that the club shop has a dartboard in the window adorned with the face of none other than Donald Trump.
Whether or not overseas fanclubs are active in local politics, they provide a new outlet for fans who want a change from football as normal. In the most ambitious cases, they are helping to reshape and influence their surroundings, but even those groups which are more oriented towards socialising represent an alternative football scene. In most towns and cities with a football club, there are those who struggle to warm to the side for personal and perhaps even philosophical reasons. When a St. Pauli fanclub springs up, it serves as a place for disaffected fans who identify with the skull and crossbones over the badge of their most geographically convenient team.
Speaking to Gary from Glasgow St. Pauli is instructive on this point, in that he knows as well as anyone that some people want an alternative to their city's presiding football culture. "A lot of us are Celtic fans within the supporters' club, but we try to make clear that it's absolutely not an exclusive thing," Gary says. While Celtic and St. Pauli fans have a longstanding relationship based on their left-leaning tendencies, Gary and co. are attempting to transcend the traditional footballing divide in Glasgow, as well as to attract new members from other areas of Scotland. "We've got members from Aberdeen, from various different parts of the country, but we definitely want more," Gary adds. "We try to discourage specific links to any club in Scotland, because we want a supporters' group that's purely for St. Pauli as opposed to a link-up with another team."
Despite the fact the group was founded early last year, Glasgow St. Pauli have expanded at a considerable rate. Several of the founding members had previously been members of Yorkshire St. Pauli and, according to Gary, the group started out as a few friends handing out stickers and hoping to emulate their counterparts in Leeds. "From there, it just sort of grew arms and legs, and where we are now is more than we could have ever imagined," Gary says. Currently, he estimates that the group has 26 members, while their social activism and charitable activities have been remarkably successful. The group have a distinct social media presence and have been involved in protest marches in Glasgow, while they estimate that they have raised over £10,000 for organisations which look after vulnerable children, refugees, the homeless and victims of domestic violence. Much of that money has come through online fundraisers hosted on their official site, with members and likeminded fans chipping in.
If that is proof of the quantifiable good an overseas St. Pauli supporters' club can do, it also shows how the ethos of the Millerntor can influence people to make a difference. When asked why exactly football fans from Glasgow are drawn to a second-division side from Hamburg, Gary says: "I think it's the symbolism of the club, really. When people aren't aware of the club – when we deal with charity groups, say – then they see the skull and crossbones and there's a bit of suspicion, in that they aren't entirely sure what they are dealing with. But when people start to see what the club's about, and especially once you educate them, then they realise why we've got into St. Pauli." When it comes to Gary's own motivations, he knows which side of the Venn diagram he falls on. "It's nothing other than politics – it's certainly not the football!" he says. That's understandable really, considering that St. Pauli are currently rock bottom of the German second tier.
While the club's left-wing politics and punk stylings have won them dedicated fans in Britain, St. Pauli supporters' clubs certainly aren't limited to these shores. There are groups as afield as Catalunya, Italy, Toronto, Indianapolis, Argentina and Brazil, with others almost certain to follow. Athens is one of the biggest overseas St. Pauli hotspots, perhaps partly explained by links to AEK Athens, another football club historically associated with the left wing. The Greek capital actually has two St. Pauli fan groups, the traditionally named Athens Club and the rather more 'out there' South End Scum. The former was founded in 2007, making it one of the oldest overseas St. Pauli supporters' groups, while the latter formed in 2011 in the southern suburbs of the city.
Exchanging messages with Vassilis from the Athens Club (otherwise known as the Sankt Pauli Athen Klub, or 'SPAK'), he tells me that the group were formed by fans who became familiar with St. Pauli either by visiting Germany or living in Hamburg. Anyone can join the group as long as they adhere to St. Pauli's principles, while "there is no president, no secretary, or whatever. In SPAK, everybody is equal, new members included of course." For the members of the Athens Club, supporting St. Pauli is an antidote to the excesses of society and the game itself. "Sankt Pauli for us is the alternative to the ugly face of modern football, and at the same time a football club that appeals to people who are anti-fascist, anti-nazi, anti-sexist et cetera, and who have a no-gods, no-masters attitude. We also believe that football can be a tool for a better world."
Much like their British cousins, the Athens Club seek to make real change in their community. "We have watched every St. Pauli match together for the last 10 years, but our main purpose is to fund social projects, support people in need – political refugees and so on – and always try to be an active group in Greek society," Vassilis says. Greg, a member of South End Scum, tells me that they are a somewhat looser group which focuses on inclusivity and gestures of solidarity. They have a close association with the Athens Club, however, and twice a year host a joint party the proceeds of which go to various causes.
Though Greg is keen to emphasise that South End Scum are less organised than their city neighbours, he gives a touching insight into why people from outside Germany feel an affinity with the Hamburg club. "Almost all of us, prior to being involved with FC St. Pauli, had completely abandoned football," he says. "The situation of the local football scene perfectly mirrored our decaying society – this long before the financial crisis – and had nothing to offer us that we were interested in. The concept of a socially aware club, standing up for the same universal values as us – and actually having shaped them into the form of a constitution – while making magic happen during one of the darkest football seasons in European football, when far-right extremism and all that nastiness had taken over the terraces all over the continent, was something like a miracle.
"Here, in the local jungle, the integration of such values in football was, and probably still is, simply inconceivable. So, slowly but surely, we found ourselves getting passionate about football as never before, doing stuff that should normally be done in one's twenties in our thirties and forties. To sum it up, you could say that through St. Pauli we rediscovered football... the social initiatives that the club take from time to time, like the adoption of FC Lampedusa last season, make St. Pauli unique."
The story of FC Lampedusa sums up much of the philosophy of St. Pauli, and further explains why so many people want to be involved in what the club is trying to achieve. Made up exclusively of refugees, many of whom have spent time in detention centres on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the team needed help when they arrived in Hamburg and St. Pauli were more than happy to oblige. Not only did the fans display banners emblazoned with slogans like 'Kein mensch ist illegal' ('No one is illegal'), the club provided them with kit and facilities while also publicly supporting their cause. In addition, a fan team played a friendly match against them, in which FC Lampedusa emphatically triumphed. That team was comprised of Yorkshire St. Pauli members, which shows that being part of an overseas fanclub can put supporters at the heart of the club's social schemes.
If there's one country which needs all the compassion towards refugees that it can possibly get at the moment, it's the United States of America. Even in a climate of increasing hostility, their St. Pauli supporters' groups are going strong. One of the most established is St. Pauli NYC, which was founded around eight years ago by a band of Americans who had fallen in love with the club and its values. Speaking to Shawn, a newer member of the group, it seems those values are being preserved almost 4,000 miles away from the Millerntor.
Shawn tells me via email that, a bit like South End Scum, St. Pauli NYC are "a very casual group, with no official memberships or anything like that." They get together to watch games on weekends at the East River Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and outside of their core group they have converted a couple of New York Cosmos fans, punk aficionados and even bike messengers to the cause. Despite their loosely organised structure, they are still an active presence in the international St. Pauli community, as well as locally in New York. "Every game we collect donations from our locals and visitors that go toward a cause in our community. This year it's going to a group that gives legal assistance to immigrants," Shawn says. "Last year, it went to an organisation that works with the homeless. We've also done specific fundraisers for St. Pauli's charity, Viva Con Agua.
"With the current political climate in our country, I imagine that side of things is just going to grow," Shawn adds. "We had people at the Women's Marches in NYC and Washington DC last weekend, and I know a lot of us are involved in political activism outside the fanclub, too." With far-right ideas and a smattering of fascist voices set to dominate the American political landscape for the foreseeable future, Americans need an alternative scene more than perhaps ever before. As well as giving them a platform to make change in their city, St. Pauli NYC might give a little hope to despairing New Yorkers. "To say that you're a fan of St. Pauli really means something," Shawn says. "I think that's why there's such an international fan community... we're all committed to something bigger, the football is just our excuse for getting together every week."
While there is obviously enthusiasm among overseas supporters for what St. Pauli represents as a club, it's harder for an outsider to judge how international fanclubs are perceived amongst Hamburg natives and local fans. Though St. Pauli's international success must be heartening in a sense, there is considerable debate within the fanbase about increasing commercialisation, a symptom to some extent of the club's popular appeal. It is not unusual to meet people wearing St. Pauli shirts who have never heard of the club, and who have no real understanding of its values. This has certainly caused resentment among a section of the supporters, but whether or not it has affected their view of international St. Pauli fans is difficult for an outsider to say.
One person who is better able to gauge opinion at the Millerntor is Jenni Wulfhekel, a football writer and Hamburger who knows the club well. "St. Pauli fans in Hamburg are very much aware of their club's popularity worldwide," she tells me. "It's down to a mixture of the club's political standing, music scene, merchandise, proximity to the red light district, wild fans, and so on. We know that the majority of St. Pauli fans come from Scotland, where Celtic is a partner team, and England. Overall, it's a very warm-hearted and open-minded fanbase at St. Pauli, so everyone is welcome really."
"I have seen a change in the last 10 years when it comes to the die-hard fans and their need to protect the club's image," Jenni adds, "but that wouldn't include foreign fans. It's more like a silent fight within the city, where business people and hipsters come to the club because they think it's cool. Even I would have to agree that most of the 'new' fans don't exactly know the club's heritage and what it really stands for. They do know that it's a left-wing club with a liberal reputation, and clearly think that's a good thing. Going back to the eighties, though, St. Pauli was more than just that. Half of the people didn't even have proper houses to live in. It was Hamburg's punk scene, and a large number of fans were homeless by then. To sum up, though, I would say the balance stands and falls within the city and is not so much to do with the club's worldwide fanbase."
In fact, in some cases, Jenni thinks that overseas fans are more aware of what the club stands for than some of its newer German converts. "From what I know I'd say most foreign St. Pauli fanclubs are founded on the political idea of the club, not so much the football itself (because it's shit). I think that there is a deep understanding and awareness of the club's heritage and political standing overseas. I see a lot of South American fans waving pirate flags and wearing 'anarchy' badges. What I've also noticed is that when you meet non-German St. Pauli fans in Hamburg, they are usually much older, maybe in their forties, fifties or sixties, which I think marks the fact that it hasn't become a worldwide 'cool' club, but more a symbol of identification in football. Still, as I said before, that's different in Hamburg itself. Older St. Pauli supporters hate to see fashionista young folks at the games."
For members of overseas fanclubs, pilgrimages to the Millerntor are usually a yearly ritual. According to Gary, Vassilis, Greg and Shawn, local fans welcome them with open arms. Not only have St. Pauli supporters shown them hospitality at games and in the bars clustered around the stadium, many of them have made friendships in Hamburg – and among each other – that they maintain to this day. As such, likeminded people have built an international community on common values shared with their football club. In a world plagued by division and narrow-minded politics, that can be no bad thing.
In some cases, quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.