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Hamburg’s Social Romantics

A new book explores the development of St. Pauli, a German football club whose fans responded to the decay of the 1980s and rise of the far-right on the terraces by adopting radical politics.

The fans at FC St. Pauli’s Millerntor-Stadion have a chant: ‘Fascism never again! War never again! Third Division never again!’ With its mix of earnestness and playful self-deprecation, the chant encapsulates the ethos that has earned the German club a cult status in world football.

Based near the Reeperbahn red light district on Hamburg’s Hafenstrasse, St. Pauli are undistinguished in footballing terms, having spent most of their history in the second and third tiers of the German league system; in several stints in the top division they’ve invariably finished in the lower half of the table, often in the relegation places. Off the field, however, theirs is a remarkable story.

St. Pauli espoused an explicitly anti-fascist and anti-homophobic stance long before it became fashionable to do so; the atmosphere at the Millerntor is friendly, inclusive and decidedly un-macho, with the result that roughly 30% of attendees at home games are women. As Carles Viñas and Natxo Parra explain in their new book St. Pauli: Another Football is Possible: “The terrace culture… is based on values such as solidarity and respect… Symbiosis, communion, union of action in all sphere and on all fronts related to both sport and society.”

St. Pauli was not always an overtly political football club. Its radicalisation is a historically recent phenomenon, a product of the social convulsions of the 1980s – when the automation of Hamburg’s shipbuilding industry caused a shrinking of the industrial workforce, plunging many people into hardship. A spike in organised crime, together with the stigma of AIDS in an area synonymous with sex work, caused the St. Pauli district to fall into disrepute.

In the time-honoured fashion, its economic decline made it a hub for students and artists. It was around this time that St. Pauli’s fanbase absorbed a large contingent of leather-jacketed punks and bohemian squatters linked to the Autonomist movement, a leftist direct action group. This association prompted fans of other clubs to label St Pauli fans zecken (spongers)a label proudly appropriated by the Millerntor faithful.

While the Left engaged in anti-gentrification and anti-nuclear activism, the far-right reared its head: swastikas and Nazi salutes became increasingly visible in many German football stadiums during the 1980s, including that of St.Pauli’s more illustrious city rivals, Hamburger SV. In 1991 St. Pauli became the first German club to officially ban racist and neo-Nazi chanting in its stadium.

St. Pauli’s robust commitment to anti-racism persisted into the 21st century. When 35,000 refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war arrived in Hamburg in the winter of 2015, the club rolled out a banner on a match day declaring ‘Refugees Welcome.’ As well as aid programmes for migrants, the club runs community action schemes providing access to sporting facilities to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It has also embarked on ecological initiatives: two large beehives were installed at the Millerntor in April 2016 in order to help boost the local bee population.

There is plenty to admire, but some longstanding supporters feel the club is becoming too commercialised. When, in 2010, the club erected a new stand with 4,800 business seats and executive boxesone of which contained a pole-dancing barit faced a strong pushback from a fan group known as the Sozialromantiker (social romantics). Doc Mabuse, the veteran punk who first introduced the Jolly Roger flag to the Millerntor terraces in the 1980s (it went on to become the club’s unofficial emblem), has defected to supporting a smaller Hamburg club, fourth-division Altona 93, after becoming disillusioned with St. Pauli.

The idealism of the St. Pauli hardcore resonates with fans around the world who lament the excessive commercialisation of football in the 21st century. The political economy of football was once again under the spotlight back in April, when Paris St. Germain played RB Leipzig in the semi-finals of the Champions League.

For many purists, the tie summed up everything that was wrong with the modern game, pitting a club bankrolled by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund against another, barely a decade old, owned by Red Bull. Around the same time, a consortium backed by the Saudi government was attempting a takeover of Newcastle United. Had it succeeded, the takeover would have transformed a perennially mid-table club into elite contenders, as happened when the Abu Dhabi United Group bought Manchester City in 2008.

This was barely eighteen months since Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination by Saudi agents, and some commentators expressed unease about the club’s willingness to get into bed with a regime notorious for its appalling human rights record. Others pointed out that a good deal of the money sloshing around the English Premier League is of ethically dubious provenance.

As the writer and Newcastle fan Alex Niven tweeted: ‘Fair enough if you think Saudi Arabia is uniquely bad. I think you have to weigh up all sorts of complicated arguments about moral equivalence to get there, and be pretty orientalist in ignoring US human rights abuses, destabilising geopolitical interventions etc.’ Such fatalism is widespread, and entirely understandable in the context of a global game whose moral compass has been on the fritz for some time.

While many football supporters would agree with the authors’ contention that “there is an urgent need to decommercialise football, to humanise it,” fan groups have very little power to make that happen. One-off mobilisations and boycotts can have an impact, but wresting day-to-day control away from club owners is all but impossible.

The formation of breakaway clubs run on a fan-ownership basis – as happened with AFC Wimbledon in 2002 and FC United of Manchester in 2005 – offers one blueprint for radical change, but those clubs came into being in response to very specific crises, just as St. Pauli’s leftist identity was formed by a highly unusual set of circumstances. Their stories deserve to be celebrated, but they can’t easily be emulated.

Viñas and Parra – a historian and a labour lawyer respectively – have produced a chronological account of St. Pauli’s history, from its foundation in 1910 up to the present day. What’s conspicuously lacking is any serious critical reflection. Cult status comes with its own baggage, especially if it looks as though the kudos is being cynically exploited for branding purposes.

Many Spanish football fans, for example, scoff at FC Barcelona’s famous slogan mes que un club (more than a club), pointing out that the Catalan club is a commercial behemoth, notwithstanding its fan-owned structure and its role as a beacon of anti-fascist resistance during the Franco era. Viñas and Parra quote a St. Pauli executive who cringingly boasts: “We are a cool, sexy club…. We’re not normal.” It’s not immediately obvious why a leftwing sporting institution should aspire to coolness or sexiness; there’s nothing intrinsically communitarian about those traits – on the contrary, they are the currency of showbiz.

In a coda entitled “Against Modern Football,” the authors put forward a bread and circuses treatise about sports being “the opium of the people.” “[M]odern football,” they write, “is merely the transposition to the football field of the general changes brought about by capitalist globalisation. It entails a break with the traditions, experience and past history of clubs and teams.”

There is a reductive and fetishistic quality to such pronouncements, harking back to a halcyon time when football truly belonged to the fans. But the fact is that St. Pauli’s reinvention as a leftist and countercultural club in the 1980s was a break with the past, not a continuity. Authenticity cuts both ways; change can be good as well as bad. Football’s ‘social romantics’ are on the right side of history, but they would do well to lay off the misty-eyed nostalgia, and go easy on the pieties.