A St. Pauli home fixture is not merely a game, it’s an event. The teams take the field to the grinding cacophony of AC/DC’s Hells Bells. Flags and banners draped around the Millerntor stadium bear a skull-and-crossbones motif and radical, anarchistic slogans. The 25,000 crowd – some of them punks, some polytechnic lecturers and some just curious tourists – spend the match bellowing their lungs out in a blaze of colour and noise.
However, at first glance, it’s hard to explain the aura of legend and myth which surrounds the Hamburg club. The northern outfit, traditionally clad in unconventional brown jerseys and known to all and sundry as Kiez-Kicker, has no major honour or trophy to its name. With the club currently celebrating its centenary year, how do we explain St. Pauli’s unique cult status?
"St. Pauli is just like Schalke, totally rooted in the community, with passionate fans who support the club with their hearts and souls – and that matters a lot to me,” new signing Carlos Zambrano exclusively told FIFA.com after arriving from Schalke in the summer. "The fans and the players live and breathe for the club, which gives every one of us the strength to achieve the impossible." And after just a few weeks in the northern port metropolis, the Peru international has been captivated by the city’s charms. "Hamburg is the best city in Germany. I really feel at home here!"
Former Germany international Gerald Asamoah has just made the same switch, and he too is captivated by his new club, as he told FIFA.com. "It's the fans, and the way the club manages the resources at its disposal. The club gets the very best out of what’s available to it – I’m impressed by that, and that’s what makes the place so special."
In any case, St. Pauli has always been a different sort of football club. Today’s unique visual image was a product of the 1980s, when squatters from the local alternative scene decorated the Millerntor stadium with black flags emblazoned with the skull and crossbones, and slogans championing freedom and fairness. Once a symbol of revolution, the emblem is now one of the club’s logos.
"It must have been '82 or '83,” recalls Doc Mabuse, a self-proclaimed pioneer of the skull-and-crossbones flag. "I bought the flag at the Dom fairground next to the stadium, I nailed it to a broom handle, and took it to the stadium." Fellow punks followed his example, and a legend was created. The club now trades well off the slogan 'open, tolerant, merry'.
A recent study claimed that the club is viewed favourably by no fewer than 11 million people in Germany. The St. Pauli brand has gained a foothold overseas too, in countries as diverse as France and Scotland, where Celtic and Pauli fans operate an official friendship association.
The club has learned to capitalise on the variety of factors which combine to create its uniqueness. The fan base resides somewhere on the fringes of polite society, and so does the stadium. The Millerntor lies at the heart of the St. Pauli district, a well-aimed half-brick’s throw from the (in)famous Reeperbahn. The surrounding streets are popularly termed the Kiez, shorthand for ‘red light district’, and hence the nickname Kiez-Kicker.
Much of the Reeperbahn’s grit and edginess has now been subsumed by the millions of tourists who drop by annually, much to the delight of the city tourist board. "At the heart of it all, you’ll find FC St. Pauli – the legendary and unconventional Kiez club, whose passionate football gladdens the heart. Time and again, the passion is celebrated against the league’s biggest clubs and at benefit tournaments,” proclaims the brochure copy. Not bad for a team whose achievements amount to five promotions to the German top flight, the Hamburg championship title (once), and leadership of the Bundesliga (for one week).
All this has required a certain ingenuity in the search for sponsors. The club is currently supported financially and otherwise by a brewery, a manufacturer of fireworks, and an adult entertainment business. Previous shirt sponsors have included a distillery and its famed whiskies.
Adversity has also forced the club to think creatively, no more so than eight years ago. In February 2002, when Pauli were languishing at the bottom of the league en route to relegation, the Kiez-Kicker chalked up a shock 2-1 home win over an out-of-sorts Bayern. The club promptly brought out a t-shirt with the slogan Weltpokalsiegerbesieger – 'Conquerors of the World Club Cup winners' – as Bayern had won the Toyota Intercontinental Cup just a few weeks previously. The shirts still boast trophy status on the Hamburg streets today.
Just a year later, the club mobilised its support to raise almost €2 million in the space of just three months and stave off the threat of dissolution through insolvency. Then Bayern general manager Uli Hoeness sent his side to play a fund-raiser in Hamburg, "because I was impressed by their creativity.”
Part of the St. Pauli plan has been to retain certain more traditional features of an old-fashioned football club. They are one of a tiny band of Bundesliga clubs not to sell naming rights to their ground, and only relatively recently replaced the quaint manual scoreboard at the Millerntor. However, partly thanks to a slick marketing operation, a total renovation of the stadium should be complete in 2013, with training facilities and a youth academy meeting the highest standards.
"In the past, Pauli were happy to employ average foreign players. Now, we’re deliberately focused on talented players from the local region,” explains coach Holger Stanislawski, although even the club itself admits it is making a virtue out of necessity. Zambrano is the only overseas player in the current 27-strong squad, and 12 players hail from Hamburg and the surrounding area.
The St. Pauli story does demonstrate that a lack of silverware and modest financial resources need be no barrier to running a lively and thriving club, with the capacity to enthral the football world once in a while. It remains to be seen how Pauli fair on the field in their eighth Bundesliga campaign – and what new and left-field ideas emanate from the promotions department in the course of the season.
There’s no doubt that every home match is a memorable event, and never more so than when Bundesliga founder members and bitter rivals Hamburg visit the Millerntor – as they do this coming weekend.