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?

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.

A Cult Sensation

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.

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.

Symbols and values

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.

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.