The goalkeeper has always been a special member of a football team. Legend has it that you have to be a little crazy to do it. And certainly many goalkeepers have had an interesting approach to the game and life in general. Every other player on the team depends on and works with others. But the goalkeeper is singular, set pieces aside, he has no ‘team work’ to concern himself with. For most of the game he is alone, dependent on his strength and reflexes, mental as well as physical. Repelling invaders, master of his territory.
For my team of political footballers the keeper I have chosen has that individual streak, as well as strong political beliefs. He, as much as any other player in this series and more than most, embodies his beliefs. He has been called, ‘Perhaps [the] most legendary of all radical footballers’ (Kuhn, 2011).
He’s currently a dockworker in Hamburg, but used to be the man between the sticks for St Pauli: Volker Ippig.
Ippig comes from Lensahn, a town in the countryside about 100km north of Hamburg. As a trainee he would either cycle or try to get away with not buying a ticket on the bus (Greulich, 2010). Sometimes it worked, sometimes he was caught. This was at the end of the 1970s. When Ippig broke into the first team in 1981, Hamburg and in particular the Reeperbahn area near St Pauli’s home, was a hotbed of radical left-wing political ideas and action.
Many people would gather in the pubs, cafés and squats in the Hafenstraße. The football team of St Pauli became another part of this, as the community members joined the crowd on match-days, and brought the radical politics with them. Ippig says of this time, ‘St Pauli was always special for people interested in football, regardless of political persuasion. Before our success, it was believed that one should not openly admit his political opinion. But with us it was possible and desirable.’ (Jürgens, 2010)
St Pauli became identified with the radical elements that made up their fanbase. And for the fans no other player has embodied their left-wing ideals more than Ippig. Unlike other footballers, the long-haired goalie wasn’t adopting these beliefs for show, he was for real. At times throughout his career his political beliefs became more important than football. He interrupted his career as a player on a few occasions, once to go and work in a kindergarten for disabled children. He also built himself a cottage in the countryside. At weekends he would go there, light a fire and read Carlos Castaneda, and try to get in touch with his inner self (Schäfer, 2005). On another occasion he quit football and went to join a workers brigade in Nicaragua, lending a hand to development work there (Witterhagen, 2009). When he returned to St Pauli he would always enter the pitch making a clenched fist salute, raised to the fans. He even went as far as to live in a Hafenstraße squat for a while, alongside the people who came to watch him play.
His career as a player finished in 1991 following a training ground accident. He broke part of his spine, he was 29 years old and effectively disabled. Eight years later, and still in some pain he returned to St Pauli as goalkeeping coach, bringing with him alternative ideas about fitness and flexibility, and small bag of homeopathic medicine. He would delve into the bag to treat players’ injuries.
His unique methods brought him into conflict with then manager Dietmar Demuth, and eventually Ippig left St Pauli for good in 2003. He had spells coaching at Vfl Hamburg, VfB Lübeck and then VfL Wolfsburg under Felix Magath. Ippig worked closely with keeper Simon Jentzsch but when Magath brought Diego Benaglio, he brought his own trainer with him, and Ippig had to leave (Witterhagen, 2009).
He began his own mobile goalkeeping coaching business, and also became the head coach of TSV Lensahn, his home town team. Also since 2008 he has supplemented his own income by working on Hamburg’s docks, loading and unloading the container-ships (Greulich, 2010).
Ippig recognises that he was a figurehead for the radical movement, and is still proud of his life choices. ‘I still stand by those decisions, but I was never the big political ideologue I was made out to be. I was always more of a free-thinker’ (Kuhn, 2011). With his unique position as a player and left-wing icon Ippig is well placed to judge what has become of his old team now. ‘The Millerntor (St Pauli’s stadium) was once an outdoor laboratory for German football, and the close relationship between fans, players and management was successful. Today, it is orchestrated, only the myth remains, a lot of fog, and a lot of blabber.’ (Schafer, 2005). St Pauli’s skull-and-crossbones motif has become another counter-culture symbol, like a Che Guevara t-shirt. And as with many symbols, over-exposure and familiarity lead to the loss of the original meaning.
Ippig stlll sees potential at St Pauli though and recognises how much the club meant to him personally, ‘Everything I am, I am because of football. My heart beats left. I cherish social and communal values, and this is still the big asset of St Pauli.’ (Kuhn, 2011) For these reasons Volker Ippig takes his place as goalkeeper in this First XI of Political Footballers.