Less overlapping full-backs, catenaccio and gegenpresse, more punk rock, autonomia and Gramscian theory, this is no ordinary football book. Which is the only way an account of St Pauli should be written because the Hamburg side is no ordinary club.
It won’t be to everyone’s taste, as there is a lot of social history and political theory. And I mean a lot. The text often reads like some of the denser material handed out on marches and rallies in the 1980s and it’s certainly a help to have an awareness of German history and political currents over the last 120 years. But this is a valuable addition to the commonwealth of football literature because it both contextualises and raises pertinent questions about a club that has achieved cult status.
It starts with a potted history of the origins of football in Germany and of St Pauli’s early years from its foundation and adoption as the team of the more well-to-do elements of the city. There’s much space devoted to the development of the St Pauli district of Hamburg as a centre for working-class dissent and organisation, important groundwork in understanding the development of the club in the latter part of the 20th century.
In the years following the end of the Second World War, the emergence of St Pauli as a leading side in German football coincided with the development of a thriving, independent counterculture in the district, centred on the bars, strip clubs and gambling dens of the Reeperbahn. The success of Die Wünder-Elf (The Magnificent Eleven) saw the district begin to take the team to its heart and a bond was established that was fired anew by a combination of events in the 1970s and ’80s.
The counterculture of the 1960s and the emergence of new social movements, particularly the squatters movement, further developed a fierce sense of local pride. That began to manifest itself in the stands of the district’s football team, despite its decline, and fresh impetus was given when city rivals HSV became a focal point for fascist activity that went unchallenged on the terraces. Progressive-minded locals got behind St Pauli as an alternative and a militant anti-fascism combined with existing elements of working-class self-organisation and a deep-seated anti-establishment stance to plant the roots of a unique culture. While the club yo-yod between divisions, the new intake of punks, squatters and anti-fascists joined the more established fans steeped in the district’s radical, independent history to provide a new edge.
It’s from here the more overtly political stances taken by supporters and the adoption of the Jolly Roger emblem of skull and crossbones by the self-styled ‘pirate club’ stems. Much of the book is taken up with detailed accounts of the clashes, often violent, between radical St Pauli and the German authorities. These clashes were rooted in the direct challenge the autonomous movements posed to the authority of the state, with the squatters’ movement often at the heart of matters. The book clearly establishes the alternative football culture that defines St Pauli as a product of wider developments, rather than the other way round. Something often misunderstood when the St Pauli model is referenced.
There’s a more detailed account of the club’s history on and off the field from the 1960s onwards, and it’s in this section that some interesting questions are posed for the reader. The authors make a vital point towards the conclusion of the book. ‘St Pauli’s success as a cult club cannot be understood by simply watching the team play or going to the stadium. Belonging to the Pirate club, even if only as a fan or supporter, is about more than this. It is a political stance and a commitment to a different approach to sport, to an idea of clubs as more than just professional organisations related to sporting activity.’
There’s no doubt that St Pauli is a unique model, or that it has achieved great success in raising consciousness and delivering practical solidarity to vital causes. But all that raises its own conundrums, and it would have been interesting to see more exploration of what the authors fleetingly refer to as ‘dealing and coexisting with a complex dualism’ in the final pages. Because St Pauli is still a football team in a competitive sport. So is winning at the sport important, or is it more important to operate in a certain way? The authors are honest enough to acknowledge there is conflict on this question among the club’s own fans – there is no homogenous St Pauli fan view. There’s some examination, too, of the disquiet about the fact that the club’s own radical traditions have become a marketing device, a product to be sold back to those who created it.
Further examination of these elements of the story would have been good for several reasons. It might have avoided some of the glib generalisations that occasionally crop up. According to this account, for example, German hooliganism and the emergence of the extreme right was solely down to British soldiers stationed in Germany starting fights at the games they went to in the 1960s and ’70s, and the visits to German clubs by followers of Manchester United and Liverpool in the ’70s and ’80s. While there’s plenty of evidence of German fan groups modelling themselves on aspects of English fan culture, this assertion comes across at best as shallow, and at worst an effort to dismiss the influence of German domestic trends. It’s possible something was lost in the uncorrected pre-publication translation I received.
There’s also an apparent failure to understand the differences between a number of alternative club models, possibly because of the enthusiasm to identify an international movement. AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester, for example, are posited as part of the model of ‘another football is possible’ spearheaded by St Pauli. But each club was formed for very different reasons and has different ambitions. AFC Wimbledon was formed by fans who had had their club stolen from them and was an effort to retain what those fans once had. Its community ethos stems from the forced removal of the club from its home and attempted separation from its history, but the aim is to become established in the existing league structure and, perhaps, one day to compete again at its top level. FC United, on the other hand, was a breakaway formed as an explicit rejection of a culture of commercialisation with no great ambition to climb the pyramid.
As at St Pauli, there will be various currents of opinion among fans about the balance between values and cold success on the pitch, but recognition and discussion of those different currents is important.
The concluding chapter is titled ‘Against Modern Football’. It is a slogan much-quoted but rarely understood and, as is the case with slogans, it can mean whatever the person quoting it wants to. Many of the fans in the UK I have seen using the AMF slogan see it as a rejection of what they see as a commercialism and control of fan culture that has removed a rough and ready spontaneity that made football an escape to be embraced. There’s very little attempt to challenge the social and economic construct of the entire sport or wider society.
That’s not to say there’s no fan activism, or radical fan activism, in these islands. Celtic’s Green Brigades, referenced in this book, are proof that such activism does exist here. But football here has largely been embraced as the people’s game because it provided an escape – and that escape was not just from the worries of the working day, but also from the wider worries of politics and society. St Pauli’s radicalism is far more embedded as a direct challenge to an entire system, and the active embrace of big P politics is in contrast to the suspicion of mixing political struggles with escape that I would argue runs deep in British supporter culture.
This debate – one I’m going to simplistically characterise as football as opium of the masses versus football as agent of change – is referenced in this book, and the book is an essential read for anyone who wants to pursue the debate.
St Pauli: Another Football is Possible can be purchased here.