Yes, Politics Do Belong in Sports

FC St. Pauli isn't Germany's best football club, but its resistance to commercialization has earned it a mass following around the world. Resisting the call to "keep politics out of sports," its fans insist that what sports really need protecting from is the pervasive power of money.

FC St. Pauli players celebrate after scoring during the Second Bundesliga match between FC St. Pauli and FC Heidenheim at Millerntor-Stadion on September 27, 2020 in Hamburg, Germany. (Cathrin Mueller / Getty Images)

In any list of clubs that have transcended national boundaries in the sport’s mediatized, globalized new era, FC St. Pauli of Hamburg is rather an anomaly. It has never won a major national league or cup, nor qualified for European competitions. It has never managed more than a few seasons at a time in Germany’s highest division, the Bundesliga, and has spent most of the last twenty years in the lesser 2. Bundesliga or Regionalliga Nord. On the two occasions when it did get promoted to the topflight, in 2001 and 2010, it went straight back down again.

Nonetheless, as Carles Viñas and Natxo Parra tell us in their new book St. Pauli: Another Football Is Possible (Pluto Press), this is more than just another second-flight club. Not only does St. Pauli regularly pack out its 29,000-capacity Millerntor-Stadion, but it has eleven million fans worldwide, with supporters’ clubs in the UK, France, Spain, Greece, and elsewhere. Its skull and crossbones logo has become a countercultural icon. But if St. Pauli has nothing like the international success or TV exposure of Liverpool, Manchester United, Barcelona, or Real Madrid, what explains its fame?

Industrial Origins

Viñas and Parra tell the club’s story from its beginning in 1899 as the footballing division of Hamburg-St. Pauli Turnverein 1862 — one of the gymnastics organizations popular in the militaristic states that formed a united Germany in 1871. Forming a separate football club in 1924, St. Pauli drew support from the industrial workers who had turned St. Pauli, a port district in southern Hamburg, into a left-wing stronghold. This contrasted with the city’s more bourgeois, nationalistic north, which eventually provided the base for the club’s far more successful rivals, Hamburger SV. FC St. Pauli first appeared at the top level in 1934, in the Gauliga Nordmark — one of sixteen regional leagues created in the reorganization of German football after the Nazis came to power.

Flag with the FC St. Pauli skull and crossbones logo.

The authors highlight Hamburg’s labor disputes before World War I and the political tensions that marked the Weimar era. But in explaining St. Pauli’s relationship with Nazism, they note that “there was no resistance or heroism but neither was there fanaticism or blind allegiance.” This was, instead, “a conservative institution that adapted to the period.” St. Pauli’s star player in its 1931 northern German championship season was center forward Otto Wolff, an economics graduate who became one of Hamburg’s highest-ranking Nazi officials, expropriating Jewish properties and leading an SS regiment. As often in Another Football Is Possible, this interesting and important information is given in a lengthy footnote, along with the revelation that he was put forward as St. Pauli’s vice president in 1951 and made a life member two decades later. It was only in 2010 that the club’s general assembly stripped Wolff of the gold decoration awarded in 1960; in 1961 the new club ground was called Wilhelm-Koch-Stadion despite former chairman Wilhelm Koch’s membership in the Nazi Party.

The decision finally to rename the stadium — and prohibit the sale of its naming rights to sponsors — was made in 1998. This was the outcome of twenty years in which a counterculture had formed in Hamburg and latched onto St. Pauli’s — making itself integral to the club’s identity.

Social Movement

Indeed, the book really comes alive when covering the 1980s, moving from a focus on the football team in its turbulent political contexts to the coalescence of a social movement that latched onto the local club. St. Pauli’s first season in the Bundesliga in 1977–78 ended in relegation and financial meltdown, despite the board’s decision to play twelve of their home matches at the home of hated rivals Hamburger SV — one of Europe’s best teams at the time. Sponsors withdrew as St. Pauli fell back into the regional leagues, nearly killing the club. In line with the rise of the far right across West Germany, neo-Nazis began to appear on the terraces — but then St. Pauli produced an anti-fascist fan culture like no other.

Another Football Is Possible is most interesting when exploring the West German autonomist movement, focusing on its working-class Hamburg strand, inspired not by the well-known Red Army Faction (never mentioned in the book) but by Italian communist groups such as Lotta Continua. Activists occupied eight mansions near the port in 1981, setting up squats, kitchens, bookshops, info shops, music venues, and galleries, successfully resisting eviction in 1986. That same year, the punks and autonomists began going to St. Pauli matches, finding themselves in tune both with manager Willi Reimann’s desire to promote “an alternative football” and with goalkeeper Volker Ippig, who had lived in the Hafenstraße squats and did voluntary work with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in between two spells with the club.

Initially, the club was unsure about these new supporters, mocked by mainstream Germans fans and attacked by the far-right fringe. But it soon realized that it made commercial sense to work with the radicals. As a result, St. Pauli became the first German club to explicitly oppose racism, sexism, and homophobia, and to contribute to a national fund to compensate Jews forced to work under the Nazi regime.

Anti-Corporate Culture

Yet this has also presented St. Pauli with the problem of how to expand the club, or even survive, without exploiting or alienating this vibrant, vocal core of supporters. For instance, punk singer Doc Mabuse, who first brought the skull and crossbones to the Millerntor, stopped going and eventually burned his flag in protest at it becoming so ubiquitous on merchandising. He preferred to watch Altona 93, another team from Hamburg’s port area, who he said were less commercial. In 1989, a boycott helped to prevent the stadium from being incorporated into a sports dome with a hotel and shopping center, in a campaign crystallizing the fans’ anti-corporate principles.

By the early 2000s, they had to link up with the board for an inventive fundraising campaign to save the club, which had again dropped into the Regionalliga. In this, they worked with new club president Corny Littmann, a theater owner and Green Party candidate who was openly gay and dressed in drag when accepting the role. But as St. Pauli’s international reputation grew, more radical supporters became frustrated at the depoliticized fans (and tourists) who showed up at games. They criticized the sale of club T-shirts in McDonald’s and big supermarkets, the decision to advertise the fundraiser on erotic phone services, and the attachment of conservative mayor Ole von Beust to the campaign, leading to the formation of a new group, the Social Romantics, and the adoption of a constitution in 2009 to preserve the club’s identity and principles.

During the 2010s, football became even more globalized and commercialized, with its wealth concentrated in a handful of elite clubs who dominate their domestic leagues — FC Bayern Munich, recently crowned European champions, have won the last eight Bundesliga titles, often at a canter. Over the last decade, St. Pauli and its fans have raised money for refugees, organized anti-racism tournaments, and held championships for visually impaired players — proving that their radicalism has not been reduced to an aesthetic, even if the days of players mixing with the fans in the Hafenstraße or in campaigns are long gone.

Supporters in Millerntor-Stadion. (Wikimedia Commons)

Politics Belong in Sport

Invoking Antonio Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony to discuss the importance of St. Pauli’s identity-building, Viñas and Parra provide an effective critique of how the often-repeated insistence on “keeping politics out of football” masks a neoliberal exploitation of the sport and its fans, as well as its historical manipulation by right-wing dictatorships. Indeed, such a claim merely aims to nullify left-wing critiques of the increasing corporate remolding of the sport.

But as former St. Pauli player and manager Ewald Lienen said before a match against heavily funded RB Leipzig (named after energy drinks firm Red Bull), we do not have to accept football being left “in the hands of fascism and commerce.” In a time when it is harder than ever for clubs without plutocrat owners to compete for major honors without bankrupting themselves, it makes sense for St. Pauli to stick to their principles and for others to adopt them.

The specific confluence of counterculture, autonomist politics, and an ailing team in a time of far-right hooliganism may not be repeatable elsewhere. But St. Pauli do offer a model for radical fans to reclaim a club, if not (yet) the sport as a whole. The far right has long used stadia as a place to recruit and organize: the twenty-first-century left can do the same, not just fighting the exploitation of the captive market of paying fans, but by incorporating the populist left, environmental movements, and anti-fascism into a new culture. The vibrancy and popularity of St. Pauli and its support may seem unique — but they don’t have to be.