Far Post: Can second-division St. Pauli save Hamburg's leftist district?

Getty Images

The Far Post is a co-production of Roads & Kingdoms and Sports Illustrated. Every other week until the World Cup, we'll publish a new feature on global soccer culture. For more Roads & Kingdoms coverage of food, war, and music, visit its online magazine.

By Asher Kohn, The Far Post

Klaus Störtebeker was not his real name. Any self-respecting pirate of the late 14th century picked his own nom de guerre, and Klaus of Wismar gave himself a moniker meaning "empties the mug in a single gulp." According to the legend, the mug in question would be about equal to four liters today.

After a few years of wreaking havoc on the Northern European coast, Störtebeker was betrayed, captured, and brought to Hamburg for trial. He was beheaded along with 70 or so of his pirate brethren. When a Hamburg senator asked if the executioner was tired after all of this chopping, the executioner said he'd happily behead the whole senate as well. So a second executioner was brought in to behead the first. Störtebeker left a trail of blood (and gold: the core of his ship's mast was full of it) in his wake.

Today, this Robin Hood of Germany has given his name to a theater festival, a punk song, and a brand of beer. A statue of the man has graced Hamburg's Maritime Museum for the past three decades, but it has now been relocated — naked, hands bound, and cast in bronze — to the city's swanky new condominium development, HafenCity (HarborCity). The statue stands indignant among the steel-and-glass constructions in the reclaimed port land. The dispute over Hamburg's real estate is hard-fought but nothing new. The city has condemned land occupied by immigrants and squatters in order to sell it off to young professionals and artists. But the struggle over Hamburg's symbols—taking an anti-state legend and using him to sell a hip, urban lifestyle—is now burning bright.

Störtebeker's statue looks out across a divided city: away from the nearby condos and the cranes, and towards the neighborhood of St. Pauli, known for its anarchist politics and syndicalist organizations.

St. Pauli is not the heart of the demi-state of Hamburg. It is something far weirder. For the course of the last century, life in Hamburg revolved around its port, and soccer in the city was dominated by Hamburg S.V., known as "the dinosaur" of German football. Hamburg S.V. became European champions in 1983 and boasted players of the caliber of Kevin Keegan and Felix Magath.

The city's second team, FC St. Pauli was left in the shadows as their local rivals hogged the limelight. The neighborhood of St. Pauli was long left to its own idiosyncracies, but as the city now tries to revitalize itself around the concept of "creative capital," the area could become another Brooklyn or Kreuzberg—a symbol of gentrification above all else. And if St. Pauli can manage to stay true to itself, remaining affordable and welcoming, anti-sexist and anti-fascist, it will be because of its football team.

Hamburg's history allowed a story like St. Pauli's to be told. Split into seven boroughs, the free city of Hamburg is controlled by the Senate of Hamburg, who are rather less bloodthirsty than they were in Störtebeker's time. Many dockworkers live in St. Pauli, and they have made the area a bulwark of the far left in West Germany since World War II. Though protests, squats, and disobedience — both civil and uncivil — are popular throughout these neighborhoods, it is hardly a dangerous place to have a meal or watch a match. Especially if you are watching the team known as "The Freebooters of the League" or wearing one of their muddy brown shirts. FC St Pauli's kit bears the legend "KIEZHELDEN"—HEROES OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD—on the front in lieu of a corporate sponsor. Hamburg S.V.'s current shirt includes the logo of a major Dubai-based airline.

St. Pauli plays at Millerntor Stadium in Hamburg, Germany.
Oliver Hardt/Bongarts/Getty Images

I first came to St. Pauli from the U-Bahn station near the stadium. The station is now known as the Millerntor, after fans complained (correctly) in 1998 that the man it was named after, Wilhelm Koch, had been a Nazi Party member. The first thing one notices is the graffiti art at the subway stop; not quickly scrawled but carefully stenciled and mulled-over. The second thing one notices is the giant concrete World War II-era flak fortress towering over Millerntor, looming against the North German slate sky. As heroic a scale as St. Pauli appears at first, with wide avenues and monumental architecture, walking west from the team's pitch it is apparent how old the neighborhood is. The narrow streets run according to a wholly interior logic, markedly different from the 90-degree intersections made for cars and CCTV in the north of the city.

Most of the graffiti within the quarter is far more discursive and spontaneous than that of the U-Bahn station. And that flak tower, it turns out, hosts a radio station and a dance floor. The graffiti is mostly about FC St. Pauli or the joy of drinking Astra beer while supporting FC St. Pauli, though there is plenty of politics intermixed. One of the most common doodles is the red heart and anchor that is the logo of Astra beer. The lager is a St. Pauli original and revels in its working-class imagery. It has been made by Carlsberg since 2004, but its price point and heritage make it the park of "real" fans of the club and the neighborhood. There is supposed to be a distinction between those who drink Astra and those who drink the Störtebeker family of beers, but the distinction is not quite what brand advisors might have imagined. The cheaper Astra was supposed to be out-classed and out-thought by the 2010-born Störtebeker, but holding a pint of the latter's example of a "New Brewing Culture" instantly marks the drinker as a newcomer to the city's ancient drinking culture.

Corner flags at St. Pauli's Millerntor Stadium are marked with a skull and crossbones, paying homage to Hamburg's pirate history and acting as a symbol for the port city leftist district's people.
Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images

Leery of the Scots at my hostel, who were in town on a Celtic FC-themed tour but spending most of their time yelling at the female guests, I decided to go elsewhere to spend the night before the match. At the suggestion of a Hamburg-born friend, I go to for a drink. Max, my one-man Yelp!, says that this bar is "not so timid about their RAF support," which was my cue to investigate. The RAF, in this case, is not the British Royal Air Force, but Red Army Faction, the militant organization better known as the Baader-Meinhof Group.

Inside Fritz Bauch bar are about a dozen people, a number of political tracts ranging from Green to Red on the political spectrum, and an awful lot of cigarette smoke. It's in this bar that I first read Not in Our Name, one of many manifestos that begins with the words "A spectre has been haunting Europe." This one has thousands of signatures from a wide swath of Hamburg society denouncing the creation of "Brand Hamburg" as a "socially pacified fantasialand" that will "line the Elbe [that flows through Hamburg] with glass teeth." You can practically feel the raging breath on your neck as you read the manifesto, particularly in a claustrophobic bar like Fritz Bauch ,where a relatively moderate voice insists: "We think that your 'growing city' is actually a segregated city of the 19th century: promenades for the wealthy, tenements for the rabble."

This rage is carried over to the game-time atmosphere the next day. Millerntor Stadium seats 29,000 but like many football stadiums, the correct verb is probably "stands." Built according to 1990-era architectural standards, the stadium's exterior is mostly decorative brick, cheesy mosaic, and thick panes of glass. The interior corridors are concrete, and the stands are covered. It looks like it could comfortably withstand any attack that the next-door anti-aircraft tower couldn't fend off.

The Astra flows freely at three euros a bottle, and various wursts of dubious breeding go for about the same price. These are all sold from trailers covered in FC St Pauli graffiti and half-broken signage that are, this being Germany, likely approved by health inspectors and licensed by the club, despite their outward shabbiness. I am less sure of the trailers selling supporters' gear in various shades of brown and black, and almost entirely skeptical of the thrash, metal, and punk bands performing at "stages" of cardboard placed atop mud on the stadium grounds. Metal is very popular with FC St Pauli fans.

On the way to the match I followed a gaggle of supporters from a fan club, which stands next to a Turkish barber about a kilometer from the stadium. Inside the club were several friendly faces, countless Astra bottles, and crests, banners, and placards from any self-respecting left-associated football club. One is written in the Italian of A.S. Livorno, another in the Yiddish of HaPoel Tel Aviv. Local politics can be subordinated to the inclusive, global-left identity that St. Pauli has cultivated. The air was far less conspiratorial (and a bit more jovial) at Fanladen St Pauli than it had been Fritz Bauch. Even militant anarchists are allowed a good time on matchday. The non-German speakers, such as the Scots in their green-and-white Celtic gear, were warmly welcomed, provided they could speak the language of the left. Moments after I purchased my scalped ticket from a chainsmoker carrying a deck of them, I saw the same man tell a German in a starchy golf shirt that he was fresh out.

The scene reminded me of the previous night's happy hour reading. Not in Our Name insists "you" think that:

"Culture should be an ornament for turbo-gentrification. St. Pauli and Schanzenviertel are shining examples of what this means: former working class districts become 'trendy areas' and, in no time at all, exclusive residential areas with adjoining party and shopping neighborhoods, where food and clothing chains like H&M milk the amusement-hungry hordes."

Soccer is, of course, amusement. But FC St Pauli sees itself as something more than a few hours' pastime. Huge crowds, a branded stadium to hold them in, and top-flight success is all well and good for cross-town Hamburg SV. In St. Pauli, there were protests against large contracts and stadium renovations when the side made it into the first division of the Bundesliga for 2010-2011, as the fans preferred to retain a small club run within their control rather than a large one indebted to forces outside the neighborhood. The club's then-owner, theater entrepreneur Corny Littmann, agreed. Many St. Pauli residents and supporters were pleased to finish 18th in the Bundesliga and go back to the second division in the next season, where they've been in the two seasons since.

Second division football, even in Germany, is a bit uneven. My scalped tickets were in the south end, and I stood up among the polyester flags and Macklemore-looking fellas leading chants for the most diehard supporters while the home team put three goals past the balding Hungarian in no-brand gray sweatpants minding the net for 1860 Munich. It was as much fun as could be had at a match, standing and shouting and drinking and donating some small Euro cents to the St. Pauli charitable wing and their potable water projects abroad.

Maintaining a club culture, a tight-knit neighborhood, and sustained growth is difficult. Renting out opportunities for sports, neighborhoods, and economic development is much easier. The more Hamburg attempts to build a profitable framework around the anti-state culture of the city and its neighborhoods, the more it will try to co-opt the hard-earned symbols and heroes of those neighborhoods into this profitable framework. Which is how a statue of a 14th-century pirate stands in the steel and glass of a new downtown development.

Four canals, one city museum, a botanic garden, and the length of the Millerntor Stadium away from St. Pauli is the new development of HafenCity. Viewed from St. Pauli's Reeperbahn, the street full of sex parlors and drug dealers that hugs the harbor, the cranes and condominium towers of the new urban lifestyle location loom close. On HafenCity's website, there is a three-paragraph defense of the development against charges of gentrification. The defense boils down to a sort of terrus nullius, that since there were no people living in this warehouse district a stone's throw from the churches of Old City Hamburg, no people could have possibly been evicted. But walking towards HafenCity from Speicherstadt (preferably after stopping at Speicherstadt Koffeerosterei, an expansive coffee bar that closer resembles a boisterous Seattle beer pub than anything in Starbucks' wildest fever dreams), it is discombobulating to pass warehouse after warehouse of petty commerce in all its forms and then, suddenly, a new condominium trying to fit into the building code like a hippopotamus in a tutu.

Trying to find the Störtebeker statue -- hoping my skull & crossbones St. Pauli shirt will catch his eye -- I sigh, squinting past the reflective glass. The, defiant 600-year-old pirate has seen the city's booms and other busts, but he will always be welcome among the brick houses and slender streets of St. Pauli, where his fellow freebooters will raise a glass to him and their team. Even if the drink of choice is not the one named after him.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.