St Pauli is the only option!
My first flirtation with Hamburg began on an old fashioned Inter City train with compartments, connecting Oldenburg in northwest Germany with the Hanseatic harbour city on the Elbe. I was staying with a pal in OIdenburg called Os. We had decided to have a night out in Hamburg, some 100 miles away, returning on a train in the middle of the night. Lucky old Os had in his possession a “Juniorpass”, the dream ticket to half-price student rail travel. It was decided that I would travel on his flatmate’s pass with no photo id on it, so I became Harald for the night, saying as little as possible when the guards came to check our tickets to avoid giving the game away with my not-quite-right German accent.
We arrived into Hamburg, Os and I, and jumped on the local transport. Os explained that we didn’t need a ticket, as our train ticket was valid on all public transport too during our stay. Wow. Imagine that? Well, this was probably in 1995, but it’s still the case that some tickets are valid across all transport networks. What I also found astounding as a British tourist was the lack of barriers at U-Bahn (Underground) and S-Bahn (Rapid Transport) stations. In Germany passengers buy their tickets diligently, frowning on those that try to get a free ride. Plain clothed inspectors hop on and off the trains to check tickets, but generally people police themselves. The Germans have a word for it and they use it quite a lot – “Ordnung”, or order. The comfort of knowing that everything is in its place and nobody is stepping out of line.
The U3 line from the main station is ideal for sightseeing and the drama unfolds just before St Pauli Landungsbrücken, with the harbours, the cranes, the Elbe in full, glorious view. Around these parts, the St Pauli district of Hamburg, the comforting German “Ordnung” begins to disintegrate and another world gradually appears. Welcome to St Pauli, the Kiez, the entertainment district.
At Landungsbrücken everything appears to be still in order. From the landing stages boats come and go, taking tourists and locals alike on trips on the Elbe. Beneath us the Old Elbtunnel is a masterpiece of engineering from 1911 dropping vehicles and pedestrians down beneath the river by lift or stairs for a 400 metre crossing beneath the currents.
But back to my first visit with Os. What a night. Yes, Os showed me the famous Reeperbahn and Grosse Freiheit, the touristy seedy side of Hamburg St Pauli known the world over and populated nowadays by gangs of lads from provincial British towns getting wrecked in the name of some impending marriage or other. But I was amazed by everything else that was in St Pauli; the clubs, the bars, the restaurants, the music venues, the nightlife. Everyone was here in the entertainment district looking for a good time.
We made a beeline to the Hafenstrasse, just a short walk from St Pauli Landungsbrücken, the old buildings alongside the water in a previously forgotten part of town. These buildings had been occupied by squats, autonomous communities seeking a different lifestyle. In the 1980s and early 90s the blocks became political flashpoints, with the residents defending their right to stay in spite of local government action. Back then Hamburg had a thriving embryonic Indie music scene. It was dubbed the ‘Hamburger Schule’ or ‘Hamburg School’ and we visited the Goldener Pudel Club, hipster (if hipster was a thing then?) hangout of bands that I loved then and still love today. But etched in my mind is one “bar” we literally stumbled upon over on Hafenstrasse. Was it a bar? Well, it was for one night, more a disused room being put to good use. The crumbling plaster on the walls inside was daubed in graffiti, there were no seats, just a sound system and a few crates of Astra beer. Was it a bar? Was it legal? Who cares. The German “Ordnung” had been left behind at Landungsbrücken. Hafenstrasse was another world.
So, I’m several hundred words into this chapter about Hamburg and I don’t appear to have mentioned the main draw for me. Situated at the Hamburg end of the Reeperbahn is Heiligengeistfeld, the field of the Holy Spirit. It’s a huge piece of land that at various times of year houses the Hamburger Dom, the fairground. Next door to the ferris wheels and the coconut shies is a permanent fixture, permanent in the hearts and minds of millions of people across the world. The wayward institution is called FC St Pauli. Every year or so I go back to worship on the field of the Holy Ghost. Why? The story goes thus.
In the mid-80s FC St Pauli was just a second tier German football club with nothing much to note. Then, with the scene gaining on the nearby Hafenstrasse, coupled with Hamburger SV fans moving loyalties to St Pauli because of a neo-Nazi hooligan problem at HSV, there grew a community of alternative football fans down at the Millerntor Stadium. This grew and grew. By the 90s FC St Pauli had become known as the club of the left. In the interim decades St Pauli has also become a marketable force of alternative culture, with the instantly recognisable skull and crossbones symbol. Rumour has it that a Hafenstrasse punk named Doc Mabuse first brought a Jolly Roger flag into the stadium as a bit of fun and I bet he’s now perplexed by what he started, with that same emblem worn across the world. Pretty soon the slogan followed, “Nie wieder Krieg, nie wieder Fascismus, nie wieder dritte Liga” – Never again war, never again fascism, never again third division!
Despite marketing itself very well now (some original fans would say too well) to a worldwide fanbase, FC St Pauli still has a special feeling. I first set foot inside the Millerntor stadium in 2001. I had wanted to go for years, since picking up a random German football fanzine in Jumbo Records in Leeds. As a German language student I found the football, politics and drama of “Millerntor Roar!” much more interesting than my reading matter at college. In 2001 I had again been visiting my mate Os and was flying home from Lübeck. Changing trains in Hamburg I figured I should head to the Millerntor to see what all the fuss was about.
I queued up for a ticket at a portakabin, choosing the cheapest standing area behind the goal on the North Terrace. As it was snowing and I was already frozen to the bone, I then queued up in another portakabin to buy a St Pauli hoody to keep out the chill. The club was sponsored by Jack Daniels at the time, which in itself seemed a bit punk rock. I then headed into the stadium. The Nordkurve was an old-fashioned muddy terrace, open to the elements. The snow flurried down onto us. Around me was a smattering of young punks, hippies and alternative types. People were having a drink, having a smoke. There was a distinct smell of weed across the terrace, with no policing and definitely no security in hi-vis jackets telling you what not to do. Just people having a good time, singing for their team. FC St Pauli 3 Chemnitzer FC 0.
The following years involved St Pauli nearly going out of business, followed by a resurgence, then stability as a mediocre second division side. Me, I remained a distant admirer, fell in love, got married, had a family, started a job that involved lots of train travel. And one trip finally took me back to Hamburg. I arrived into the city from a work visit to the snowbound Harz Mountains one Sunday morning, had my showround of the Maritim Hotel with their Sales Manager, then, unable to check into my room, switched work suit for that Jack Daniels St Pauli hoody in the hotel toilet.
The stadium had changed. We stood on the Südkurve with the ultras, Os and I. The famous Gegengerade stand was still in swing, but the Nordkurve, where I had previously stood, had a new grandstand. The East Stand was under construction on the other side. But despite the different surroundings I immediately felt like I had finally returned home. 30,000 of us, united, singing, drinking and having a great time together on the terraces. It’s not just football; this is a lifestyle. FC St Pauli 5 Rot-Weiss Oberhausen 3.
I’ve been back again and again. Actually, the results don’t matter. What matters is that we exist, standing up for tolerance and against racism, sexism and homophobia. Every year, if I can manage it, I get back across to bounce up and down behind the goal, singing, drinking and enjoying the love of fellow travellers on that field of the Holy Ghost. Voran FC St Pauli!