Soccer: Bohemians mixing it with big boys

By Dean Parker

Sick of Chelsea and the magic of the marketplace? Turned away from the marketing of Manchester United only to see Manchester City go the same way?

Give up on the English Premiership. It's simply a feeder into Deloitte's Money League.

There is an alternative - the German Bundesliga.

One of the Bundesliga's teams is reminiscent of the Hart team - that's "Hart" as in Halt All Racist Tours - which famously and successfully played in the Auckland Football Association's Open Divisions.

It was formed in the 1970s as a leftish, anti-racist side and went on to take four divisional championships and boast players like Junior All Black Greg McGee and Mayor Tim Shadbolt and the odd National League player.

Now a team identical in many ways (but without Kiwi characters such as McGee and Shadbolt) is flying high in the Bundesliga - the German soccer championship first division.

It's FC St Pauli, formed in 1899 in the red-light district of Hamburg, down by the docks.

Its supporters were the local wharfies and labourers, and the occasional prostitute.

When the Beatles lived and played among Hamburg's brothels and strip-clubs in the early 1960s, had they gone to the local footy between gigs they would have gone to watch FC St Pauli.

By the early 1980s the area was in decline and the soccer side was going down with it.

The neighbourhood's one virtue was that while housing was rough, it was cheap. Immigrants moved in, followed by students and punk rockers and artists and bohemians.

From all this, a militant housing campaign emerged and empty buildings marked for demolition became occupied by squatters. The squatters started supporting FC St Pauli.

The skull and crossbones flags that flew from newly occupied squats began to appear in the FC St Pauli stands.

The club, in turn, began to reflect the political complexion of its new supporters. FC St Pauli became the first German club to ban neo-nazi movements from its ground. It condemned racism and sexism and announced support for gay groups.

By the end of the decade, FC St Pauli was attracting thousands of supporters and was on its way back. By the mid-1990s it was attracting 15,000 fans per match, despite playing in the third division.

These days more than 20,000 fans pack the home stadium and the club is said to be among the top season-ticket sellers. It's not just the soccer that the fans come for, despite St Pauli being known for a passionate and impetuous style.

The fans come to party. At FC St Pauli home matches you can smoke and drink - a rarity at German grounds.

There's a carnival atmosphere. Fans of most soccer clubs see the weekend match as revenge on the rest of the working week. FC St Pauli fans, inheritors of a boho culture, want fun.

They include the largest proportion of female fans in German soccer, and - up to last year - a gay club president, one of the few openly homosexual men in European sport.

The team runs out to AC/DC's Hell's Bells and every St Pauli goal is celebrated by a rendition of Blur's Song 2.

Through the past decade, the team drifted in basement divisions, but then began an ascent that led last year to a massive party in the Reeperbahn, the street at the heart of Hamburg's red-light district.

Tens of thousands of St Pauli fans celebrated the promotion of their side - nicknamed by sneering rivals "the brothel of the Bundesliga" - to first-division soccer.

Next weekend sees the big local derby: FC St Pauli against massive German soccer superpower SV Hamburg.

But in the meantime, and more importantly, the anti-fascist and anti-racist stance taken by FC St Pauli fans has now become the norm in German soccer.

- NZ Herald

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