Monday 3 December 2012

Could St Pauli become the next Ebbsfleet United?

St Pauli are an altogether very unique club. Founded on left wing principles, resurrected from obscurity by an openly gay former chairman and fiercely feminist despite being situated in a district where objectifying women is commonplace. 
The Millerntor stadium
Hamburg's second team and drifting in mid-table in Germany's second division, many could be forgiven for being surprised at St Pauli's position as one of the most ardently followed clubs in world football. However, the team's transformation in the 1980s from lower league also-rans to a punkish, anti-facist movement fronted by the Totenkopf - the skull and crossbones flag - has perked interest worldwide. 

Approaching the Millerntor stadium on Saturday during an annual trip to Germany to reap the delights of the Christmas markets, the difference from the average trip to the Ricoh Arena are obvious. Fans can openly drink outside the ground, stopping only to recycle their empty bottles, there are as many mohawks, piercings and band hoodies as there are oversized guts and Alan Partridge jackets. 

The game itself is a Sting-like tantric affair, always threatening to kickstart into life as opponent Kaiserslautern boss the early exchanges before St Pauli play through the middle to get the battle their way back into the game. The much-lauded atmosphere itself doesn't disappoint, Pauli's bouncing and flag waving is matched by their rivals loud support, orchestrated amusingly by a bloke sat atop a fence not watching the game in a Bez-like role. Kaiserslautern hit the post no less than three times in the first half but it's St Pauli who edge it in a game with plenty of quality and not befitting its division. Daniel Ginczcek, on load from Borussia Dortmund, knocks in a scrappy finish, almost fluffing an open goal before the ball bounces back off the post and into his shins. The goal is followed, as ever, by Blur's Song 2 booming out over the PA and the bloke next to me - an Eintracht Braunschwieg fan - is pleased his side's rivals have been denied and he rolls off towards the dubious Reeperbahm red light district. 
I meet one of St Pauli's most ardent fans
The experience has been a unique one from the busker screaming hardcore tunes in a rasping husk outside to the carefully crafted graffiti in the ground's underbelly, this is a match day like no other. 

But a key concern has been hanging over St Pauli in recent years. Since the club dug itself out of €1.95m of debt through initiatives like a 'drink for St Pauli' day where local landlords donated 50 cents a beer, their fortunes on and off the pitch have been largely positive. Flamboyant ex-chairman Corny Littmann left the club after its promotion to the Bundesleiga in their centenary year in 2010 but not before building a global brand centred on the Totenkopf. 
The Kaiserslautern faithful and a pretzel seller

The club's shop generates £7m a year and a quick whip round it revels why. Official shirts sold at €70 are snapped up, as are St Pauli mugs, stickers and even a sandwich toaster. For a club so leftie it played in Cuba to support president Fidel Castro and hosted the FIFA Wild Cup in 2006 to support smaller unrecognised nations like Tibet and Zanzibar, this ruthless capitalism does not sit comfortably. Moreover, while I snaffle up admittedly one of the very last seats in the ground, the €42 price tag (doubtless not representative of the entire ground) does not fit with German football's cheap tickets/large crowd principles. 

The brand that has been built - club shop staff are even given 'crew' hoodies to look like punk roadies - has not gone unnoticed. St Pauli's values have attracted a global following (supporters groups meet in Edinburgh and London to watch matches every Saturday) however it is this popularity which is undermining their unassuming, localised principles. 

A St Pauli sandwich toaster
So what can the club do? If they shut down the shop and discourage fans in spreading the word it will undermine the camaraderie built up. Modern football is big business and financial stability is vital If they continue to exploit the brand further, it may turn off some key fan groups. Fan pressure group Social Romantiker is already fighting excessive advertising and corporate seating in the stadium. It may be interesting, therefore, to see whether St Pauli could exploit their fan-owned spirit to allow supporters to take on an Ebbsfleet Untied or Venezia model where fans vote on transfers or elsewhere where it's been taken further and supporters go online to vote on substitutions. 

St Pauli fans already own 51% of the club under German football association rules so it may not be a huge step. Fan power has proved a controversial topic, those on the terraces always believe they know best but often harbour idiotic thoughts. However, if St Pauli are to drag their ethics into the 21st century then it has to be considered. 
Alex Lawson

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