Fan power and the brown revolution

Can fans really make a difference?  The proof is alive, well and currently resides in Germany.  Welcome to IBWM, Andy Hudson.

You might not know it, but there is a myth in Europe that FC St Pauli are marketing and PR geniuses. The self-styled punks of European football, symbolised by their skull and crossbones symbol, have never played a competitive match outside of Germany, nor have they played much football in the Bundesliga. Yet despite this, there is considerable interest in the boys in brown and specifically in their supporters.

Many activities organised by the fans at St Pauli are channeled through The Fanladen, a not-for-profit organisation founded by the fans that acts as a central meeting point for supporters as well as a network and contact hub for the fanbase. Many German clubs have these fans’ projects which also act as an intermediate between supporters and the club, police and other organisations. Together with other St Pauli fans’ groups The Fanladen revolt against the club whenever they identify a need to. During their 2009/2010 promotion season when St Pauli hosted Hansa Rostock, the club banned all away supporters citing potential trouble due to Hansa fans generally being from the other side of the political tracks to the home fans. The fans’ groups protested against this decision, stating that fans should never be prevented from watching their team, and boycotted the match. Other recent fans’ protests have been against the introduction of sponsorship that has been deemed sexist; against the introduction of a stadium currency forcing fans to buy refreshments with a pre-paid card; and against ticket touts and the exploitation of fans through increased ticket prices, an issue that has increased since winning promotion to the Bundesliga. The message is simple: if the fans don’t like it then why should they allow it to happen?

The origins of the fanbase as it is known today began during the 1970s. St Pauli’s city rivals Hamburg SV embarked on a run of success from the mid ‘70s onwards, supported from the stands by an emerging group of hooligans and right-wing fans. Across town at the Wilhelm Koch Stadion, the home of St Pauli, there was a non-political alternative based within an area that was socially deprived but offered cheap rent. The houses there attracted many punks, students and artists, some of whom started to attend St Pauli games, played out in front of low crowds. The fan culture evident today really started to develop during the mid ‘80s when a number of houses on Hafenstrasse (Harbour Street) were due to be demolished. Political protests were organised to prevent this as many of the buildings were occupied by squatters. Clashes between the Polizei and the residents of Hafenstrasse were rife. Seeing an available platform inside the stadium, where they were already attending games, the left-wingers, students and punks, who belonged to all social classes, took their protests there along with the skull and crossbones which was one of the main symbols of the Hafenstrasse movement and symbolized the alternative culture of the district. As this movement reached its peak, the goalkeeper of St Pauli, Volker Ippig, moved into one of the Hafenstrasse houses to show his solidarity with the protesting residents.

This Hafenstrasse movement was the birth of the political identity of FC St Pauli and was at the core of the activist fanbase. When the city council relented on their demolition order and granted the residents a regular tenancy agreement, the fans had already started to take ownership of the stadium via different activities. Radio broadcasts were organised for supporters who couldn’t attend matches and campaigns started against the only openly right-wing fans’ group which ultimately led to them being kicked out of the stadium. The dominating and most visible part of the fanbase were those who had taken part in the protests and they quickly began to organise their own away trips as well as Millerntor Roar, a fanzine inspired by When Saturday Comes. The Hafenstrasse skull and crossbones symbol, so closely associated with the club and often incorrectly attributed to the marketing genius of St Pauli, was first sold by the fans, and in particular the Fanladen, with merchandising rights eventually passing to a company called Upsolut who now pay a small percentage of merchandise sales that incorporates the logo to the club.

As the 1980s drew to a close the euphoria of the Hafenstrasse victory was still prevalent amongst the fans. This was channeled into opposition against club plans to rebuild the stadium as an all-seater arena called ‘Sports-Dome’, designed as a modern sports ground and including restaurants and other non-sporting facilities. The fans considered this as total commercial exploitation of the club and organised mass protests against the plans. Public meetings and demonstrations were held; leaflets were created and distributed; banners were displayed at home games; and to illustrate how the atmosphere would change with a move to an all-seater stadium, all fans remained quiet for five minutes at a home game. After months of protests the club withdrew their proposals and the fans realised that they had the power to influence change.

In 1991, the club moved the Hertha Berlin home game to the Volksparkstadium, the home of HSV, citing safety reasons. Fans disagreed and organised a mass boycott that saw over 2,000 gathered at Millerntor to listen to live radio commentary, organised as though the game was being played in front of them complete with the floodlights being on. The club never moved a home game after that. The fans also arranged broadcasts during boycotts of away games in the former GDR where there had been clashes with fascist groups in the East.

Further fan victories followed, such as in 1997 when a respective resolution was submitted at the AGM to change the name of the stadium from the Wilhelm Koch Stadion back to its original name of Millerntor-Stadion. Against the will of many of the club’s traditional membership the majority won to remove reference of the ex-President, who had been found to have been a member of the Nazi party, and the stadium’s name reverted back to Millerntor-Stadion.

As the St Pauli fans became more organised they began to reach out to other fans across the world. The origins of their great relationship with Celtic lies not in the cult reputation and rebel status of both clubs but rather a friendship that was formed between a few anti-fascist groups on both sides. Over time this has increased in scale to what we know today is a close bond between the brown half of Hamburg and the green half of Glasgow. More common are the friendships that exist between certain fans’ groups at Millerntor, or the more active part of the fanbase, with other fans’ groups. This is particularly evident in the annual Antira football tournament that is organised by The Fanladen; Ultra’ Sankt Pauli; the womens’ football team of FC St Pauli; and other St Pauli fans’ groups. Other clubs’ fans’ groups that share anti-racism and anti-fascism ideals are invited to participate in a friendly football tournament that unites fans from across Europe and allows for political discussion and workshops to counter many issues that still plague football including racism, homophobia and sexism.

There’s a saying in Hamburg that states ‘Hamburg Ist Braun-Weiss’ - if the great work already carried out by the fans is matched by on field success for FC St Pauli then that saying, one day, may change to ‘Bundesliga Ist Braun-Weiss’. Fan power – it really does work.

Andy is site editor for the excellent Gannin' Away website.