They’ve been known to scuffle with neo-Nazis and skinheads when visiting other cities. They wave a pirate flag, and they are liberal with lighting flares. They play AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” before every home game and woo-hoo along with Blur’s “Song 2” after goals. They are known as the league’s Freibeuter (Buccaneers) or Das Freudenhaus (The Brothel).
These are the fans of Hamburg, Germany’s FC St. Pauli, one of global soccer’s true cultural wildcards—and they are coming.
This month, T2, the Timbers’ lower-division incarnation (backed by the Portland’s own full-throated misfits, the Timbers Army) will square off against St. Pauli at Providence Park for an exhibition game. Truth be told, FC St. Pauli, as a team that plays soccer, is not known for its mastery of the beautiful game. Wearing decidedly unmarketable brown uniforms, St. Pauli has risen to the nation’s top division only once in its 108-year history, otherwise kicking around in the second and third tiers of German football. (Insta-primer: in most soccer leagues around the world, teams move up and down a divisional hierarchy based on performance. Say “pro/rel” to a soccer fan and see what happens!) But that is entirely beside the point.
What the club is known for: an international following of anarchists, socialists, and leftist punks, more likely to raise money for Cuban and Rwandan charities than to raise trophies. Rabidly anti-fascist, anti-racist, and anti-homophobic (until 2010, the team’s owner was an openly gay Hamburg theater vet), the St. Pauli fan phenomenon has deep roots in the punk rock world.
Founded in 1910, FC St. Pauli spent the first 70 years of its existence as a little brother to the city’s much more successful team, Hamburger SV. But in the 1980s, as right-wing supporters gravitated toward HSV, disgusted punks went to St. Pauli games in Hamburg’s scruffy harbor district. From then on, politics and sports became intertwined, often to the team’s detriment: facing bankruptcy in 2005, ownership decided to turn to merchandising to raise money. Fans were furious at the crass commercialism.
Who will win on May 22? It doesn’t matter. A key passage in St. Pauli’s fan manifesto (mostly concerned with tolerance and social responsibility) reads: “St. Pauli FC aims to put across a certain feeling for life.... This makes it possible for people to identify with the club independently of any sporting successes it may achieve.”
Politics aside, maybe that, too, is something the Timbers can learn from.