Football still more than just a game at St. Pauli
Four-and-a-half years ago, I was in St. Pauli to research an 8,000-word article about the club and its famous support for the Swedish magazine "Offside".
Some of you may know the piece, because the English-language version later appeared in issue zero of "The Blizzard". If so, you'll remember that I met a lot of pleasant people, not to mention interesting characters, and had a great time.
The mood was excellent and the atmosphere was electric during those warm, sunny days in August 2010, when the club celebrated its return to the Bundesliga. A few months later, in February, St. Pauli even pulled off the unthinkable -- their first derby win in more than 30 years against Hamburg.
The pirate flags were flying proudly across St. Pauli. Now, four seasons later, the club are teetering on the brink of the abyss.
In mid-March, St. Pauli were defeated away at Union Berlin in a way that only relegation fodder gets defeated: In the last minute of a scoreless game, defender Soren Gonther played a backpass to his goalkeeper Robin Himmelmann. The 26-year-old attempted a long punt upfield, but just as his right foot was about to make contact, the ball took a funny bounce and Himmelmann mis-hit it spectacularly. He fell on his back, while a Union striker collected the loose ball and put it away. The defeat saw St. Pauli sink into last place in the second division.
I wondered exactly what had happened to St. Pauli, so last Friday, I travelled down the A1 motorway to find out.
I had hoped to meet Hermann Schmidt before the game, a man who's written many books about his life as a St. Pauli fan. Four-and-a-half years ago, we shared a few pints in the Shamrock, a pub opposite the ground, and he gave me a lot of background information and also told me he had high hopes for the team.
But when I dropped Hermann a line to arrange a meeting, he told me he'd be in Denmark on holidays. He added he no longer felt as close to the club as he once did, partly because he didn't like developments in the stands, where the ultras have become too powerful, and also partly because he didn't like developments in the boardroom, where too many strange decisions have been made.
As I walk towards the ground, I'm in for another surprise. The Shamrock is closed. Not as in shut down, it's just that they haven't opened yet, even though St. Pauli are playing in two hours and there are many thirsty-looking people milling about on the pavement.
That reminds me of something. Back in the summer of 2010, I spent delightful hours in a basement pub called "Feldkeller", just around the corner. It was a St. Pauli landmark, I later learned, run for more than 30 years by a raconteur called Heini and his wife. The place was littered with framed photos and Heini had a story about everyone.
But the sign above the steps that leads down to the door no longer says "Feldkeller". Now it reads "Kitty". That was the name of Heini's wife. However, a large grey sticker on the letter box declares: "Dear postal service, this is NOT Kitty Wendt's letterbox!"
My heart sinks as I walk down the stairs. There are no more photos on the walls. The woman behind the bar is not Kitty. Heini is nowhere to be seen.
When I call the St. Pauli tourist office on the next day to hear what happened, a man tells me: "Heini and Kitty have quit the place. It's now run by a bunch of hip young people who try to be trendy." With a deep, heartfelt sigh, he adds: "For decades, this place served the best meatballs in the entire world. Now there's no point in going there anymore."
He's right. I leave after a cursory glance around. Disappointed and not a little depressed I head over to one of the most famous clubs for independent music in town. I ask for the booker and half-expect to be told that he no longer works here. Thankfully, I'm wrong. Dirk is still around.
"We have a chance of staying up," he says. "Tonight we're playing Nurnberg, for whom there's nothing at stake. Next week it's Heidenheim, who are fading fast." After he's gone through St. Pauli's six remaining league games, the team's situation suddenly doesn't seem quite so hopeless anymore.
"But if we finish 16th and have to go through the relegation playoffs," he adds, "we're doomed. I have been there before." Shaking his head, he only has to say one word: "Gelsenkirchen."
Dirk is referring to 1991, when St. Pauli finished 16th in the Bundesliga and met second-divison Kickers Stuttgart in the two-legged playoffs. Both games ended 1-1, so the tie went to a third match, staged at a neutral ground. In Gelsenkirchen, St. Pauli were beaten 3-1 and went down.
Dirk's recollections serve as a reminder that this club has always been on a roller coaster ride. In the past 30 years, St. Pauli have never spent more than four years at a stretch at the same level of the league pyramid. The ride has taken them as high as the top flight and as low as the third division (at a time when that level still meant amateur football).
It explains why many fans I meet on this Friday take the club's current dilemma in their stride. When you support St. Pauli, you learn to live with ups and downs. But the club's long history of rising up and then falling back down also explains why you must worry now. The current season is St. Pauli's fourth in a row in the second division. Which means in order to stay up, the club has to buck a 30-year-old trend.
When, two hours later, I take my seat on the main stand, my pessimism deepens and the nostalgic pangs increase. One of the most breathtaking things about St. Pauli's venerable ground, the Millerntor Stadium, has always been the massive high-rise bunker that towers over the North Stand.
Back in 2010, there were fans on the roof of that bunker, waving pirate flags. Now there's just a solitary figure, sitting cross-legged on the concrete. What's more, an entirely new North Stand is under construction since October.
This means two things: First, when the stand is completed the roof will block your view of the bunker. (And the view from the bunker.) Second, for the duration of the construction, the Millerntor has only three stands. It may be a coincidence that St. Pauli managed to win just a single home game during the first five months after the North Stand was closed. But it does feel strange to see a gaping hole at one end of the pitch and it must hurt the atmosphere.
The away fans, who normally stand in a small block on the North Stand, have been moved to the Main Stand. They make quite a racket before kick-off, drowning out the St. Pauli supporters. But not for long.
At 6:15pm, the home club as usual honour their guests by playing the Nurnberg club song over the loudspeakers. At 6:22pm, the rowdy punk rock version of a classic 1950s song about St. Pauli comes blaring out of the PA. It's faded out early, so that the fans can sing the rest of the song. Then, as has been the custom here for the past 15 years, the opening bars of AC/DC's "Hells Bells" greet the teams as they come out.
Nurnberg, relegated from the Bundesliga last summer, had hoped to bounce back, but they are way off the pace and know it won't happen this year. As Dirk predicted, they look like a team that can't wait for the season to end. They look like a team St. Pauli can beat, just not this St. Pauli, which is precisely the problem. Hermann had told me that the squad just isn't good enough. "There's no difference in quality between the Under-23 side, which is in the fourth division, and the first team," he said. After half an hour, I know what he means.
It explains why the 20-year-old Choi Kyoung-rok, a South Korean who's been called up from the reserves only ten days ago, is the team's great hope. He scored twice on his debut against Fortuna Dusseldorf, but on this day he's just as ineffective as the rest of the offence.
The same can be said for the defence as well. While Nurnberg don't set the world alight, they do create a few good opportunities. The only player standing between the visitors and an opening goal is the best man on the pitch -- Himmelmann. Four weeks after his costly gaffe in Berlin, St. Pauli's goalkeeper keeps his team in the game with a string of fine saves.
Truth be told, it's not a good game. The best St. Pauli can hope for is a scoreless draw, hardly enough for them in the relegation fight. But their supporters never waver. While the visiting fans have grown very quiet, save for a monotonous ultras drum, and seem numbed by a game that now has a draw written all over it, the St. Pauli fans keep going for a long time.
There are various call-and-response chants between the South and the East Stand (the ultras are on the former, the old-style supporters on the latter and normally both groups get along fine). At one point even the Main Stand, where the expensive seats are, joins in.
But by the time St. Pauli win what is only their second corner of the game, the cheers have become muted. It's the final minute of the match. The "Forza St. Pauli" chant sounds tired rather than uplifting. It seems that even among the fans who know that life is full of ups and downs, there's not much hope left now.
Midfielder Dennis Daube takes the corner from the left side. Seven yards in front of goal, St. Pauli's centre back Lasse Sobiech meets the ball, heading it towards the right-hand corner. There are 14 players in Nurnberg's box. They all freeze and turn their heads to follow the flight of the ball. It hits the inside of the post. And bounces into the net.
Ten minutes after the final whistle the supporters are still standing on the South and the East Stand, applauding their team. Then they sing "You'll Never Walk Alone". Then they applaud some more.
I think back to something Dirk said before the game, when we were standing in the music club talking about old times. He said: "Just the other day, my son told me: 'It's only football, dad. It's not as if my life depends on it.'" Then he shook his head, smiling.
For him and for many others here, football is still more than a game and St. Pauli are still more than a club. It's good to see some things don't change.
Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.