By Chris Swift
The forecast is for snow. But in the Millerntor Stadion in Hamburg on a bitterly cold night, it is raining beer.
This is no meteorological freak, for there is a perfectly rational explanation for the sudden cascade of Astra lager.
Seconds after conceding the late goal which looked certain to condemn them to a disappointing 2-2 home draw against bottom-of-the-table Jahn Regensburg, St Pauli have gone straight up the other end from the re-start and scored a stoppage-time winner – one which will go a long way towards ensuring they won’t get dragged into another relegation battle.
As the goal goes in, mayhem ensues – and the beer starts flying. A guy two steps down from me on the terraces in the newly-redeveloped Gegengerade Stand is too busy celebrating – or too stoned – to notice the sudden golden downpour has just extinguished the spliff he lit a few seconds earlier.
And me and my mate – two 50-something English blokes over in Hamburg to celebrate our birthdays – are happily caught up in it all, leaping around and high-fiving it with everybody else as Blur’s Song Two booms out over the loudspeakers and large parts of the ground turn into a huge mosh pit.
I’m no fan of pre-recorded music being played to celebrate goals, yet somehow at St Pauli it works. But then, St Pauli are a club rather unlike any other I’ve been to anywhere else in the world.
Who else could possibly walk out onto the pitch to the strains of AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells blaring from the loudspeakers, a fun fair at one end of the ground and a bloody monstrous concrete World War Two bunker at the other?
St Pauli are, in many ways, the antithesis of the increasing commercialisation and gentrification that has infected English football.
Located right in the heart of Germany’s second-largest city – not far from the docks and only a hefty clearance away from the notorious Reeperbahn red light district – St Pauli are, in many ways, the antithesis of the increasing commercialisation and gentrification that has infected English football over the last couple of decades.
Known throughout Germany as a kult club, they are an unapologetically left-leaning multi-sports organisation with strict anti-Nazi, anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic policies inherent within their charter.
No doubt in consequence, they attract the highest level of female support of any German club, and have more than 500 supporter organisations all around the world.Their black and white Totenkopf (skull and crossbones) emblem is omnipresent, and even the club’s official badge is underpinned by the motto “non-established since 1910.”
Like virtually every Bundesliga club, St Pauli are owned by their fanbase. And that’s reflected in their ticket prices at a ground which has seen major improvements in recent seasons. Our Gegengerade tickets cost my mate and I less than we’d pay to watch our beloved Kidderminster Harriers stuff Cambridge United in the Conference the following weekend.
But St Pauli are more than a football club. St Pauli are a stance, a political and social position. In some ways the football is almost incidental. A St Pauli game is a fucking huge party consisting of all sorts of people of all sorts of ages from all sorts of backgrounds just intent on celebrating the fact they can watch a club that hasn’t yet been taken over by the greedheads.
We know what we are.
Back in 1981, St Pauli nearly went out of existence and were averaging crowds of around 1,600. Now they pretty much fill a redeveloped ground that can hold around 30,000, even though they are back in Bundesliga 2 after a thrilling if unlikely season in the top flight in 2010-11.
St Pauli may have been up and down more frequently than a Reeperbahn working girl’s thong, but that one season back in Bundesliga 1 was worth it simply for the chance to see us win away at bitter rivals Hamburg SV – the cash-rich Billy Big Balls team on the outskirts – for the first time since 1977.
On the opening day of that campaign, St Pauli’s understudy keeper Benedikt Pliquett was badly beaten up by HSV fans after getting off a train on the way back from an away game. Head coach Holger Stanislawski played a blinder by calling him up for the derby match, and was rewarded as Pliquett pulled off save after save to protect the lead that former German international Gerald Asamoah gave the boys in brown after scrambling the ball home from a corner.
The post-match scenes of celebration among the 7,000 or so St Pauli fans in an otherwise deserted Imtech Arena are now legendary, with HSV’s sporting director admitting: “The sight of all those St Pauli fans having a party in our ground makes me want to spew.”
But back to the present. Fuck me, it’s cold. And my rather feeble attempts to converse in German are met, at virtually every instance, and rather embarrassingly, by people replying in fluent English.
To the left of me is a Schalke fan who is there because he happens to live in Hamburg and just loves football. To the right is my mate – on his first St Pauli visit and wide-eyed at the splendour of it all – and next to him another German bloke who keeps chatting to us in English and congratulating us on our birthdays as the Astras keep on coming. Luckily, the biting wind is blowing from the back of our stand, and so we are in a sort of zero degrees cocoon. It feels positively tropical in comparison to the next 24 hours.
But you know that feeling when your team has scored a stoppage-time winner? Well, this is like that, only better. The whole place has gone absolutely bonkers.
Once you’ve frozen your bollocks off at a German football ground and survived, there’s no excuse for not doing it again. Next on the agenda is Victoria Hamburg against Neumunster in Regionalliga Nord, which is probably the rough equivalent of Conference North back in Blighty.
We arrive at the Hoheluft Stadion in a blizzard 90 minutes before kick-off and expect to hear the game is off. Instead, we are told they are not ready for us yet and asked if we would like to come back in an hour.
My mate gets extremely arsey and suggests, in rudimentary English, that their bar takings would benefit substantially if they would kindly let us in. No deal. We trudge off grumpily and, on the second circuit of an unremarkable suburb, find a smokey bar we’d walked straight past 15 minutes earlier.
An hour later, and cheered by several more Astras, we return. We’d planned to stand but, given the conditions, opt for cover in the posh seats. That’s 10 Euros please. Bargain.
Fuck me, it’s still bitterly, bitterly, cold.
The game is remarkable simply for the fact it would never even have started in England. By the time it finishes – and Victoria win 2-1 – none of the lines are visible but the orange ball is still, just about, rolling.
At one end are the Victoria Ultras – all 17 of them, including A Bloke With A Drum – who keep up an incessant racket throughout the game. On the far terracing there are 37 Neumunster fans who, rather bizarrely, are spread out so far away from each other that you suspect they must all have halitosis.
At half-time, most of the crowd of about 300 seem to descend on the clubhouse. As do we. It’s warm and welcoming and there’s a fit bar maid. “It reminds me of going to Kiddy games 25 years ago,” says my mate as we down a second schnapps before the second half.
We bump into a bunch of Portsmouth fans, who came over for the St Pauli game but missed it due to their flight not arriving until just before kick off. The Bundesliga has a weird habit of not confirming dates and kick-off times until a few weeks before the match, which can cause havoc for anyone trying to book a trip well in advance.
There’s loads more to say about Hamburg. Like how large parts of it are architecturally stunning; how they have a joined-up public transport policy, which means getting around is a piece of piss; how the locals are friendly and helpful; how we actually found a great curry house (a rarity in Germany); and how magnificent the scenery is around the huge Elbe river.
And how I explained to my lovely German wife that there was a genuine reason why I didn’t get home until five hours after our plane landed back in England.
Beer. And snow. And St Pauli.