For the past 30 years, the German football club FC St. Pauli have spent their time largely bobbing up and down between the country’s first and second divisions, never quite achieving any major success but enjoying themselves nonetheless.
Like so many other teams that find themselves in a similar position, there is nothing particularly special about St. Pauli on the pitch, but off it they are truly one of a kind.
Formed in 1905, nothing out of the ordinary characterised the first 80 years of their life; struggling to match the success of local rivals Hamburger SV whilst battling with financial difficulties, there was little to distinguish St. Pauli from the plethora of other West German sides that had slipped far behind the country’s big guns.
A poor financial situation blighted the early 1980s before stability was finally rediscovered in 1984, and with it came a change not only in fortune but also image, as the club transformed into the internationally recognised outfit that they are today.
Located in the area of Hamburg from which they take their name, St. Pauli found themselves firmly in the heart of a politically radical transformation by the time the mid-1980s rolled around, with the local cafés, pubs, and squats becoming the centre of the city’s increasingly visible leftist movements.
This political fervour spilled onto the pitch, with the St. Pauli football team becoming an important part of the politically active local left-wing community, acting almost as a meeting place for many of its members.
Fans were often involved in organised demonstrations over issues such as squatters’ rights and low-income housing, whilst clashes against neo-Nazi hooligans from other German football clubs — a problem with which the country was struggling during the 1980s — were not uncommon.
Fast forward 30 years and that deep connection with left-wing politics remains. It’s one that’s brought St. Pauli to the attention of fans away from the centre
of Hamburg, creating an international community of like-minded people who are attracted to the club’s political beliefs as much as their footballing prowess.
One such group is Yorkshire St. Pauli, a Leeds-based supporters group that not only follow the pitch-based fortunes of their beloved team but also use the club’s ethos in an attempt to make a positive difference in their local community.
From Hamburg to Leeds
After coming across one another on an online forum, a group of Yorkshire-based St. Pauli fans decided to come together and set up an official supporters’ group in May 2011.
As a supporter of an English football team, I found that I could be stood next to someone at a game who had completely contrasting political beliefs to me.
They organised internet streams of St. Pauli games in a function room at the back of a co-operative club in the centre of Leeds, allowing local fans of the club to enjoy watching their team play surrounded by banners, flags, scarves, and, most importantly, fellow supporters.
Chris Webster is one of the Yorkshire St. Pauli members, and he, like many of his friends, believe that the politics associated with St. Pauli are what attract overseas fans of a club situated hundreds of miles away. “As a supporter of an English football team, I found that I could be stood next to someone at a game who had completely contrasting political beliefs to me.
“With St. Pauli, I know that I’m going to be stood to next to someone who has anti-discriminatory politics, and for me a like-minded politics is something that’s much more important than a shared locality,” he told Artefact. “In other words, I feel more at home at a St. Pauli game than I do at my local football team.”
This explicit link to political beliefs (particularly those positioned firmly on the left of the spectrum) coupled with a feeling of malaise or, in some cases, discomfort towards 21st-century English football— that a handful of predominately foreign football clubs offer has gained an increasing amount of attention in recent years.
With St. Pauli, I know that I’m going to be stood to next to someone who has anti-discriminatory politics.
Clubs like Livorno, Rayo Vallecano, and Hapoel Tel Aviv have all gained fans across the world for their uncompromising displays of their leftist beliefs.
They stand in stark contrast to many — if not all — of England’s main teams, who find themselves firmly part of a sporting institution that continues to actively discourage connections between football and politics, often to the detriment of atmosphere and excitement inside stadiums.
Chris believes that this is one of the main reasons why people, especially those on the left, are first attracted to clubs like St. Pauli, as they are actively searching for a team that they can both support and feel part of due to a shared political belief.
“I think it goes much further than simply saying ‘racism is not acceptable’. At many English clubs you’ll find this message printed on advertisement boards as if the club is merely box-ticking and covering its bases regarding its commitments to equality,” Chris told us.
“At St. Pauli, this anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-sexist stance seems to run much deeper in the sense that both the club and the fans practise what they preach. These things aren’t just slogans.”
Football in the community
Practising what they preach is exactly what Yorkshire St. Pauli do, and their commitment to the left-wing beliefs associated with the club has led to them transforming from a normal supporters’ group into a socially-active organisation that is aiming to use football to improve their local community and the lives of the people within it.
Even at the beginning of its life, Yorkshire St. Pauli showed a commitment to help in any way it could – at the end of every game, each member would donate money towards the costs of hiring the room in the cooperative club, and anything left over would then be donated to Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (PAFRAS), a Leeds-based charity that offers support to migrants within the city.
As time went on and interest increased, more money was being raised, leading to Yorkshire St. Pauli deciding to invite refugees and asylum seekers from PAFRAS down to their hangout to watch the games with them, using the extra money raised to cover drinks for their guests.
“However, we quickly realised that German second division football wasn’t for everybody, but there was a great desire to actually play football,” Chris explained.
We now get nearly 30 people coming on a weekly basis, of which around 50 to 60 per cent are refugees and asylum seekers.
“So we started a Sunday kick-about and used the social fund to cover kit and pitch hire. By doing this we could remove the economic barriers for refugees and offer them access to regular, structured football.”
The organisation originally started in a local five-a-side league but quickly realised that they wanted to do their own thing so that, in Chris’s words, they could “create our own atmosphere and ethos”.
This led to them striking up a friendship with their local Powerleague branch (an operator of small-sided artificial football pitches), who provided them with a discount that allowed them to let PAFRAS players to play for free.
It’s now been two years since the first Yorkshire St. Pauli kick-around took place, and since then what started as a bit of fun between a few friends has become an important regular event for both local residents and refugees.
“I think the impact that this has had in our local community is huge,” said Chris. “We now get nearly 30 people coming on a weekly basis, of which around 50 to 60 per cent are refugees and asylum seekers.”
Whilst the initial sessions were self-funded, over time Yorkshire St. Pauli have received donations not only from supporters up and down the country but also from several other organisations and charities, with St. Pauli themselves donating a set of old kits for the group to use.
This help from other link-minded individuals has meant that the organisation is able to offer local people a regular social event, one that is benefitting both the refugees associated with PAFRAS and other members of the local community, bringing them together in a safe and secure environment where they can enjoy playing football whilst meeting new friends.
“Our football project does as much for some of us who have lived in Leeds our entire lives as it does for refugees and asylum seekers,” said Chris. “For many people who attend, this is the first time they’ve felt they can access regular, structured football. We play in a non-competitive, friendly manner that undercuts the macho bullshit that seems to dominate the male game.”
The increasing number of people attending Yorkshire St. Pauli’s regular kick-arounds show that there is most definitely a widespread hunger for events such as these.
It has led Chris to believe that there is still plenty that the group can do to help bring together people from various different sections of the local community through the power of football.
One of the organisation’s goals for the immediate future is to set up a women’s football team, which Chris believes will be a beneficial addition to the local community and will help to tackle the problem with sexism that remains apparent in football.
Our football project does as much for some of us who have lived in Leeds our entire lives as it does for refugees and asylum seekers.
“Whilst we always say at Football for All (the official name under which their kick-around sessions operate) that anyone is welcome, we still understand that women may feel intimidated to play football with a bunch of guys,” Chris explained.
“The effects of sexism are so internalised that women may not feel completely comfortable in that environment, so we want to set up a women’s team where there is always an option to either play mixed gender or with other women.”
After enjoying a spectacular growth in support over the past two years, the future certainly looks bright for Yorkshire St. Pauli, who, in this age of commercialisation and pacification of sport, are showing that an explicit link between politics and football doesn’t have to be as sinister as many paint it to be.
By using the sport as a force for good, the organisation are exhibiting the healing qualities with which football is blessed, features that are too often overlooked by those that see the game as an apolitical pastime that doesn’t exist away from a Saturday afternoon.
“We want to grow and increase this network of activist football teams that seems to be getting bigger and tighter every year,” said Chris. “There are so many teams doing so many amazing things now, and just to meet up at tournaments is great for morale and solidarity.
“But, first and foremost, we love football and believe that anyone and everyone should have the right to share that love for the universal sport.”
That love of football is achieving wonderful things in Yorkshire, and with several other organisations using the beautiful game in a similar way, this could be the start of something special for a sport that can, and should, be used to spread peace, hope, and, above all else, harmony.
All images by Ben Cullimore