Imps on Tour: FC St Pauli

I’ve been waiting to write this up for a few days, and have finally been given a little window to put it out there.

Recently, myself and Chris travelled to Germany to watch FC St Pauli play away at Fortuna Dusseldorf. We’ve been talking about a football trip for a while, and this represented a good starting point. Chris has all manner of clubs he wants to go and see, so we’re going to make it a regular thing, but all football tourists tend to start in Germany don’t they? Start with the best and work your way down.

Before I go too far, I want to say how much I despise being a football tourist. Football isn’t for tourism, not in my eyes, and so heading off for an experience with arguably one of the ‘coolest’ clubs in the world felt exciting and dirty at the same time. I wouldn’t be a fan of someone turning up and positioning themselves with the 617 just for the experience, and I’m not a fan of mobile phones in hands at games, unless checking scores or tweeting about the referee. However, I also know that understanding other football cultures is important for the average fan, plus we wanted to have a few beers.

We chose FC St Pauli for obvious reasons. They are very much a cool kids club, aren’t they? Their left-wing politics, passionate supporters and backstory make them the go-to club when plans fan a trip abroad. So much so, that we met plenty of English fans on the plane over who were going to the game, and others whilst we were there. We met the Manchester FC St Pauli supporters, and before I went a long time friend of mine, Mark, who is Celtic and St Pauli, messaged as well. We didn’t go in search of ‘cool’ by the way – St Pauli have interested me ever since I bought Pirates, Punks and Politics on Amazon five or six years ago.

I won’t go into the whole trip, but for those contemplating a German football holiday, I was surprised how easy things were. I get really bad travel anxiety, even ahead of a drive to Doncaster, so this was well out of my comfort zone, but it was something like six hours from Wragby to Cologne, which included the drive to Stansted. Getting from the airport to Cologne was easy; German trains just work, and they’re cheap, and likewise the next day getting from Cologne to Dusseldorf. In fact, the trains run right up to the ground, meaning we literally stepped off the platform and we were outside what is a magnificent stadium. The journey was made a little tougher by an impromptu eight-hour drinking session the night before, with an Amercian couple getting me on whiskey for the first time in 25 years, but we soldiered on.

The first thing that struck me, other than the fact the ground was Premier League quality, was the tight organisation. We joke here about German efficiency, but man, they’re good. Two hours before kick off, fans were turning up drinking (not binge drinking, just drinking), and guys were wandering around collecting the bottles. I’m told in Germany, people are given a small amount of money for every bottle they recycle, and it means those who are less fortunate often attend games and collect all the bottles as they’re being finished – no litter. I was also struck by the fans mixing freely, drinking away, with no animosity at all. We often see it in Lincoln, but at a game with 36,000 attending? I’d say it’s rare.

Chris had arranged to meet Nils from the St Pauli Fanladen at the entrance, and we found a little alleyway that ran the length of the stadium, which we assumed was the entrance. There were stewards there checking tickets, and although we couldn’t read the signs, the gig felt fairly obvious. We waited. And waited. Fans came and went down the alley, and we waited. The sun came out, and we waited. And waited.

And waited.

Around an hour to kick off, after kicking around for an hour or so and seeing several hundred fans come and go, we began to panic, despite being told the Fanladen group would be there. Eventually, we found another English fan on Twitter who was at the game, and they told us the Fanladen people were in the fan zone already. The fan zone? Ouch.

It turns out that the little alleyway ran to a car park with bars, food outlets and around 3,000 FC St Pauli supporters. However, without a ticket, we couldn’t get down there, so instead, we walked all the way around some warehouse to get to the other side of the ground. Imagine if, to get from the rear of the St Andrews Stand to the rear of the Stacey West you had to walk down Cross Street, along Portland Street and up the Sincil Drain. Yep, that’s what we did, and when we got there, the Fanladen guys had gone in. Disaster – 30 minutes to kick off and no tickets! So much for German efficiency.

However, help was at hand. It seems ticket resales are not a major issue, and we found a guy just standing around with his family, flogging standing tickets. He wasn’t a tout – there were several people we’d seen knocking tickets out, but only at face value. In Germany, they respect other fans and the value of football, and I liked that. He spoke English as well, although like a lost child, I did get Chris to go up to him, as Chris knew four or five German words, which was four or five more than me. €28 later, we had our tickets. Hallelujah.

Getting into the ground was typically well organised. There were three checkpoints, each managed by stewards. At the end of this run, there was a place to be patted down and checked for bottles etc., but if the queue got too big, each checkpoint stopped admitting fans briefly to prevent bottlenecks. The process took about five minutes, maybe a bit more, but the flow of people was easy. Everything was good-natured, as you’d expect from away supporters only, and pretty soon, we were in a wonderful modern stadium.

We didn’t pause for food (might have been an idea given the wait) nor beer (not ready), so in we went. The St Pauli fans were in one corner across two tiers, and the whole area was standing – not safe standing as such, standing. It felt like a proper football crowd, and we got positioned nicely at the back of the lower tier. I’d say we got in with the singing section, but St Pauli doesn’t have a signing section – everyone sings. Even before kick off, the noise was loud, even more so when the team was announced.

I say ‘team’, because Fortuna Dusseldorf don’t do ‘teams’, plural. Instead, they go through their own team and don’t mention the opposition. That led to the away fans waiting for each name to be read out and shouting ‘St Pauli’ immediately afterwards. I would have filmed it, but I actually forgot; I was already engrossed in the game. Imagine not reading the teams out together – now I wanted ‘us’ to get into these Dusseldorf scum. I can’t watch football as a neutral, I have to be invested.

As kick off got closer, the noise got louder and the flags didn’t get put away. There were some huge flags being waved in the away end, and I could see just as many in the home end behind the goal. At the side of the pitch, the home team had placed loads on seats, those small flags that Premier League clubs sometimes use to create a false atmosphere. There was no need for false atmosphere though, the away end was rocking, and when the bounce started, it was hard not to join in, even though I couldn’t understand the words.

The game was the same as it is everywhere – football. You can change the setting, the skill level, and the fan experience, but the basic premise of football never changes. St Pauli started with some woeful passing, but within 20 minutes, looked the better side. A long punt upfield and a flick on by a tall striker brought the first goal, which the keeper should have saved. The noise from the home fans was, obviously, good, but the St Pauli fans barely stopped for breath. They have conductors, three guys with megaphones at the front, who I’m told are elected by the fans, and they get the songs going literally all game. One turned to look at what had happened, turned back and got on his megaphone instantly. If you didn’t have the noise from celebrating home supporters, you wouldn’t know a goal had been scored.

St Pauli were much like us last season – plenty of nice football, but just lacking the killer instinct. I did miss snatches of the game as I looked around – the noise just never stopped. There’s a huge focus on scarves as well – almost every fan had a scarf, and there was one song which seemed to involve getting quite animated and loud, then waving your scarf around your head like a drunk businessman might do with a tie at a Christmas party. It was mad, and it was brilliant.

I feared we’d struggle to get beer and food at halftime, I’m too conditioned by England, but it was a breeze. I think because people could buy several pints at once and stack them using the handle of the glasses (obviously plastic), people just didn’t need to rush down at the interval, down beers and get back. It meant the whistle went, and we could walk down, go to the loo, get a bratwurst in a bun (no sauce, so a bit dry) and a beer before just walking back to where we were stood. On my way down, I did have a young German man clasp his arm around me and say something that ended with ‘scheisse’, which I did know was shit. I explained I could speak German, and he just laughed, swore again and went on his merry way. Oddly, I tried to analyse the game for a second, in plain English, before realising that he didn’t understand, or actually care.

The second half started well for St Pauli without any real chances, but the game turned on 60 minutes. Kosovan international Betim Fazliji committed a foul and ended up in a bit of a coming together with a Dusseldorf man. They got up, and Fazliji got a little carried away, sticking his face in. It didn’t look much from where we were, but the replay the next morning confirmed a headbutt and an obvious red card. It wasn’t a referee error, but the official was poor for the rest of the game anyway.

There was a moment in the second half that plays a little into the English police’s fears. We were on the lower tier, and from above us, an empty glass (plastic) was thrown down onto the supporters. It hit someone in front of us, and whilst it didn’t cause damage, it was the first glimpse of the leniency of the authorities being abused. Fans could drink and smoke in the ground (some of the smoke smelled very interesting), and there were no stewards in there either. What did happen was the fans self-policed, and although we couldn’t see what happened, a brief commotion seemed to cure the problem.

On the field, St Pauli switched tactics, and if anything, the home side just seemed happy to sit back on their lead. Eventually, St Pauli brought on a big lump up top (as everyone in the world seems to be able to do but us) and looked to land the ball on his head. He was David Otto, and whilst he was effective in the air, when a golden chance fell to him in the dying minutes, he fired high over the bar. It ended 1-0.

Now, if this had been in the UK, I’m guessing the stadium would have emptied, and fans would have trundled off moaning about four games without a win. Instead, the away fans stayed put, and both teams went into the middle of the park like it was going to extra time. Nobody left the ground – five minutes perhaps passed, and then the St Pauli players came over to the corner we were in. The conductors readied themselves, and we got a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, which the players stood and admired before clapping and leaving. It was quite an interesting moment seeing as the team had been beaten.

Leaving the ground was a reminder that football fans are pretty much the same in nature. We got behind a guy who every so often just shouted in anger at the top of his voice, with his friends clearly taking the piss. We then got behind a group of very inebriated young men, who were singing something to the tune of ‘My Garden Shed, Is Bigger Than This’, which might even have been the same song but in German. Once we got all around the warehouses and back towards the train station, they began to sing it any anyone in a Fortuna scarf. One, a surly-looking young man who wouldn’t have been out of place in a police cell, dropped his scarf, which I picked up and chased after him to return. He didn’t even say thank you, just looked at me with glazed eyes before grabbing it and walking away. You’re welcome.

Despite 36,000 fans leaving the ground, mixing freely, there wasn’t a hint of trouble. We got on the third train, which arrived after maybe waiting ten minutes, and before long, we were on our way back to Cologne. Sadly, before we got back to our base, Chippenham Town went some way to take the shine off a great day with a goal.

That’s pretty much the story of the brief football trip. I know plenty of SW blog readers are groundhoppers and go to Germany, but there will be some of you, like me, who had viewed it either with scepticism, fear or a bit of both. Don’t. The whole weekend was brilliant, from the night before in the Copper Pot listening to a former German boyband member sing Robbie Williams and Crazy Town, to the ease with which we went from the airport to train station to city and back. It was all easy, and without a doubt, I’ll do it again.

Hopefully, next time, Lincoln won’t get knocked out of the cup by a team 90 places below them to take the shine off the day!