FP Exclusive: Nick Davidson on Football’s Commercialisation and St Pauli In The Modern Day

Football Paradise talks to Nick Davidson, author of ‘Pirates, Punks & Politics’ about modernization of European football and its impact of FC St Pauli.

On 2nd July 2003, Real Madrid unveiled their new marquee signing, David Beckham. As had been customary since what seems like the invention of time, Alfredo di Stefano was at hand to present the jersey and pose for a few clicks, all while sporting a look that screamed “not as good as I was”.

In Florentino Perez’s Real Madrid, this was just another day. Except that this was 11 am, and unveilings don’t happen at that hour. Perez knew exactly what he was doing, having optimised the timing for Asian audiences, and it sat perfectly for the evening television show in Jakarta. The end result was this ceremony garnering the second-largest live audience on television after the funeral of Princess Diana.

Smooth as he was with organisational skills, his sense of football was equal amounts suspect. Around the same time, fresh from sacking Vicente del Bosque twelve months after he won them their ninth Champions League title, Perez let go of Claude Makelele, because he thought, “Makelele can’t head the ball and can’t pass it more than 3 metres. New players will come who’ll make him be forgotten.” Just as the world was adjusting itself to his enormously naive opinions, Perez was presented with the chance to hijack Manchester United and Barcelona’s bidding war for Ronaldinho, surely the greatest entertainer football saw in the 21st century. Never one to forego a ‘hold my beer’ moment, he remarked, “Ronaldinho is too ugly to be a Galactico. We’re signing David Beckham, one of the sexiest men on the planet.” Real slick.

Pure comical value aside, that statement by the president of one of the biggest football teams in the world said everything possible about football in the 21st century. The sport had completed its transformation from a recreation to a politically relevant activity to an incredible money-spinning industry. You could call the club Real Madrid Inc. and it would make no difference.

As capitalism swept across Europe in the last decade of the 20th century, football clubs were opening up to idea of foreign owners and business portfolios. Once symbols of community and identity, they were now a brand, icons of commercialisation and financial success. You didn’t need to feel the club anymore, you could just buy into the identity. As European football thundered its way into electronic and print media, revenue streams multiplied and player salaries started to resemble telephone numbers. More than 200 countries watched Real Madrid beat Valencia in the Champions League final of 2000. In Germany, the price for annual television rights for the Bundesliga grew from £23 million in 1990, to £168 million by the turn of the century, and it now sits pretty at around £500 million.

Bayern Munich are probably loved and hated in equal amounts in their country. A timeless, champion club, they’ve been given the moniker of FC Hollywood thanks to their constant tabloid presence and deep coffers, using which they ‘weaken competition’. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, complete in his Bayern journey from a towering centre-forward to the CEO, fields these accusations with aplomb.

“We cultivate that polarisation. It helps with the us-and-them narrative. Partly also because it lets us have constant media exposure.”

Like most of Europe, German football was changing, and not just in the commercials. In the later part of the 20th century, the country went through a whirlwind political phase. It endured a decade and a half of cut-throat right-wing communism leading up to the 90s, and unsurprisingly, the effect petered down to the football stadiums and board offices. Using recession and unemployment as an effective crutch, neo-nazi hooligans made their way into the stands to spread their message and build more support for their propaganda. In the battle against violence and fascism, no single entity symbolised the good fight more than FC St Pauli. Building a cult fanbase of punk-rockers, political activists and left-liberal youth, they refused to budge from their ethos, and opened arms to everyone who wanted change or had had enough of the muck left by conservative politics. In the almost thirty years since, Germany, Bundesliga and St. Pauli have all grown. Commercialisation brought its own glitz and glamour to the league and stadiums, but just like the era of Cold War, St. Pauli stand strong in an effort to not let football’s transformation dilute the ethos of the club. There are some new battles to be won, but the war remains the same.

Football Paradise had a chance to talk to Nick Davidson, author of the most definitive English book on St. Pauli’s history, Pirates, Punks & Politics (read the first part of the inteview here: link). As someone who’s seen the transformation of the district and the club happen in front of his own eyes, there are few better men than him to talk about the ‘coolest football club in the world’.

“The history of St. Pauli is the history of the outsider: the district always down at heel, never really sharing in the wealth of the City of Hamburg generated through hundreds of years as a busy, bustling commercial port; the club, trophy-less and always in the shadow of Hamburger SV.

In terms of recurring themes, some of the issues that the district faced in the late 1980s – issues that contributed to FC St. Pauli’s ‘Kult’ status – are just as relevant today. The battle fought over the squatted houses on the Hafenstraße continues to resonate to this very day. Sure, some of the original punks and anarchists who congregated on the terraces of the Gegengerade are long gone, but the spirit of defiance and belief in social justice lingers on inside the stadium. More than that, the battle to defend community spaces is just as relevant in Hamburg today as it was 30 years ago. December 2013 saw massive protests at plans to redevelop the Rote Flora cultural centre in the neighbouring Schanzenviertel area. The former theatre, one of the few to survive intact from World War Two, has been squatted since 1989 and has become a hugely significant and symbolic centre for the leftist groups in Hamburg. For years the contract between the owner of Rote Flora and the council prevented a change of use from a social centre but since 2011 the owner has been free to sell the land for redevelopment. It is part of the wider issue of gentrification that haunts the district and has also recently seen the eviction of tenants from the so-called ‘Esso’ houses on the Reeperbahn. At the heart of these actions lies the future shaping of St. Pauli and its surrounding areas.”

The district of St. Pauli is no longer a little-known poor suburb in Hamburg. The popularity of Hafenstraße and Reeperbahn have firmly placed it well inside European pop-culture, to the effect of extreme gentrification and rising property-rentals. The fans of FC St. Pauli and the people who still live in that district are well aware of the dangers of such intense commercialisation.  They continue to wage a gruelling battle against the idea of optimising financial profit out of a pop-culture cult.

FC St. Pauli made it to the Bundesliga for their centenary season in 2010-11. As celebratory as the occasion was, the demands of having a DFB Bundesliga license loomed ominous. Up came a new south stand, the Haupttribüne, full of business seats and executive boxes. One of the boxes was contracted to Susi’s Show Bar, a local strip club. The club’s official drink was now ‘Kalte Muschi’ (translating to Cold Pussy). For a fanbase that had fought sexism with as much vigour as racism and fascism, this was an unprecedented low. Once a giant screen with scrolling text messages was erected at the stadium, the fans snapped.

“The winter-pause gave fans the opportunity to reflect, to gather their thoughts and to organise. On 22 December, just six days after the debut of the LED screen, a group called ‘Sozialromantiker Sankt Pauli’ published a statement and launched a petition on their website entitled, simply, ‘Enough is Enough’. The Sozialromantiker took their name from a seemingly disparaging comment made by president Corny Littmann when referring to the group of fans who opposed the ‘Millerntaler’ currency designed to replace money at catering outlets inside the Millerntor. To be a ‘Sozialromantiker’ implies that you have an outdated, romantic, unrealistic view on events, a view which often runs contrary to modern business models for generating revenue. The implication was clear: there is no place for these romantic ideals if you want to run a successful, commercially viable football club.”

The tightrope was broken and the fans started a protest that they promised would have harsh repercussions on the club if their demands of restoring a balance weren’t met. In a turn of events that was quintessentially St. Pauli, the movement was nicknamed the ‘Jolly Rouge’ campaign, after Jolly Roger symbol that the club had adopted as its own. The red skull and crossbones flag was used by the pirates when they intended to ‘take no quarter’.

St Pauli fans in Germany

“It was a perfect symbol, a twist on the original Jolly Roger brought to the Millerntor by Doc Mabuse all those years earlier, the same Jolly Roger that had itself been appropriated and trademarked in complicated licensing agreements for corporate gain. An image that had been repackaged and sold back to the fans as a symbol of ‘rebellion’ and ‘counter-culture’. It felt like something had been taken back, and soon homemade ‘Jolly Rouge’ flags, posters, stickers and flyers were being produced by fans all over the city. It was as if someone had awoken the DIY ethos of punk, a simple act of symbolic subversion, enthusing the entire fan scene with a desire for change”

The movement had one gap to plug, which was the unification of the old and new generation of fans at St. Pauli. As part of a people that had built and nurtured the ‘cult’ of St. Pauli with their very hands, it was understandably difficult for the older fanbase to see a new, nouveau-riche, and a tad-bit touristy crowd enter the terraces. I asked Nick about the coming together of two generations, and indeed philosophies.

“Some of the old fans have moved on, but there are a lot of old-timers who’re still regular to the games. They’re still an active part of the fan culture. Sven Brux, for example. You can see the lineage and that connection between the fanbases. You can always look back and say ‘yes it was more politically powerful back in the 80s and now it’s diluted’. There’s always that tension to get the balance right. You can say there’s a generation shift, but what I have discovered is that there is still a group of fans at the centre of the fan activism who’re just as politically and socially aware. The battles have changed slightly, no more overt racism and fascism. Fighting against sexism in the stadium, against homophobia, commercialisation etc.

The fans felt with the Jolly Rouge campaign that the club has tilted too much. Another social campaign where we see this activism is the refugee crisis. So many people have come in as refugees and that has kicked off a lot of racism. St. Pauli fans have supported them massively. They now have a refugee football team affiliated to them. In that core of fans, there are still people who’re politically active. It can never be as pure as before, but there is an understanding that the core fans are still very powerful.

The club had elections for president and advisory board. Both were elected from the political fanbase from the 70s and 80s. Ironically, now more than ever, the clubs are close to those old values. The clubs get a lot of stick, but there is still a genuine heart for politics.”

The afternoon of 15th January, 2011 will always be marked in gold, or shall I say red, for FC St. Pauli. There was a match against Freiburg to be played, but like always with this club, it was never about the football. It’s always about the bigger picture. The Jolly Rouge movement had captivated all and sundry, and it was time for action. After the game was over, nearly 1000 fans marched across the district of St. Pauli in protest of the creeping commercialisation of football and the district itself. It had been almost 20 years since the residents and the fans joined hands in such a verbose movement against the establishment. The club had no choice but to sit down with the fan committee and reconcile some of its decisions. The screen with text messages was shut and the contract with Susi’s Show Bar was terminated. St. Pauli wasn’t just a club, it was a community built on the foundations of a strong humanitarian ethos. The fans took a bit of it back that day. The Jolly Rouge campaign served the club as a stern reminder that it operates on a different plane than most other clubs across the world. It as a responsibility towards standing up for the fans, their district and every change that needs to be brought in an increasingly commercial world.

“The Bundesliga is interesting that way. There are fans who’ll be happy in the 2nd division, because it’ll keep the club out of commercialisation in its worst form. Up till last year, all the stands at the Millerntor have been renovated. We’ve retained that balance of standing terraces and seating areas. The club understand that it has to compete at a sporting level, and a lot of that comes from improving the stadium and adding all these corporate boxes and sponsorships. You accept this as part of the modern sporting organisation.

The club isn’t perfect, but it has got the balance reasonably spot on. The stadium has done well. The facilities are excellent. The fear comes that the continual sponsorships, video advertising etc, people feel that this sometimes can be too much, but over the last five years or so, most of them have been somewhat quelled.”

St Pauli fans in Germany

A treasure-trove of knowledge that he is, Nick is a delight to talk to. With every passing minute of the interview, I realise that the battle for good will never end for St. Pauli. They’re one of the few crusaders against a storm almost everyone has succumbed to. It will stay a hallowed district and home to a mythical football club, and none of that for what happened on the pitch. I look at the clock and it’s almost time, so I leave him with one final question. What does the future hold for St. Pauli?

“You want to compete, there are targets. The greatest thing about St. Pauli is you genuinely never know. Two seasons back, we were almost relegated to the third division. Last season, again looked like we would be relegated. We’ve got a good young squad. On paper, we should have a good season. One thing I’ve learned from supporting St. Pauli is that we could be as much be pushing for Bundesliga as much as staring at relegation. You genuinely don’t know. It’s a roller-coaster ride. In many ways, that adds to the attraction.

It’s great that you support say a Chelsea and you know you’ll challenge for the title. With St. Pauli there are no guarantees. We all love football, so of course we want to do well, but you’re not attracted to this club just for the football. Underpinning all that is the message sent out by the club and the fanbase. We might have been rubbish but we still believe in the same things and fight the same battles.”

In the day and age of Russian oligarchs and American businessmen calling the shots on in football, good luck finding a club, a team, and a community with a sense of righteousness in the same league as Sankt Pauli.

Nick Davidson is best known for his book Pirates, Punks & Politics, an exhaustive story of FC St. Pauli, right from their origins in a football-indifferent Germany, up till today, when they’re famous for their ‘cult‘ fanbase. The book is available across all online stores. You can also find him on Twitter at @outside_left.
Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.