It is Sunday, and The Jolly Roger, a tiny bar just down the block from where I currently reside in Hamburg, is packed at about 11:30 a.m. It’s hard to tell if there was ever even a lull between Saturday night’s crowds and today’s tired looking, steadfast partygoers.
Rough edged locals, or “Hamburgers” (which, I must admit, never gets old) are downing beers under the silver sky that they long ago tired of cursing. Most of the year, the city’s lazy rain clouds only threaten from above, dropping chilly dustings of rain that dissipate into canals and make their way to the harbor. Besides, the silver sheets that drift through the sky seem to fit this industrial port city, where mossy nature seems to constantly challenge the rights that stone and metal claim over the land.
This Sunday morning crowd is more than just “Hamburgers” as it turns out. They wear black and leather, and some fashion their clothes with homemade leftist and anti-fascist slogans. They are proudly called “Saint Paulianers” for their affinity toward Hamburg’s most beloved soccer team, St. Pauli FC. The team and its fans are the pirates of this port city — wild, free, adventurous, capable of greatness, but always the underdog.
The stadium, fondly referred to by fans as “Das Freudenhaus der Liga” (The League’s House of Pleasure), in reference to the seedy brothels that have always populated the neighborhoods near the ports just blocks away, is under repair and the team’s ownership is constantly in financial trouble. Two years ago, when the team faced a deficit of millions of dollars, they appealed directly to the source of their support, persuading local bars to donate 50 cents of every Astra, the local cheap beer, to the team in order to keep it alive.
As it turns out, I am very well connected here in St. Pauli, the neighborhood from whence the team derives its name. Thanks to Moritz Piehler, a friend and writer for the stadium paper, I get to skip the line with his extra press pass to catch the team’s afternoon match against Freiburg. I’m hoping to get a seat near the “Ultras,” St. Pauli’s most dedicated, and decorated, fan group, who wave flags and sing song for the entirety of the game, I am told.
Also, just in case things get out of control, I will be well guarded today. My host here, who’s couch I am sleeping on landed a job with stadium security, so if I stick close to him, the big guy named Ben with the bright yellow vest, I should be OK.
Currently, St. Pauli sits at 15th place in the second tier league in Germany, and their modest stadium sits across the street from Ben’s apartment, but by the number and enthusiasm of the fans, you would think this team was number one in the premier league. Freiburg is fourth in the league, and expected to win, but that doesn’t seem to bother St. Pauli’s fans; long before the opening whistle, the stadium is packed.
The game, and the cheering, begins. Before anything interesting even happens, the fans are already frothing with cheer, calling from one section to the other, challenging one another to cheer harder. Then, something interesting did happen: St. Pauli went ahead 1-0. As the crowd erupted, the mega-hit “Song 2” by Blur (the one with the joyous refrain, “Woohoo!” and not much else) boomed over the stadium speakers.
As the excitement dies down, Moritz mutters over my shoulder, “They always do this. Get our hopes up only to squander the game in the second half. Just wait.”
As we wait, and watch, St. Pauli scores again, and again, and with each goal the crowd sings “Woohoo!” louder and louder. A crusty old man standing in front of me (who reeked of alcohol when he came in and has put down another two beers already) has taken to me, expressing his sincerest feelings of joy (I presume) in German after each goal, patting me heartily on the shoulder as I nod and smile.
It is 3-0 at the half, and the crusty man, along with almost everyone else in the stadium, can’t believe what is happening, but there are still some doubters. Ben remarks “We’ve all seen this happen so many times before, they run up a lead and then collapse right when you think they have it.”
Today, however, something unusual seems to be happening. As the fans belt out rather comical cheers to the tune of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” and Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon,” St. Pauli only gets stronger. A cold wind and rain sweeps in midway through the second half, but the Ultras hoist their brown and red flags in defiance, imploring their team to fight for the city with the reckless abandon of their pirating forbears.
When the final whistle blows, the score read 5-0 and the true celebration begins. The team bows and claps its way around the entire stadium, paying tribute to every section that has come to watch, even the Freiburg fans who, despite making a 621-mile trip to see their team go scoreless, revel in the frenzy of the stadium just the same.
The crusty man in front of me, who had sung (or made an attempt to sing) every cheer from start to finish, looks teary-eyed, as if he has witnessed a miracle, and begins hugging anyone who will let him. A younger fan decides to strip naked and scale the fence between the stands and the field, to thunderous applause, and is further rewarded with a jersey off of the back of an equally overjoyed (or perhaps concerned) player.
“Sadly, I don’t think you can really understand the historical significance of this event Brian,” Moritz admits, as I stand watching, wide-eyed, at the antics of the crowd. He is right, I am not from St. Pauli, I haven’t suffered through years of struggle and disappointment, and frankly, all I really want is to thaw out my hands, which have been frozen since halftime. But for what it’s worth, this wandering American will never forget the elation in St. Pauli’s House of Pleasure that I witnessed today, exploding like the wild energy of pirates after a good bludgeoning.