Sports

Meet Yorkshire St. Pauli, The Activist Fan Club Facilitating Change

If we were searching for a St. Pauli fan club, Leeds might be the last place we’d look. So, what inspires football fans in Yorkshire to support Hamburg’s iconic second-tier club?

by Will Magee
Jul 29 2016, 5:29pm

All photos provided by Chris Webster unless stated otherwise

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

For anyone with even a passing interest in the political aspect of football, familiarity with FC St. Pauli is practically mandatory. Located near the heart of Hamburg's red light district, not far from the raucous nightlife of the Reeperbahn (a street known to some as 'Die Sündigste Meile' or 'The Most Sinful Mile'), St. Pauli is a club which connects with its local community like no other. Famous for the activism of its fans, the left-wing culture on the terraces and its campaigns against discrimination, inequality and fascism, the club is as proud of its political legacy as its footballing heritage. It draws supporters from local working-class neighbourhoods, punk subcultures, German socialist groups and, as it turns out, the urban heart of Yorkshire.

Yorkshire is far from the only hotbed for St. Pauli supporters abroad and, as a club with an internationalist political outlook, that's not really a surprise. There are St. Pauli fan clubs as far afield as Catalunya, Athens, London, Brighton and Glasgow, and those are only some of the more established groups. Nonetheless, few people would think to look for a society of dedicated St. Pauli supporters at the Wharf Chambers Co-operative Club in Leeds.

But that's precisely where Yorkshire St. Pauli gather to watch matches, organise their charity work and generally uphold the spirit of the Millerntor-Stadion. The Yorkshire branch is one of the biggest St. Pauli fan clubs in the UK, and certainly one of the most proactive.

FC St. Pauli's Millerntor-Stadion, pictured in 2013 // Via

First established in May 2011, the premise behind the fan club was that a few kindred spirits would get together in Leeds on a regular basis and watch St. Pauli games on a live stream. While that's still an important part of Yorkshire St. Pauli's identity, the group has grown into something much bigger in recent times. Membership has grown significantly in the last few years, and the fan club has taken on a more organised character. It now has a paid membership, a constitution which includes the commitment "to reflect the values and ethos of St. Pauli in standing against all forms of discrimination" and a close bond with local charity PAFRAS ('Positive Action For Refugees & Asylum Seekers'), born out of the fan club's fundraising efforts.

Registered as an official fan club, Yorkshire St. Pauli try to make several trips to Hamburg each season, watching games at the Millerntor-Stadion while maintaining links to the local community and the club itself. In the spirit of international camaraderie, St Pauli. fan clubs from abroad are usually welcomed with open arms. It helps that Yorkshire St. Pauli are involved in direct action and activism, both of which play such a huge part in the Hamburg club's identity. Indeed, when I spoke to Chris Webster, a member of the fan club, he stressed that St. Pauli's Yorkshire branch are keen to make waves in their own community, and facilitate actual social change.

Members of Yorkshire St. Pauli at a live screening

When I asked Chris how he got involved in Yorkshire St. Pauli, he told me: "I've always been interested in politics, and the way in which left-wing football culture works. Through that I found St. Pauli, and found Yorkshire St. Pauli from there." As well as perpetuating the St. Pauli community by maintaining links with their fellow European fan clubs, Chris makes it clear that Yorkshire St. Pauli want to make a difference away from football, and change perspectives in Leeds itself. Membership costs £5 for those who are waged, £3 for those who aren't, and that money is mainly used to pay for a subscription to St. Pauli's official matchday stream. However, there's also a whip around for PAFRAS after each game, with any excess money going to the cause.

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Wanting to go a step further in connecting with Yorkshire's refugee community, the group invited refugees and asylum seekers to come along and watch the games. Still, as Chris explained, laughing: "There's a limit to what you can do with watching second-division German football." Soon, it became apparent that there was a considerable appetite to organise, and play in, actual matches. So the local 'Football For All' project was born, with members of Yorkshire St. Pauli and local refugees playing alongside each other at Powerleague Leeds Central. The fan club also raised enough funds to buy boots, shirts, shorts, socks and shinpads for communal use, with St Pauli. even sending over some kit as a contribution.

The Yorkshire St. Pauli team which played FC Lampedusa

Chris added that, while football is what originally brought the group together, membership of Yorkshire St. Pauli also transcends sport. "The level of solidarity, the level of friendship and the connections that we have, I could never even have imagined four or five years ago," he said. Having travelled to Hamburg for the final game of last season, around 20 members of the fan club were treated to a party at the infamous Jolly Roger supporters' pub, as well as a match against touring refugee football club FC Lampedusa, which according to Chris they lost "about 10-1." Still, it's the sense of community that matters. Chris told me that almost everyone involved with the St. Pauli fanzine was aware of Yorkshire St. Pauli. There's no price to be put on that sense of affinity, nor the companionship that comes with it.

While Yorkshire St. Pauli might be well known in Hamburg, they're also coming to be recognised for their activism in Leeds. They are essentially part of a like-minded football movement which is doing its utmost to contribute something positive, both locally and internationally. When it comes to their identity as a fan club, Chris told me: "We're people who want to do stuff within the community and change the community. We don't want to be a clique, we don't want to be a bunch of people sat in a pub watching second-division German football. We do have agency, we do have purpose. We're able to change our community for the better."

Said in the true spirit of St. Pauli, that.

@W_F_Magee