When Relegation Is Preferable: The Fight for FC St. Pauli’s Soul
Wearing denim jeans and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the Jolly Roger skull and crossbones so closely associated with the Kult Club’s supporters, FC St. Pauli’s manager Holger Stanislawski appears in stark contrast to his Bundesliga contemporaries who patrol their sidelines instead wearing slacks and ties, or minimally collared buttoned shirts with sponsor-approved club apparel. Having been with the Hamburg-based club since 1993, “Stanis” never left the Millerntor Stadion after hanging up his boots in 2004, moving up to the directors’ box only to later move down to the touchline to guide St. Pauli from the Regionalliga (3rd Division) all the way back up to the 1.Bundesliga. Some might say he’s the living embodiment of the club–a dirty needle sticking into the sterilised skin of German football.
And now he’ll be leaving at the end of the 2010/2011 campaign.
Perhaps this departure was a long time coming. Eighteen years with one club is a massive accomplishment in a culture that chews up and spits out its own faster than the trophies they win lose their shine. A cursory glance at the number of football managers sacked this Bundesliga season demonstrates that what might have been won yesterday means little today. Also at times, longevity comes with a comfortable trend toward mediocrity that deserves being broken for both the club striving to greater heights and the individual desirous of a new challenge. Thomas Schaaf and Werder Bremen–serving in some capacity since his youth days from 1972–were seemingly at a similar crossroads this season prior to the agreement of an extension for an ultimate one-club man.
The impending break between Holger Stanislawski and St. Pauli is somewhat saddening, though, as both he and the club have shown patience and dedication to their fans and its Reeperbahn neighborhood the likes of which are scarce to find at this level of European football. For contrast’s sake, one need only cast a glance upon the legal proceedings being levied by Tottenham Hotspur against Newham Council over the Olympic Stadium bid. Despite encountering a rather vocal opposition to the club’s attempts at leaving N17 and rejecting the Northumberland Development Project, Daniel Levy and his army of attorneys seem intent on their attempts to frustrate and alienate the White Hart Lane faithful.
In the case of Stanis, his decision to step away highlights a more fundamental problem that has bothered St. Pauli’s first season back in the top flight since 2002–a year-long struggle for the club’s very identity between its alternative left-wing supporter culture and its business as a professional club. Earlier this year, supporters rebelled against the club’s allowance of local strip club Susi’s to allow their dancers to perform in a club box at the Millerntor-Stadion. The arrangement was made with the club and Susi’s at the start of the season when the local show bar pointed out that revenues dipped significantly during FCSP home matches. At the time, it seemed a fairly shrewd bit of business for St. Pauli–obtain the fee from Susi’s for the lease on the box and demonstrate your club’s involvement in the neighborhood by helping a nearby business make money for itself.
After all, who else would entertain those kids in the Pirates’ Nest nursery the club began operating at the stadium in November 2010?
With a slight crisis of conscience remiscent of supporter opposition to racy ad boards during that 2002 season, St. Pauli’s directors opted to ban the showgirls from performing, but only during the ninety minutes of play on the pitch. Once the final whistles sounds, those who paid top dollar to sit in that box can get right back to enjoying the tease of non-adulterous entertainment replete with tasty nibbles delivered to them from the club kitchens via a toy train. Overall, the money derived from such a venture when the club has by far the smallest budget in the 1.Bundesliga denied the possibility of FCSP completing abandoning the Susi’s box. Shortly following the resolution of this issue between the club and its fans though, another set of protesters (around 4,000 reportedly) styling themselves as the “Social Romantics” appeared at the January match against SC Freiburg waving red Jolly Roger flags in opposition to the club’s increased usage of advertisements in the stadium. While that link is in German, the photo attached to the story is quite simple to understand. Railing against what they saw as the club’s increasing shift toward commercialism during this season in the 1.Bundesliga, these protesters had a simple message to St. Pauli’s board–Bring Back FCSP.
This repudiation of the club’s attempts to capitalize on additional revenues from life in the German top flight appears surprising to most as, despite Holger Stanislawski’s efforts and the side’s spirit-lifting triumph over arch-rival Hamburg at the Imtech Arena, this season has been largely forgettable. Poor home form coupled with a lack of scoring prowess in the first half of the season hinted at a potential St. Pauli slide down the table and into relegation territory during the second half. Rather than demanding the club invest more in the league’s smallest wage budget during the January transfer window to keep the club up, supporters were instead requesting the cash-generating stripper poles to be taken down and advertisements to be moved out. Rather than gouge supporters eager for a renewed Hamburg derby at the Millerntor, the club affirmed its commitment to having some of the lowest ticket prices in the league, with the cheapest ticket for the most in-demand home match in eight years going for around £10.
On the surface, it might seem the club wants to evolve by using its unique appeal to generate more income, complete the ongoing renovations to its old stadium in style, and become a regular participant in the top flight while its supporters want the club to remain small. One might imagine this means the fans and their fierce allegiance to the Kult persona embraced in the 1980s during an era of creeping fascism in the game are holding an aspiring organization back from achieving its potential. Then again, FC St. Pauli–as with all clubs–only exists because of its fans and it would do well for the club to compromise with the fans and remain true to their roots. Stanislawski’s decision to step aside might be a public acknowledgment of this ongoing tension between what club directors want and the supporters desire but caught between two groups whom he has spent a great deal of time with, he chooses not to take sides.
Then again, Stanis could prefer a new challenge elsewhere over another season managing in the 2.Bundesliga as his rumored future destination is the cash-rich village side of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. Funded by SAP founder and de-facto owner Dietmar Hopp, Hoffenheim vaulted from the fifth division of German football several years ago to settle today as a mid-table side in the 1.Bundesliga. With a more talented set of players already available than St. Pauli and a considerably fatter wallet available for squad investment, 1899 would allow Stanislawski to further his managerial skill and become known more for that as opposed to his identification with nearly everyone’s “second favorite Bundesliga club.” Regardless, his departure might point to the beginnings of a détente between the club and its fans as they embark on a new season in 2011/2012 without their iconic manager in the dugout. That season will likely be in the 2.Bundesliga, and for some reason, that feels just fine.
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