HAMBURG, Germany -- "We love St. Pauli. The fabulous St. Pauli. We hate the Volkspark bastards. And beat the f---ing [insert opponent here]. If you can't hear us. We sing a little louder."
St. Pauli is one of the strangest, most unique clubs in the world. But it's also the German prototype: a club that sacrifices a layer of potential success in the name of giving fans exactly what they want most. It caps its ambition and is rewarded with love, loyalty and the best matchday atmosphere you'll find.
Both St. Pauli and German soccer as a whole can succeed at particularly high levels at times -- the latter more than the former -- but it requires both entities to get a lot of things right.
Taking in a match at St. Pauli's home, the Millerntor, you quickly realize that everything you've read about the club -- and if you're a soccer fan, you've probably read something about its socialist and activist leanings, its "come on, come all" ethos, or its pirate ship aesthetic -- is both true and almost understated. The exterior of the east side of the stadium is a glorious mess of banners, art and graffiti.
When I attended St. Pauli's final match of the 2021-22 season in May, a "Leave No One Behind" banner had gone up in front of a larger "Refugees Welcome" one. Fans, rocking plenty of skulls and crossbones (some in rainbow colors), walked into the seating area under a sign that said, "Football Has No Gender." The flags waved by fans throughout the match had plenty of pirate themes, Che Guevara's face and countless hearts.
The team walked out to AC/DC's "Hells Bells," and Blur's "Song 2" (the "woo-hoo" song) played after goals. The fans, always singing, belted out "We love St. Pauli/ja ja ja ja-ja ja" (to the tune of the chorus from "Can't Take My Eyes Off You") for minutes at a time mid-match. It was an absolute blast.
For St. Pauli fans, success is great as long as it doesn't come at the expense of identity. An overt amount of spending is to be discouraged if it results in raised prices. Certain sponsors are to be rejected if they conflict with the values of the club of Guy Acolatse, the first Black professional soccer player in Germany, the club of Volker Ippig, the punk squatter-slash-St. Pauli backup goalkeeper in the 1980s, or the self-proclaimed club with the most female members in the country. Let rivals Hamburg (the aforementioned "Volkspark bastards") take on all the corporate sponsorships and overpriced one-time stars; St. Pauli aims to win nearly as many matches -- they finished fifth in the German second division last season, three points behind third-place Hamburg, and won a 3-2 derby thriller in the Millerntor -- and have way more fun.
St. Pauli is one of the most celebrated clubs in Germany, but has played top-division soccer for only eight seasons in the past 60 years. They obviously stand out when it comes to an ethos that almost eschews success altogether. But really, that makes them the mascot for both how German football has performed, and what it has come to mean for so many.
The 50+1 rule, its obvious benefits and its obvious drawbacks
In 1994-95, the Bundesliga was the deepest league in Europe. Bayern Munich reached the Champions League semifinals, falling to eventual champions Ajax, while both Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund reached the semis of the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League.) Domestically, the Bundesliga title race was an all-timer: Borussia Dortmund outlasted Werder Bremen by one point, thanks to Bremen's 3-1 loss to Bayern on the final matchday; Freiburg and Kaiserslautern finished just two points back, and Bayern and Borussia Monchengladbach trailed by six. BVB was the fifth different Bundesliga champion in the past five seasons.
Per the ratings at EloFootball.com, six German clubs ranked among Europe's top 15, and the league's 10 best clubs finished that season with the highest average rating on the continent -- it was the 21st time in the last 23 years Germany had ranked either first or second in that regard.
In 2021-22, there was one German club in the top 15: Bayern, winner of 10 straight Bundesliga titles. Germany has ranked either third or fourth, per EloFootball, every year since 1998-99. The reason, of course: money. There is plenty of it in German soccer, obviously, but when the sport began to chase it in full in the 1990s, the Bundesliga only partially went along.
The Premier League's pursuit of television money, the European Cup's transition into the Champions League and the effects of the Bosman ruling changed the sport considerably during this period. Both revenue and spending skyrocketed, which made German soccer's not-for-profit status tricky to maintain.
The country's governing body came up with a reasonably elegant solution for allowing clubs for-profit status while still keeping the game as much in the fans' hands as possible: the 50+1 rule. In essence, it means that while commercial investors can purchase shares of a given club, fans control 50%, plus one share, therefore maintaining a majority of voting rights. An all-controlling billionaire or the sporting arm of a rich state wouldn't be able to outright run a German club because the fans would never approve it. (They also would have unanimously voted against participation in 2021's European Super League endeavor, which is why no German clubs were included.)
Because of the combination of 50+1 and the strict financial-health requirements that are part of the licensing process to become a Bundesliga club -- which now even includes criteria for environmental sustainability -- German clubs aren't allowed to take on the kind of debt that has kept super-clubs like Barcelona afloat.
If you cannot afford to invest in your players, you have to raise funds from player exits, which has produced a situation where some potential heavyweights -- Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, RB Leipzig, etc -- have become well-regarded developmental clubs, nurturing elite, young players (Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho, Kai Havertz) before moving them on for large transfer fees to the sport's powerhouses. They are well-run, well-organized and fun to watch, and they forever feel like they're a year away from major contention.
This dynamic has also created a situation of extreme mobility within the league. A club that is not particularly well-run cannot bail itself out with risky spending -- it just falls in the table. One-time heavyweights like Werder Bremen, Schalke and Hamburg have all suffered relegation in recent years, while one-time minnows like Union Berlin have been able to climb pretty high. Both the race for the top four (with spots in the Champions League on the line) and the relegation battle are generally full of tension and unexpected plot twists; that was certainly the case in 2021-22, when RB Leipzig narrowly squeaked fourth place over Freiburg and Union Berlin, while a stoppage-time goal saved three-time Bundesliga champions VfB Stuttgart from a relegation playoff, sending Hertha Berlin there instead.
At the same time, these constraints limit European success. While Bayern has certainly mastered the formula, winning the Champions League twice in the past decade (2013 and 2020), continental success for others has been scattershot. In the 20 years since Bayer Leverkusen fell victim to Zinedine Zidane's miracle goal and lost to Real Madrid in the 2002 Champions League final, the Bundesliga has averaged just 1.1 Champions League quarterfinalists per season -- Bayern, most of the time -- and 0.9 Europa League quarterfinalists.
Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund reached the Champions League final in 2013 before losing to Bayern, Schalke reached the semis in 2011, RB Leipzig did the same in 2020, and Eintracht Frankfurt won the Europa League this past May. But even during the Germany national team's run of international dominance (winning the 2014 World Cup), the Bundesliga trailed the pack in terms of elite depth.
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If the trade-off for having affordable ticket, beer and bratwurst prices, as well as a genuine feeling of ownership within your club, is a league that doesn't enjoy much continental success and hands the title to Bayern every year, then it's clear fans are okay with it, as the environment they create at matches is well worth it. But it's unclear how much of a role 50+1 actually plays in that. The financial restraints -- the insistence on long-term financial health over short-term success -- come mostly from the licensing requirements, and beer prices are low because, well... they just are. The fans didn't vote on that.
In a world without 50+1, clubs could still choose to keep things affordable while potentially bringing in owners and sponsors who can invest more in the overall product on the pitch. Plus, noteworthy exceptions have been granted to clubs like Bayer Leverkusen (operated by the Bayer company), Wolfsburg (Volkswagen), Hoffenheim (software billionaire Dietmar Hopp owns nearly every share) and RB Leipzig (only a small number of "members" control the club, and they all happen to be associated with Red Bull.) With all four of those clubs seeing high levels of success in recent years, and with Bayern running rampant -- when one of the draws of 50+1 in the first place was the way it would encourage competition and potential parity -- what has it really protected against?
Still, it appears fans see 50+1 as a protector against a slippery slope and it's not going away anytime soon. While English fans and plenty of soccer writers can speak admirably of this ownership structure, if Europe's other major soccer countries aren't going to attempt something similar -- or if UEFA isn't going to figure out a Financial Fair Play (FFP) model with actual teeth -- Germany will be held back.
Development of youth
Clubs need to create an extra advantage for themselves to play at a high level within Europe; most of those extra advantages have been absorbed by European soccer as a whole.
Following Germany's 2014 World Cup victory, countless articles and books shined a light on the country's brilliant processes for player development, coach development and the optimal style of play it was deploying. Every club is required to have a youth academy that assures a certain level of quality in terms of facilities, education and accredited coaches -- once again, you don't get a Bundesliga license without it -- and the standard of coach education has long been celebrated. German coaches like Ralf Rangnick, Klopp and, more recently, Thomas Tuchel were among the early progenitors of what you might call the "modern" style of play, combining elements of possession-first soccer with manic counter-pressing and quick attacking.
Success breeds imitation, and other countries have revisited their youth development setup with impressive results. While Germany boasts plenty of fun, young stars at the moment -- Bayern Munich's Jamal Musiala (19), Bayer Leverkusen's Florian Wirtz (19), new Borussia Dortmund additions Karim Adeyemi (20) and Nico Schlotterbeck (22), Chelsea's Havertz (23, if that still counts as young at this point) -- England, France and Spain, at the least, are as or more deep in that regard.
If there's a style of play in Germany, it's been absorbed by soccer as a whole, too, and it's difficult to say that the Bundesliga is currently a bastion of managerial up-and-comers. Of this season's 18 Bundesliga managers, eight are at least 48 years old, seven have coached at least one other Bundesliga club before, and six are on at least their third German club. Hell, even in the 2. Bundesliga only two managers are under 40. Recycling has become a bit of an issue in recent years, with potential top clubs basically trading coaches among themselves.
The 34-year-old Julian Nagelsmann remains at Bayern, of course, and guys like Werder Bremen's Ole Werner (34), Mainz's Bo Svensson (42), former Klopp assistant Sandro Schwartz (43, Hertha Berlin) and former Borussia Dortmund assistants Edin Terzic (39, now Dortmund's manager), Enrico Maassen (38, Augsburg) and Daniel Farke (45, now with Borussia Monchengladbach after four seasons at Norwich City) are worth watching.
The most interesting ideas at the moment might actually be coming from a Swiss import (Leverkusen's Gerardo Seoane) and a couple of old hands: Union Berlin's Urs Fischer, 56, and Freiburg's Christian Streich, 57.
Seoane's Leverkusen boasted perhaps the most creative and aesthetically pleasing attacking side in the league, while Union and Freiburg both nearly reached the Champions League last season with a combination of quick, one-touch attacking and more well-bunkered defense than what you typically see atop the sport.
Retaining their talent
Beyond coaching, there's also the matter of retaining talent. German clubs still do a fantastic job of nurturing young players and giving them opportunities to sink or swim: Twelve players currently aged 20 or younger recorded at least 1,000 minutes in the Bundesliga last season, compared to seven in the English Premier League and six in Spain's LaLiga. But as soon as young players enjoy a breakout season or two, they are expected to leave for bigger clubs.
If German teams could hold onto their stars for even an extra year or two before letting them leave, it could make a massive difference in the Bundesliga title race. Wolfsburg lost Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Julian Draxler (PSG), Andre Schurrle (Dortmund) and Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan), all 26 or younger, within a two-year period in the middle of the 2010s. Schalke lost Leon Goretzka (Bayern), Leroy Sane (Manchester City), Draxler (Wolfsburg), Thilo Kehrer (PSG) and Joel Matip (Liverpool), all 24 and under, within a three-year period. Meanwhile, Dortmund pocketed €145 million for the transfers of Jadon Sancho (Manchester United) and Erling Haaland (Manchester City) within the last 12 months.
Thus far, the Bundesliga's potential contenders have held onto their key players this offseason. After an incredible breakout campaign, star attacker Christopher Nkunku signed a new contract at RB Leipzig amid plenty of transfer interest, while Bayer Leverkusen has so far held onto the brilliant attacking trio of Patrik Schick, Moussa Diaby and Wirtz, though Newcastle is evidently still trying to snag Diaby. And while Dortmund was destined to lose Haaland due to his €60m release clause this summer, the club has thus far kept 19-year-old star Jude Bellingham and has made a series of exciting additions in Freiburg defender Schlotterbeck (22), Bayern defender Niklas Sule (26), FC Salzburg attacker Adeyemi (20) and Ajax forward Sebastien Haller (28.)
There's still plenty of time left in the transfer window, but as of now it appears that the teams that finished second through fourth last season are all poised to improve. Bayern has made its own share of good moves as well -- landing Liverpool's Sadio Mane, and Ajax duo Ryan Gravenberch and Noussair Mazraoui -- but is still dealing with star forward Robert Lewandowski's desire to leave and might have to accept his €40m exit to Barcelona, given his contract expires in 2023.
Winning isn't everything
Of course, if Bayern runs away with an 11th title, German fans will still fill stadiums, sing as loud as possible, and drink cheap and delicious beer.
A week before I attended St. Pauli's season finale in May, I also saw them lose in Gelsenkirchen. They took a 2-0 lead over hosts Schalke in a match they had to win to keep their own promotion hopes alive, but Schalke scored three times in the second half to clinch promotion for themselves.
It was thrilling to witness, but it was gutting for St. Pauli, who would fall three points short in fifth place. But on the tram back to Gelsenkirchen's central train station, I was surrounded by St. Pauli fans who were somewhere between stoic and downright jovial. A couple of them were enjoying a delightful conversation with a pair of Schalke fans from Scotland; others were gazing far-off, beer in their hands and light smiles on their faces. Their team had just suffered heartbreak on the pitch, but they had enjoyed themselves immensely, and they had played their part.
It betrayed an ethos that is both hard to ignore and hard not to love: They obviously wanted to win -- and Eintracht fans certainly enjoyed winning the Europa League -- but more importantly, they wanted to be involved. And they wanted to party.