Why Bundesliga needs to revive epic St. Pauli-Hamburg rivalry

HAMBURG, Germany -- This Friday evening, FC St. Pauli could seal their return to the Bundesliga after a 13-year absence from Germany's top flight. However, despite such a tantalizing prospect, one fan described a possible win as the "worst case for St. Pauli," because the game is against local rivals Hamburg SV on "enemy territory" (stream LIVE at 12:30 p.m. on ESPN+).

Friday marks the 51st recorded derby between St. Pauli and Hamburg SV (or HSV) in all competitions dating back to 1947. While HSV were the juggernaut of northern Germany for decades, thereby claiming their position as kings of Hamburg, the balance of power has shifted in recent years, with the smaller FC St. Pauli slowly overtaking their more illustrious rivals.

- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

HSV, winners of the European Cup in 1983, were known as the "Dinosaur of the Bundesliga" due to the fact that they'd consistently played first-division football from the club's foundation in 1919 right up to 2018, the year when HSV were relegated to the 2.Bundesliga for the first time ever. They've not managed to return to the Bundesliga since. Meanwhile, St. Pauli are leading the 2. Bundesliga standings, seven points ahead of third-place Fortuna Düsseldorf with three games remaining. If they beat HSV, St. Pauli will definitely be back in the Bundesliga, which would mark the club's sixth stint in the top tier. It would also end a six-year spell of regular derbies in Hamburg.

"We have gotten more used to [the rivalry] to an extent, and I believe the super radical element, including the violence, is gone," Maik Nöcker told ESPN. The accomplished journalist has been a St. Pauli supporter for what feels like forever. For a while, he even worked as a host/presenter on the club's own online channel. "The rivalry is rather down to some teasing between the fans, which can be somewhat funny, when HSV fans paint a St. Pauli pub in black, white and blue or overpaint steps in St. Pauli from brown, white and red into black, white and blue and vice versa."

Regardless of how intense the rivalry between the clubs appears on the pitch these days, it also represents the overall cultural differences one can find within the city.

Hamburg is home to 1.9 million people high up in the north of Germany. Just like any other metropolis, the city is anything but homogenous, thanks in large part to the massive port that welcomes cargo ships from all over the world every day. The bustling trade is a major factor in how Hamburg has flourished economically in the post-war era up to the present day. It's why visitors driving into the city from the south will find themselves among neatly arranged residential areas, traversed by tiny streets, once they have passed thousands of containers and heavy machinery stationed in the port. Wealth is not flaunted, but modest.

There is also another side of Hamburg -- specifically St. Pauli, where once upon a time colorful characters roamed the streets and musicians played at lively bars late into the night. Some streets in St. Pauli were pure punk rock -- gritty, loud and drug-fueled. Those who managed to survive the 1970s and '80s usually still embrace the punk lifestyle even if the sheen of their leather jackets has lost some of its lustre. FC St. Pauli embody the elements upon which the district was once built and earned its reputation.

That's why the rivalry between the two Hamburg clubs is so fascinating -- it's far more than just two clubs battling out for supremacy in a large urban area. "FC St. Pauli surely represents clearly defined values and expresses them loudly as part of the club's identity. It is part of St. Pauli's identity to be socially active and rebellious, to make statements, to stick up for minorities and such. That's why you get the feeling as a St. Pauli supporter that you are more political than others," Nöcker said.

Being political has at times been far more important to St. Pauli fans than success on the football pitch. Micha Fritz from Viva con Agua, a non-governmental organization, is familiar with political activism. His organization fights for free access to clean drinking water and basic sanitation around the globe. Its roots, though, are intertwined with the history of FC St. Pauli. In 2005, the team travelled for a training camp to Cuba, which left such an impression on Benjamin Adrion that the player planned to do something about the horrible conditions under which many Cubans were living at the time.

"This partnership has been going on for 18 years now," said Fritz. "When Benjamin developed the idea for Viva con Agua, he was still playing on the left wing for the team. So, he was a player. Oke Göttlich covered that crucial training camp as a newspaper reporter where the idea for Viva con Agua was born. He is now the FC St. Pauli chairman."

Viva con Agua is only a one part of the political sphere that has been built within St. Pauli's immediate surroundings. Fans attending games are regularly approached by activists gathering signatures for petitions or advocating for rights and laws that empower marginalized groups in society. "In my mind, it is the most fascinating football club out there, because it is not just a football club," said Fritz. "Instead, despite having enjoyed not so much success at times, St. Pauli has always been shaping culture and discussions in Germany -- or in my social bubble at least."

Unsurprisingly, HSV supporters might view things slightly differently. The six-time German champions can count on a much larger fan base and appeal to a wider audience. "Hamburg have roughly 1,130 fan clubs, St. Pauli have made it to 400. They better set their sights low," Dirk, a HSV fan and member of the fan club "OFC Schwarzenbek" said, adding: "And political matters don't belong in football."

Indeed, HSV boast over 110,000 club members compared to St. Pauli's roughly 40,000. When fans speak about HSV, they often simply say "Hamburg" out of habit, indicating that Hamburg SV represents the entire city and not just one famous district. Even Nöcker, who does not live in the immediate proximity of St. Pauli's Millerntor-Stadion, admits that HSV enjoy a different appeal. "St. Pauli are anchored in the city center and also in the district itself. The club represent the Schanze and such, while HSV are rather a club for the masses even beyond the borders of Hamburg." A percentage of spectators attending HSV games travel from neighboring states into the city to flock to the Volksparkstadion.

Fascinatingly, HSV have enjoyed an increase in home attendances in recent years, despite failing to achieve promotion to the Bundesliga in five straight seasons. This year will likely mark the sixth consecutive year in which they came tantalizingly close to a possible return to Germany's top flight, without actually getting over the hump. HSV have missed out in dramatic fashion at times, losing games on the final matchday or just falling short in the playoffs. And yet, the fans are there: it's still quite hard to find tickets for home games, as Kerstin and Cathy, two bartenders from "Unabsteigbar," the most famous HSV pub in town, told ESPN.

They have both witnessed first-hand how fans who do not attend home games, because they might not have the money to buy tickets, watch their beloved team on the TV inside their pub. "The fans stick to HSV no matter what," Kerstin said. "The fan base has actually grown recently, because of the feeling of community and friendship. People tell their friends and bring them to games."

Or they'll visit Unabsteigbar and down a few beers following the team's fortunes as they desperately try to avoid yet another year in 2. Bundesliga. The name of the pub translates into "impossible to get relegated," a name that stems from a time when HSV did manage to avoid the drop year after year.

Seven years ago, Cathy became a bartender in Unabsteigbar because she needed the income and since then, she's seen the establishment grow into the place-to-be for HSV supporters in town. Just don't ask her to tell you how it transpired. "It has just somehow happened over the years," she said. "But it is one big family I can tell you." The pub has become a second home for many genuine characters, colorful personalities and football fans who essentially say "you need to enjoy pain" as a HSV supporter.

What's also popular are denim vests with numerous patches called "Kutte" in German. These are worn as a quasi-uniform for fans who are usually members of specific fan groups, not to be confused with the club's actual Ultras.

"I have anti-St. Pauli patches on my Kutte, which is 30 years old and has never been washed," Dirk told ESPN, displaying a certain degree of pride. "The thing is covered in ketchup, mayonnaise -- everything sticks to it. We say when it rains on matchday, it's wash day. People from every continent have pictures taken with me and my Kutte." His fan club exists so that their 40 members can have fun together, but there aren't any duties or a certain world view attached to it. It is all about enjoying football and supporting HSV.

A few miles southeast from Volksparkstadion, in St. Pauli's Millerntor, it is much harder to merely be a football fan.

"Something that could be challenged is what makes performance and defines success," said Micha Fritz. "Is it a success to win something in a highly capitalistic-toxic environment like Qatar which does not care about human rights and is incredibly corrupt? Well, I believe most people at St. Pauli wouldn't define that as a success."

Some St. Pauli fans admit that the political component attached to their fandom can become almost overbearing at times. That being said, due to this season's success and the previous year under head coach Fabian Hürzeler, a 31-year-old proponent of the possession football laid out by Brighton's Roberto De Zerbi, a large percentage of fans inside Millerntor have become increasingly invested in the mouthwatering prospect of a return to the Bundesliga.

"We have a great stadium, play fantastic football, will be promoted to the Bundesliga and, on top of that, are economically healthy. That's a position that requires a long-time St. Pauli supporter some time to get used to," Nöcker said.

In the past, St. Pauli sides that made it to the Bundesliga primarily played scrappy, counter-attacking "underdog football," a defensive style that was anything but pleasing on the eye. Hürzeler's group of players looks much more like a self-confident team that could compete with the likes of Eintracht Frankfurt and Borussia Mönchengladbach.

Meanwhile, HSV could actually witness their local rivals celebrating the final steps towards a return to the Bundesliga in their own backyard. HSV need almost a miracle to reach third place and the promotion playoffs, four points behind Düsseldorf with three games to be played. The question whether the rivalry inside Hamburg is important also divides both fan bases.

"Well, Hamburg is Hamburg and St. Pauli is an urban district, but the rivalry is very important," Kerstin admitted.

Nöcker, however, like other St. Pauli fans, disagrees with the notion that the local derby has such an importance, particularly after a six-year stretch with regular meetings between the two teams, saying, "FC St. Pauli don't necessarily need that rivalry to find meaning. So, it's like this: the club can live very well on its own, and us fans we can be alone for ourselves."

Of course, such a statement can be said in a much more relaxed manner when your club are on the verge of promotion and the much larger local rivals will continue to languish in 2. Bundesliga. The balance of power in Hamburg, the northern Germany metropolis has indeed changed.