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FC St.Pauli may have walked out onto the lush green grass of the irrepressible Millerntor Stadium with AC/DC’s Hells Bells booming so loudly that the whole of Hamburg could hear it, but come full-time, the Club would be very much in Heaven, as they reclaimed their place amongst the best of the Bundesliga.

Modern Football has long been dining at the table of excess, drunk on vanity as it gorges on the riches it has to offer. St.Pauli is the cure to a culture that has infiltrated the once-beautiful game and driven real fans to despair. The sense of family and community is palpable from the moment you arrive at the stadium and you realise this is more than a Club. It’s a way of life. It’s an identity, and their fans wear it proudly.

It’s been over a decade since the Club last played its football in the Bundesliga, but their status hasn’t diminished in that time, in fact, their popularity has spread beyond the iconic Reeperbahn and become a cultural phenomoneom attracting disenfranchised fans who have found meaning in a Club who is socially active and stands for something more than football.

These days the Millerntor is visited by curious tourists excited to see the punk graffiti of Germany’s ‘Kult’ Club, who stand shoulder to shoulder with minority groups, but beyond those peering eyes are the fans who have been there right from the start and remain their beating heart.

Whilst St. Pauli is rightly lauded for their activism off the pitch, let’s not forget that they have also assembled an incredibly exciting team on the pitch. Led by manager Fabian Hürzeler, one of the country’s youngest and most forward-thinking managers they have a squad full of fire and flair that is more than capable of mixing it with the big boys of the Bundesliga.

St. Pauli has shown that a club can engage with its community and be successful without compromising its ethics and they are emerging from the long dark shadow that has often been cast by neighbours HSV Hamburg.

The atmosphere as I walked towards the stadium with the supporters sent shivers up and down my spine, there were so many people everywhere, that it felt like Woodstock. It was a sell-out and it was a moment that I felt lucky to be part of. It was like everybody was there, even if they didn’t have a ticket. So many people seemed to have travelled in the hope of purchasing one outside of the stadium.

The Millerntor was alive with anticipation and the noise was pulsating. As I looked around the stadium I could see that this is a Club in every sense of the word. There is a sign that hangs with pride declaring ‘In Football, There is No Gender.’ Male, female, trans, it doesn’t matter. At the Millerntor you are part of the family – you are St.Pauli. Inclusivity runs through the veins of this Club in every single way. This is a progressive Club, that demonstrates exactly how football should be. It also struck me, how many young fans were proudly wearing the colours of St.Pauli, standing at the front of the stadium trying to get the best view, waiting to see their heroes.

When the game started, there may have been 30,000 in the stadium but at times it felt like 300,000. Last week the Club lost the opportunity to win promotion to the Bundesliga at the home of eternal rivals HSV Hamburg, as they fell to a 1-0 defeat, however, you sensed that today against Vfl Osnabruck was set to be different. With only 7 minutes on the clock, Dapo Afolayan put St.Pauli ahead and the crowd fell into ecstasy.

Throughout the entire game, the St. Pauli fans didn’t stop singing. I’ve never heard so many songs at one game. The players seemed to feed off their energy. There was a controlled calm and relentlessness about the way they went about their business. Their performance was conducted effortlessly by captain and midfield general Jackson Irvine – never before has one player been so suited to one Club. It was like they were born for each other.

By the 70th minute, St Pauli had raced into a 3-0 goal lead and the stadium was at fever pitch. The noise, excitement and anticipation for the full-time whistle grew with each passing minute. In the closing stages, fans started to spill onto the side of the pitch, with the stewards pleading for patience. The fans did as instructed and waited for the moment they could finally celebrate their promotion. Not even a goal in the dying seconds from Vfl Osnabruck could dampen the occasion and as the referee finally brought the game to a conclusion, mayhem descended upon the Millerntor as 30,000 fans descended onto the pitch for a moment that will never be forgotten.

It was a truly surreal and perfect day as I found myself on the pitch. Fans hugged and held each other and embraced their players as flags, bearing the St.Pauli skull and crossbones were held aloft. Everywhere you looked there were smiling faces, tears of happiness and joy.

All images and words by Pieter Slembrouck.

You can follow Pieter’s work on social media here.

Thanks to FC Saint Pauli.

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