Red light buccaneers back in the big time

HAMBURG, Germany - The St Pauli district of Hamburg is famous for prostitution, pop music and a pirate flag that will fly over the Bundesliga again next season, right on cue for the centenary of a uniquely popular club.

Tens of thousands of fans took to the Reeperbahn, the street at the heart of Hamburg's red light district, to celebrate the return of FC St Pauli to the top flight of German football this month.

No one really expects St Pauli to stay in the Bundesliga for long, but the prospect of Bayern Munich and the rest of the German elite visiting the Millerntor is enough for now, at a club where success has never been measured by trophies.

"If you look back you'll see we've never actually won a title," Stefan Schatz, of the St Pauli fan project, told Reuters. "We've come up again this time as runners-up, which is typical for us.

"For a team that's never won anything we're amazingly popular."

The Millerntor stands barely more than a goal kick away from the Reeperbahn, still the centre of the city's sex trade, just as it was when The Beatles honed their live act at clubs on and around the street in the early 1960s.

Such an earthy setting has always suited a football club that has long been defined by the alternative fan scene that grew up among punks and left-wing supporters, and whose players run out on to the pitch to 'Hells Bells' by heavy rock band AC/DC.

Still fiercely anti-racist, and still with the brown-and-white first-team colours, there are nevertheless signs that the modern business of football is catching up with a club that less than a decade ago was on the brink of extinction.

RAMSHACKLE STATE

At first glance from the car park, the stadium appears to be in the same ramshackle state as ever - the corrugated iron of the near stand's roof peeling away, the pillars rusting and the plastic seats faded to a dusty shade of red.

However, on the other side of the ground a transformation is well underway. A gleaming new main stand should be completed in time for the centenary season, part of a rebuilding plan that will eventually see the whole stadium modernised.

New offices and a shop have been in place for some time at a club now run by the theatre owner Corny Littmann and even on a rainy workday morning there are dozens of customers queuing up to buy merchandise plastered with the skull-and-crossbones symbol that has become famous far beyond this modest corner of Hamburg.

"When we played third division with only three sides to the ground, with one stand torn down, we still had 15,000 coming to every game," Schatz said.

"These are the days when you're proud of the reputation you have, with fans from all over the world coming and feeling connected with St Pauli. That makes me proud to be part of the St Pauli thing.

"At the same time it's kind of annoying that now you can't go anywhere without people wearing skull-and-crossbones T-shirts. For some it is just a fashion accessory."

The fan organisation is based round the corner from the new club offices in shabby premises serving as a meeting place for supporters and filled with battered, old, brown, leather sofas, scarves from companion fan groups around the world and, of course, a table football game.