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External Media: How a German football club inspired fans in Yorkshire to unite and help refugees

The Yorkshire St Pauli supporters’ group was established in 2011 so fans could meet in a bar and watch matches together, but social action has always been important to St Pauli and their members in Leeds have carried on that tradition

By Richard Foster for The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Guardian Sport Network

External Media – this news was published on The Guardian whom we credit.

The demolition of the refugee camp in Calais and The Sun’s self-righteous criticism of Gary Lineker has put the humanitarian crisis on the front and back pages of newspapers in recent days, but Lineker is not the only football fan who has shown concern for displaced people who have travelled across Europe looking refuge in the UK. For the past few years a group of football fans in Leeds, who initially came together to support a club in the German second division, have been doing their bit to help refugees in their local area.

The Yorkshire St Pauli supporters’ club was established in 2011 by fans who met at the Wharf Chambers Co-operative Club in Leeds to watch FC St Pauli matches via a live stream. The German club have built an international reputation for their firebrand approach to politics and left-wing activism, and this spirit is imbued in all of their supporters groups. The Yorkshire branch is one of a few hundred St Pauli supporters clubs around the world, with fans meeting in cities such as Brighton, Glasgow, New York and Athens.

The 80 or so active fans who meet in Leeds offer long-distance support to the football club, organise benefit concerts and play the odd friendly match of their own, but they are also invested in the ethos of Yorkshire St Pauli, which is now enshrined in their very own constitution. Their ideology of “standing against all forms of discrimination” is very much in line with the principles espoused by their mother club in Hamburg. Their community work is as important as the sporting fortunes of FC St Pauli, which is a blessed relief as the side are currently struggling at the foot of the Bundesliga 2 table, with only one win from their first 10 league matches this season.

Yorkshire St Pauli have developed a relationship with local charity Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (PAFRAS), which works with refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants in Leeds. The charity run a weekly drop-in centre that provides people with free food and clothing as well as access to a range of advocacy and support, including medical and legal advice. Yorkshire St Pauli first linked up with PAFRAS in 2012, initially just donating some money from their membership funds, but the connection has developed over time. The club have established a regular “kitchen fund”, which provides £100 a month from their membership fees.

Helping refugees has been at the heart of St. Pauli’s efforts for a while. In 2010 they hosted a tournament for recently arrived refugees and in 2016 they helped establish FC Lampedusa, an all-refugee team based in Hamburg that has an all-female coaching staff.

Initially the Yorkshire St Pauli members raised funds for refugees and encouraged them to come along and watch the St Pauli games but, as one of the founder members, Scott, points out, this had limited appeal: “They had bigger concerns than being able to watch dour German second division football with a bunch of strangers.” It became apparent that the refugees were keen to start playing football so the group joined a five-a-side league “but we quickly had more refugees joining the team and before we knew it we had a squad of 12,” says Scott. Something needed to change.

With more people keen to be involved, the solution was to play among themselves. Yorkshire St Pauli established a regular kickabout every Sunday, which they called the Football For All project. The supporters’ club covered the cost of the pitch hire, which was heavily discounted thanks to the sympathetic support of Powerleague in central Leeds, and St Pauli helped by providing kit and boots, ensuring that the weekly matches can be inclusive, with money not being a barrier to participation.

The popularity of these games has grown – with more people finding out about the event through PAFRAS – and now up to 40 people from a dozen countries turn up each week. With more local people joining the game and paying to play, the club have been able to use their membership fees to fund other initiatives. “With the Football For All project now sustainable, all monies raised through membership are split equally between PARFAS and the Leeds Anti-Fascist Network,” says Scott.

The connection with St Pauli helps the fans pursue their goals, as Scott explains: “We have some great contacts within the club who help us on a regular basis, including helping us with some kit when we first started the Football For All project We take inspiration from their values and the way in which the club conducts itself, but we have also been inspired by other similar groups as ourselves such as United Glasgow FC, FC Lampedusa Hamburg and AFC Unity.”

The group want to reach out to even more displaced people and ensure that they are aware that the organisation will welcome them with open arms and try to encourage their involvement in as many activities as possible. “We would love to continue the anti-discrimination work we have started through our Football For All project among other things,” says Chris, another founder member. “And we would love to further that by providing more opportunities for people to participate in the project.”

There is also a determination to increase female participation in the Football For All project in line with their mother club, who claim to have the largest proportion of female supporters in Germany and banned Maxim magazine from advertising within their ground as fans had protested about their sexist depictions of women. One cannot imagine many English clubs taking such a stance.

Yorkshire St Pauli’s resources are limited and they are careful not to over-promise but they are making the local area more hospitable and maintaining one of the club’s fundamental principles: “Tolerance and respect in mutual human relations are important pillars of the St. Pauli philosophy.”

External Media – this news was published on The Guardian whom we credit.