So, after a brief flirtation with the top flight of German fußball, the minnows of FC St. Pauli bid a sombre return to the second tier. And much to the chagrin of their battle-hardened followers, they succumbed to the might of a resurgent Bayern machine with little more than a whimper on matchday 33 in the Bundesliga. While their city neighbours Hamburg were threatening to derail Leverkusen’s attempts to retain the second automatic Champions’ League spot ahead of Bayern, St. Pauli were witnessing their own wagon coming well and truly off the tracks.
Having enjoyed their only previous sojourn to Germany’s premier division a decade ago, the club and its fans had been determined to make the very most of this season. Cue global media tales over a VIP box more reminiscent of a two-tier garden shed – incorporating a beer keg under each seat; a ‘sausage train’ delivering würst to the corporate ensemble; lap dancers employed to celebrate each attacking venture in their most tried-and-tested manner; and abandoned matches after an assistant referee was hit with a thrown pint of beer: ‘The Pirates’ were fast enhancing their already kult reputation. The first half of the season saw ‘everyone’s second team’ pick up some 17 points, including wins over European-chasing Nürnberg and Hannover. However, since the Winterpause, they have managed only 12 more, with no win since the first week of February. The ignominy of a fine in admonishment for the beer-throwing incident (though they did avoid having to play a game behind closed doors on appeal) was soon followed by the devastating news that the venerable Holger Stanislawski – 18 years a devotee of the club, in one form or another – would be leaving to assume the post of Head Coach at Hoffenheim as of the end of the season. Rather than help galvanise his players to give a fitting crescendo to the tenure of the man credited by Sporting Director Helmut Schulte as “my most important employee, someone I’ve enjoyed working with every day”, the announcement seemed to further debilitate an already floundering squad.
Near-fatal defeats to fellow bottom-five residents Bremen and Kaiserslautern, and just a point from another basement battle encounter with Wolfsburg, left St. Pauli three points adrift at the foot of the table as the tie with Bayern dawned. A visit from the rekordmeisteren was the very last thing the occupants of Das Millerntor-Stadion needed, yet would prove to be the last indication of the Bundesliga that they would receive. Almost prophetic in the midst of his tearful farewell monologue, Stani had concerned “I’m looking forward to the Bayern game but I’m also a bit scared”. Unfortunately for the 41 year old former defender, his fears came to pass in a very real demonstration of the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have-nots’.
Back in 2003, the Reeperbahn-based Club stared oblivion in the face, with spiraling debts and the threat of relegation to the northern regional division. A fan-community programme of rescue saw a steady stabilisation over the next three years, along with the take up of support for a number of charity links. Since 2005, their main charity – ‘Viva con Agua’ – has helped to provide running water to areas of Cuba, Ethiopia, Benin, Rwanda, Madagascar, Nicaragua, Tajikistan, and Cambodia. The Club also boasts the largest female fanbase in Germany, not to mention acting as the standard-bearer for anti-fascism; ably embodying the mortality engendered by the skull and crossbones insignia adorning that flag, and much of their fan merchandise.
Having gatecrashed the upper echelons as a result of a second-placed finish in the 2.Bundesliga, St. Pauli have been largely fêted by most observers for their diversity and ingenuity. Sadly, as is the stark reality of modern football, their ultimate fate would be determined by on-field performance: a factor noticeably absent in recent weeks. The decision not to reinforce the playing squad in January left Stanislawski wanting after injuries to the likes of the talismanic Gerald Asamoah and dogmatic Moritz Volz cut deep, with the Head Coach candid enough to admit: “Sometimes we’ve been a bit too careless and naïve”. Such was proven to be the case in their match with Bayern. Addressing the 4-3-3 of their more illustrious opponents with a combative 4-5-1, St. Pauli initially set the early running, embracing the emotional atmosphere rippling through the terraces. However, when centre-half Markus Thorandt failed to deal with a hopeful Thomas Müller cross, Mario Gómez (10’) was on hand to notch his 25th strike of the campaign. A little over twenty minutes later, and it was the hapless Thorandt who got the final touch to steer Arjen Robben’s corner – via a Daniel van Buyten flick – into his own net. As the second half progressed, die Kiezkicker repeatedly found their midfield bypassed, with Robben and Franck Ribéry have the freedom of their respective wings – to devastating effect. Goals three (Gómez, 52’) and four (Robben, 54’) came courtesy of forays from the former, before the latter added his name to the scoresheet with fifteen minutes remaining. The duo then combined for number six, before Gómez completed his hat-trick (86’) and Ribéry concluded the scoring just two minutes later, as the home side capitulated.
So it’s farewell and adieu to the black sheep of the Bundesliga family. With current Paderborn coach Andre Schubert taking the helm for the 2011-12 season, an attractive style of play is likely to persist, with an added steel that should see the pirate ship steadied. Whether that campaign will prove bountiful, only time will tell. One thing can be assured though; that the 24,487-capacity Millerntor will be full throughout, and the quintessential tunes of AC/DC and Blur will continue to accompany their turbulent voyage.
Elsewhere, Matchday 33 saw a number of outstanding issues in the Bundesliga resolved. Chief among those was confirmation of Europa League qualification for Hannover and Mainz, courtesy of a 3-1 away win for the latter – away at a Schalke side still reeling from their midweek exertions; and despite a 2-1 reverse for the former – away at a Stuttgart side for whom Bundesliga status was cemented. All three goals at Stuttgart’s 60,000-seater Mercedes-Benz Arena came in the space of a frantic eight minute spell. First, Tamas Hajnal helped ease the tension gripping the stadium with a 58th minute opener, before Shinji Okazaki doubled the advantage less than three minutes hence. However, fraying nerves were once again on display as Lars Stindl halved Hannover’s deficit, but the away side did little to force the pace of a game that petered out. Mainz, on the other hand, produced a second half display far more reminiscent of their early-season form. The opening period was a largely forgettable experience, with Mainz’s conservatism matched by the home team’s fatigue. As the second forty-five dawned, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar registered just his eighth goal of the season (47’), before Schalke’s Lewis Holtby took charge of proceedings. That, however, was for Mainz, with his parent club having declined to include a prevention clause in his loan agreement! While it’s doubtful that Schalke will regret that choice in any way is highly unlikely, with Holtby having matured as a player far beyond levels he would have reached had he stayed to play a bit-part in Gelsenkirchen. What may be to their benefit in the long-term, though, was to their more immediate detriment, as the midfield dynamo unlocked the Schalke rearguard in supplying Andre Schürrle with the first goal (52’), before adding the second himself on 82 minutes, then setting up Marco Caligiuri for the final strike three minutes later.
At the foot of the table, two sides displaying markedly opposing momentum continued their divergence. A remarkable turnaround in form since the start of 2011 has seen Borussia Mönchengladbach take more points than recently-crowned champions, Dortmund. And their upward trajectory was continued against a despirited Freiburg, a 2-0 victory secured thanks to goals from Mike Hanke (80’) and Marco Reus (82’), with the visitors having been down to ten men since the 66th minute, following the dismissal of Ömer Toprak for two yellows. Eintracht Frankfurt infamously went eight games without a goal on returning from the imposed winter break – a run that saw them plummet from seventh to fifteenth, picking up just two points in the process. Christoph Daum’s men have systematically struggled to find their feet ever since, and a 2-0 home defeat here to a now safe Köln – through goals from Chihi (24’) and Podolski (90+3’) – sees them drop into the bottom two, and with the fewest goals scored in the entire division.
Wolfsburg’s recent min-revival was halted by a Kaiserslautern side that have now won six of their last eight, to haul themselves clear of danger. Despite taking the lead via a close-range finish from Mario Mandzukic (6’) amid chaos in the ‘Lautern rearguard, the Wolves ceded the initiative thereafter. The away side drew level less than twenty minutes later, as Wolfsburg-bound Srdjan Lakic nodded home from a Christian Tiffert corner (25’). It was Tiffert who again provided the ammuntion for ‘Lautern’s second, Martin Amedick finishing smartly (44’). With the words of Felix Magath no doubt pounding between their ears, the Wolfsburg side flew into the second half, but to no avail, and they now need a result in the final game of the season – away to Hoffenheim – to avoid a relegation play-off.
Bayern’s emphatic defeat of St. Pauli, and Hannover’s relatively meek surrender to Stuttgart confirms the Munich club’s entry into the Champions’ League once more. That could yet be via an automatic place, rather than through the qualification berth, as second-placed Leverkusen stuttered to a scarcely earned point at home to Hamburg. An early headed effort from Heiko Westermann – steering home a Dennis Aogo free-kick in the second minute – was eventually cancelled out with a bobbling Stefan Kießling strike on fifty-five minutes. As a result, Jupp Heynckes current side lead his future one by three points, ahead of their last-day journey to Freiburg. Having not been beaten by das Greifen since 2004, confidence should be high of retaining the runners-up position, but Bayern are very much hot on their heels. Meanwhile, the safety afforded by mid-table saw Nürnberg and Hoffenheim serve up a well-mannered encounter, with Hoffenheim ending any lingering hopes held by Der Club of a European place with a 2-1 win. Gylfi Sigurdsson’s cross was converted by Roberto Firmini (45’) to cancel out Philipp Wollscheid’s sixteenth minute opener, before the Icelandic international added the second himself (87’). The remaining fixture perhaps showed the recent Champions nursing a hangover of every kind, as they succumbed to a 2-0 reverse away in Bremen. A lacklustre Dortmund side allowed Bremen to dominate the early exchanges, and were duly punished as Mikael Silvestre took advantage of uncertainty in the box to steer past Roman Weidenfeller on six minutes. Still not stirred into action, BVB were two down after sixty-four minutes as Claudio Pizarro showed good strength and composure to place a shot beyond Weidenfeller from just inside the area. From there, Klopp’s youngsters can count themselves fortunate not to have suffered a heavier defeat. Their race, however, is already run as I Bremen’s, with those three points guaranteeing their safety for next year.