Hamburg vs St. Pauli: The Socially Charged Derby That Defies its On-Pitch Conditions

Chris Deeley

The Hamburg Derby is part of 90min's 50 Biggest Derbies in the World Series

There aren't many rivalries in which the two teams are completely equal – that's half the fun, having the big brother holding their little sibling at arm's length, the inferiority complex, one side's desperate need to prove themselves up against the other side's absolute terror of slipping up.

You see it all over England; on Merseyside, in north London, in Nottingham, in Birmingham – but a squints at the records shows that there's rarely a huge disparity between the teams. Notts County are within ten wins of Forest over nearly 100 meetings; Birmingham are less than 20 wins behind Villa over almost 130.

Everton? Within 30 over 235 games, and Spurs are within 20 of Arsenal over the best part of 200 meetings.

Point is, there's usually some real bite to these local rivalries, the rivalries that fans actually care about. There's usually a big brother and a little brother, but little brother holds his own a surprising amount of the time – and that competitiveness is what keeps things fiery.

The Hamburg derby isn't like that. The Hamburg derby is a game that Hamburg win more than 60% of the time (Arsenal: 41%, Villa: 45%, Forest: 42%, Liverpool: 40%) and that St Pauli won once in 50 years between 1960 and 2010.

Turns out the Hamburg derby has something that matters just as much as competitiveness. The Hamburg derby has politics.

Hamburg – HSV, if you will – are a veritable giant of German football. Until their relegation to the 2.Bundesliga in 2018, they were the only team to have played in the top flight continuously since they were formed in 1919, and the only team to play every season in the Bundesliga since its formation in the 60s.

They're European Cup winners, six-time league winners, nicknamed Der Dino because they've been kicking around for so long. They are, as much as any club can be, a huge part of the establishment in German football.

St. Pauli? They're...not that. They've spent a scant handful of seasons in the top flight in their entire history, and they've never won the league. They've never even won the 2.Bundesliga. They're, by the standards of big football clubs, not very good.

What they have, outside of top level footballers, is one of the strongest club cultures in world football. They're an explicitly left-wing club, who stand hard against homophobia, fascism, racism, and the ongoing corporate takeover of football. They set those previously inherent characteristics in stone in the 1980s, when they took a stand against the rise of neo-fascist hooligans in football stadia by explicitly banning any far-right activities or displays in their ground.

They yo-yoed up and down through the top three divisions around that time, but their fanbase and ethos gained traction in the area – and became a burgeoning worldwide phenomenon with the skull and crossbones motif.

That anti-establishment sentiment put them, naturally, at odds with their city rivals, in a time when they were facing each other more often in the top flight than they had in decades. The pair played each other 12 times between 1988 and 2002, more times than in the 28 years previous. Of course, St. Pauli didn't win any of those games. They got five draws,, no wins.

When they went down in 2002 and stayed down, the rivalry began to drift somewhat. It's hard, after all, to keep up the fire in your belly against a team you don't see.

Well, maybe not. There was the best part of a decade of pent-up emotion when St. Pauli next made it into the Bundesliga, and they went to the home of their rivals in 2011 feeling the heat. How much so? Goalkeeper and Hamburg native Benedikt Pliquett – an HSV youth product, no less – had been attacked at a train station by some HSV fans earlier in the season. This was personal.

Side-note: Pliquett now owns three sex shops in the city. That's not related, but...y'know.

The city native faced off against a Hamburg squad including Ruud van Nistelrooy, a young Son Heung-min, Ze Roberto and Tomas Rincon, and stood strong while riot police waded into the away end to calm the atmosphere.

That atmosphere exploded in the second half when former Germany striker Gerald Asamoah – now at St. Pauli in the twilight of his career – rose at the back post to meet a corner and thump a header home. The goal, and subsequent rearguard action, gave the visitors their first derby win in 34 years. Thirty four years. They were still relegated that season, but to be 'reigning champions' of Hamburg gave the fans something to cling to in that off-season.

Of course, if you can't rise to the opposition's level, you can wait for them to fall to yours. St. Pauli haven't returned to the Bundesliga since 2011, but HSV finally slid to the second tier in 2018 and – for the first season – normal service was resumed, Der Dino picking up a draw at home and a thumping 4-0 win at St. Pauli's Millerntor-Stadion.

Then came this season, and...St. Pauli won. Twice. They did the double over their city rivals for the first time in their history, and look like they'll have a chance to do it all over again if the season doesn't resume after a coronavirus-enforced pause.

The fans fight. They hang effigies. They choreograph all sorts in the stands, and now they have a real on-pitch rivalry to provide a backdrop. Nearly a hundred years after the first meeting, the Hamburg derby is sparking into life anew.

For more from Chris Deeley, follow him on Twitter at @ThatChris1209