Isn't it strange that nobody ever mentions the bunker? It's the first thing you notice when you visit the home of FC St Pauli. It grabs your attention when you watch a St Pauli home game on television. And it towers over you when you are at the ground, like a pale, colossal, immovable watchman. But nobody ever mentions it.

When CNN sent a camera crew to St Pauli last summer to document what they called "the world's coolest football club", they drew attention to the prostitutes, the punk rockers and the pirate flags. They talked to a drunken supporter, who told them there were junkies and homeless people among the fans. They met two fans from Poland, who explained that "what makes St Pauli so great is the good mixture of politics and football." And the reporters were impressed, thrilled even, when some St Pauli ultras objected to being filmed and forcefully deleted footage from the camera. But the Americans didn't show the bunker, not for a second.

When the noted Viennese football magazine Ballesterer dispatched two writers last April to find out if the world's most famous rebel club may be on the verge of selling out and joining the establishment, they mentioned the business seats and the expensive VIP boxes in the shiny, rebuilt main stand. They pointed out that the anarchist activists, the club's old fan-base, were growing uneasy about the young ultras, who have the image of Ché Guevara in their logo but are too organised, too imperious for some veterans' tastes. Ballesterer even talked to one of the men who started all this but who has since walked out in disgust because it's become too posh for him. Yet the Austrians didn't once mention the bunker.

This is strange because we're not talking about a normal bunker. We're talking about an enormous slab of concrete that is roughly 40m high and so massive that when you approach from the north-east, it obscures most of the ground apart from the floodlights. It was built during the war to serve as both an anti-aircraft tower and a fortress. It could give shelter to almost 30,000 people — about as many as St Pauli's stadium will hold once rebuilding is completed. The reason it's still there so many years after the end of the war is quite simple: it's so solid that you cannot destroy it by normal means.

At first it seems very odd that this gigantic reminder of Germany's fascist and violent past stands here, of all places: right next to the home of the world's most resolutely anti-fascist and anti-violent sports club. St Pauli's fans won't even sing songs that insult other teams and never put down or taunt the opposition during games, yet they live in the shadow of a monument that once had guns on the roof and was designed to kill.

However, once you've spent a few days in St Pauli, the quarter of the city of Hamburg best known for its football club and the red light district around the Reeperbahn, it doesn't seem quite so odd anymore. There are similar incongruities everywhere. Right next to what — rather grandiosely — calls itself the "St Pauli Tourist Office", for instance, an old house has been partly demolished. But this act of destruction reveals a smaller building at the rear, covered in ivy. It's a dancing school. Peek through the debris and the ruins on warm evenings, when the doors are kept open, and you can see old people tangoing slowly.

Everything here is based on and boosted by such contrasts; from the scowling skinheads in their black hoodies who turn out to be sweet kids who write for football fanzines to St Pauli's low-budget team that runs out to AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" but insists on playing cultured combination football even after being promoted back to the Bundesliga. And so it seems almost natural that some people claim St Pauli is cool and crazy while others insist it's all going down the drain and has become commercialised. Or that Dirk Matzke, who was and is an important figure among St Pauli's support, adds his own twist by saying: "This is now a club like any other." When he senses disbelief, he stresses: "It's true. St Pauli is a totally normal club." With so many contrasting and conflicting opinions and impressions, it's not easy to find out what the club is really like and where it seems to be going. So perhaps it's best to start somewhere else and ask yourself where all this has come from. Because the club as it is today is man-made, not heaven-sent.

"The gates of hell," says Hermann Schmidt, "now, that's an interesting story." He is sitting outside the Shamrock, an Irish pub which is just a long goal-kick away from the ground (although you can't really see it from there because of the bunker). Schmidt's beige-coloured St Pauli cap is resting on the table, next to his third or maybe fourth glass of Guinness. In just two hours, St Pauli will play their first Bundesliga home game in eight years, but Schmidt doesn't betray the slightest sign of excitement. He is in his early sixties and has seen many St Pauli games in many divisions.

"There was an excellent German journalist called Michael Holzach," Schmidt begins. "He is famous for his bestseller about how he travelled through Germany without any money. But before that he wrote about the Hutterites. That's a deeply religious group now based in North America, like the Amish." Schmidt pauses to greet an acquaintance. He runs a small company that publishes magazines and has written books about his life as a St Pauli fan, so normally he is a good storyteller. But now he has to interrupt his tale again and again because there are many people to greet. Because of the long summer break, Schmidt hasn't seen most of them for months, which means there are opinions to be shared and predictions to be made.

"We are a promoted team and we are playing a good side like Hoffenheim, so you would have to say that we can live with a point today," he announces. "But I think we'll win. We'll beat them 3-1. Actually, I'm not at all worried about the Bundesliga. There are many teams worse than us. St Pauli should manage to stay up." The people sitting next to him, among them his two young sons, nod their heads in silent agreement and drink more Guinness to that.

And the gates of hell? "Oh yes," says Schmidt and picks up where he left off. "Holzach lived with the Hutterites for a year and won their trust, because they thought he wanted to join them. One day they told him that they knew where the gates of hell are. They're right here, they said, in St Pauli. The Hutterites are convinced hell is directly underneath the Reeperbahn."

The Reeperbahn is a long, broad street that once connected two independent, walled cities — the Danish Altona and the Hanseatic Hamburg. In its original form, the street ran from Altona's Nobistor gate to Hamburg's Millerntor gate, after which St Pauli's stadium is now named. The ground in between was a no man's land, the place Hamburg sent all the people the city didn't want within its walls: thieves and crooks, hookers and gypsies, lowlives and lepers. They were eventually joined by sailors from the nearby harbour, some of whom would almost certainly have been the sons or grandsons of real-life pirates. This motley crew settled around the Reeperbahn, which is how St Pauli came into being. And, more than a few people will add, how it still is. Ever since the Beatles turned into the tight and fearless band that would later rule the world by playing the Star Club, just off the Reeperbahn, night after night, it has become a cliché that this is a place where young men grow up fast, a place peopled by pimps, dealers, floozies and bizarre characters. But the cliché can't be that far off the mark, because all you have to do in today's St Pauli is stumble down a few stairs into a dimly-lit room — and suddenly you are face to face with one of those characters, a one-off named Heini.

Heini was once known as Butcher Heini, because his day job was slitting animals' throats in an abattoir. But since his feet and fists used to be as quick as his knife, Heini was Hamburg's middleweight boxing champion for three years running in the late 1950s. Which is why, in those glorious days, he travelled through Europe a lot, particularly Sweden, and was well-connected in the St Pauli underworld. Today his gait is uneven, his fingers have stiffened and his speech is slurred. But his mind is still clear. He has run a pub not far from the Shamrock since 1978. Even though he is a local boy born before they built the bunker and has always been a St Pauli fan, he predicts a loss against Hoffenheim and wouldn't mind relegation at all.

"Business is better in the second division," he explains. "People drink more when St Pauli have won, so for me, winning in the second division is better than losing in the first." Heini can only ever watch the first 45 minutes of a home game, because he has to walk over to his pub at half-time and prepare the beer taps for many thirsty throats. But he has been following St Pauli for longer than almost anyone else you meet in the neighbourhood. When you ask him about the past, though, he says: "Which past?" Well, the days before the pirate flags. "You mean the 1970s and earlier? But there was nothing!" Pouring akvavit, he shakes his head and repeats: "There was nothing."

Heini's judgement sounds harsh when you consider that St Pauli had a team in the years immediately following the war that is now known as the Miracle XI. There were a few times when they almost reached the semi-finals of the national championships in those pre-Bundesliga days. But they call this side a miracle team precisely because its exploits were unexpected and are without parallel in the club's long history. A history that now covers 100 years.

Which is why St Pauli, which knows no shortage of strange sights to begin with, currently offers visitors an unusual attraction. On the square in front of the stadium's main entrance, 46 rusty shipping containers have been stacked, like Lego pieces for giants. This rickety pile is not a scrapheap. It hosts a temporary exhibition to celebrate the club's centenary — St Pauli's idea of a museum. Inside those containers are artefacts and stories from one hundred years of football (and some other sports) in St Pauli, but you won't find trophies in here, because the club doesn't have any. And if you want to see lots of heavy cotton shirts once worn by famous players, black-and-white photos of nights in Europe and newsreels about homecoming heroes, well, then you have to travel eight kilometres to the north-west, where the big, rich and successful Hamburger SV (HSV) reside.

HSV are usually referred to as St Pauli's fierce city rivals, but that term is misleading. Firstly, HSV are so much bigger, have so much more money and have won so many more titles that the comparison is almost absurd. Secondly, when you travel from St Pauli to HSV you quickly realise that the latter practically comes from a different city. HSV's Hamburg is neatly groomed, leafy, spacious and clean. It's where people play golf and tennis. It's where the word "harbour" means the marina, not that dingy place down in St Pauli where people work hard every day but never seem to get out of debt.

Ah, but isn't that another cliché that seems a bit overdone, that of St Pauli — the quarter and the club — as perennially being on the verge of financial collapse? Thirty minutes before the Hoffenheim game begins, the stadium announcer coyly says: "If you are here for the first time, let me tell you that we are poorer than most and need money. That's why you will now hear some advertising announcements." But they are building some shiny glass-fronted office buildings down at the harbour and that will surely bring money into the quarter, just like being promoted to the Bundesliga brings money into the football club's coffers, what with better television money and everything. Right?

Not necessarily so, no. Change — or gentrification, as sociologists call it — may be on its way, but many people here have the sneaking suspicion it won't be for the better. Down by the new office buildings an angry graffito reads "Our world doesn't look like this" and there are some people who think this line also holds true for FC St Pauli and the Bundesliga. Like Heini, they have economic reasons, though of a different kind. They fear that the club will be forced to invest to stay up — and at this club they know everything about what can go wrong if you overspend.

This first became a massive problem in the 1970s, when only a few thousand came to see the team in the second division and the club still spent a fortune to win promotion. It seemed to work, as St Pauli made it to the Bundesliga for the first time in 1977, a few months before the Sex Pistols released Never Mind The Bollocks. But the team swiftly went down again, by which time the club was so heavily in debt that the German FA revoked St Pauli's license for professional football. The club was demoted to the third division. As the 1980s began, St Pauli were playing amateur football and you could almost literally count the spectators during half-time. It may have looked like the end — but it was the beginning of the strangest and most breath-taking transformation in the history of German football. And it all happened in the stands.

"We would go into the ground carrying a large sports bag full of beer cans," remembers Dirk Matzke. "Back then, you could do that easily, because no one was searching you as you walked in. We went there to party, to celebrate. We celebrated ourselves. Football was our party."

Dirk, who is in his mid-40s now, books alternative rock bands for a small but hip club in St Pauli. He is married with a kid, the whole family has season tickets for the seated area ("My mother-in-law is from Munich, but even she is a big St Pauli fan now"), and he hasn't had a drop of alcohol in four years. But things were very different in the early 1980s, when Dirk and his friends belonged to one of the two groups that would change FC St Pauli. It's the group you only rarely hear about when St Pauli's story is told: young, adventurous and sometimes rowdy HSV fans, who enjoyed relaxing at the Millerntor on the day after an HSV game by drinking beer, watching low-level football and not having to worry about crews and firms.

Dirk even went to the European Cup final between Hamburg and Juventus in Athens in 1983, together with a friend who's now working for HSV. "Eventually, I left and he stayed," says Dirk, wolfing down a very late lunch in the club where he works. This club, called Knust, is also near the ground — because everything in St Pauli is somehow near the football ground. There are dozens of team shirts on the walls, from the 1980s right through to the present, and also the skull-and-crossbones flag which everybody now associates with St Pauli but which wasn't there when Dirk first smuggled beer into the ground.

"I left because the right-wing element at HSV became sickeningly strong and the club wasn't doing anything about it," Dirk explains. "Those fascists viewed me with suspicion, because I regularly went to punk and ska concerts in St Pauli. They gave me a hard time and so I finally decided to avoid the hassle. I joined St Pauli full time, because there was never any trouble here. And also because ..." Dirk looks up from his dish and glances over to the men in St Pauli sweaters, black hoodies or jeans jackets who sit at the bar, "because St Pauli is a family. They say people from Hamburg are very reserved, but that's not the case in St Pauli. This was and is a family you can join very easily."

Having finished his meal, Dirk leaves Knust, turns right at the bunker and heads for what he and almost everybody else regards as FC St Pauli's nerve centre, the true home of the club. This is the Fanladen, which of course is only a brisk walk away from the ground. The name translates as 'fan store' but the place must not be confused with the Fan Shop, which is where the club sells merchandise.

The Fanladen was set up twenty years ago by dedicated St Pauli supporters to help other fans with whatever problems young people in a poor neighbourhood will encounter. It was social work in all but name and, logically enough, today the Fanladen is supported by Hamburg's department of youth services and an independent association. Like the club the Fanladen is always short of money, which is why they sell self-designed St Pauli t-shirts here to raise cash. The shirts don't bear any official logos, but they are very popular because they are stylish, funny and often based on iconography used by punk bands.

Outside the Fanladen a man is rolling a cigarette, a bottle of beer stuck under his arm. Roger Hasenbein is in his early 50s, yet he is wearing leather pants, which immediately tells you he is a social worker. However, that's only one reason why he's often here. The other reason is that he is also a member of FC St Pauli's supervisory board, which means he knows, well, almost everything. He knows the players' contracts and their wages and to whom the general manager has made an offer and what the club is planning to do.

Nobody would have expected that when Hasenbein arrived in St Pauli more than a quarter of a century ago. He came as a member of the second group which changed the club: men and women of such strong political convictions that they felt it was their moral duty to defend eight 19th-century houses down at the harbour against the police and neo-Nazis.

Of course it wasn't really about the buildings; it was a matter of principle. In 1981, those four- and five-storey-houses in Hafenstrasse were untenanted because the city wanted to knock them down and replace them with expensive apartment buildings. This attracted punk rockers and students looking for cheap places to stay. Soon the houses were home to radical squatters and whenever the police moved in to evict them, all hell broke loose and the raids usually ended in street-battles.

The 1980s were such a heavily politicised decade in West Germany that the Hafenstrasse houses quickly became not just a symbol for anarchist and leftist resistance against a supposedly inhumane state, but also a focal point for all the liberals who would make the Green Party a political force to be reckoned with. But of course the houses also attracted the opposite end of the political spectrum. Soon fascists and right-wing hooligans from all over West Germany came to St Pauli to attack the squatters, whereupon members of the counterculture like Roger Hasenbein arrived from all parts of the country to defend them. When the media portrayed Hafenstrasse as a "legal blackhole" where chaos reigned, even more people travelled to St Pauli — curious onlookers thrilled by the danger and the strangeness. It was bedlam.

But you cannot fight the enemy and save the world 24 hours a day. Even revolutionaries occasionally need diversion and some good clean fun. "I have been playing football since I was six years old and still do, for St Pauli old-timers," says Hasenbein, leaning against the doorframe and facing the street, as you're not allowed to smoke in the Fanladen. (Drinking beer is encouraged, though, as a few cents from every bottle sold go to the Fanladen support fund.) "I grew up an FC Köln fan, because that's where I'm from. At the beginning of the 1980s, I had a job in Heidelberg, as a social worker, but I often came to Hamburg because of the Hafenstrasse. Naturally, I'd also go and see FC St Pauli play. I immediately liked it. And that's why I'm still here today."

Slowly, but steadily, word about the cool new scene down at the Millerntor spread and more and more people like Matzke and Hasenbein went to see the team. They formed a football crowd like no other, combining a love of loud music with serious politics and a wicked sense of humour. During the first weeks of the 1986-87 season, when St Pauli had just been promoted back to the second division, one fan raised his fist and yelled "Never again war, never again fascism!" Whereupon someone added: "And never again third division!" (Unfortunately, not every one of those demands could be fulfilled.)

It was in that same season, probably in March 1987, that the former singer of one of Hamburg's earliest punk bands passed through the Dom to get to the stadium (the Dom is a funfair held three times a year right next to the ground, in the shadow of the bunker). In all likelihood, the man known as Doc Mabuse was drunk when he spotted a stall selling pirate flags for kids. In any case, he grabbed the flag and walked on. (These days, he sometimes claims he paid for the flag, but that would have been out of character.) The skull-and-crossbones image had always been popular in Hamburg, the hometown of Germany's most famous pirate, Klaus Störtebeker. And it had also been used by the Hafenstrasse squatters to tell the world they didn't feel bound by state law. So it was probably just a matter of time until someone took such a flag to a football game. Still, credit where it's due — Doc Mabuse's inspired act gave the wild bunch that gathered in the St Pauli stands the one thing they had so far lacked: a visual sign to rally behind.

A few months after Doc Mabuse had introduced the flag to the Millerntor ground, St Pauli's coach Willi Reimann left because he had received the kind of offer you can't refuse: one from HSV. The club simply promoted the assistant coach, a tall, gangly man only 30 years of age, Helmut Schulte. Under Schulte, the team unexpectedly won promotion to the Bundesliga, and this time it was very different from the club's first stay in the top flight ten years earlier. No matter where St Pauli travelled in 1987-88, there were local people in the stands who didn't support the home side but cheered the visitors. FC St Pauli had become hip and attractive for anyone connected with the cultural underground. St Pauli was the team it was both politically correct and great fun to like. In other words, the club now had the one thing that is really and truly priceless, because no amount of money can buy it. FC St Pauli had an identity.

More than two decades after those events, Helmut Schulte is slightly irritated. He moves back and forth on the heels of his shiny, expensive shoes. He stares at the floor, then at the wall, then at the floor again. He paces to his right to whisper something in somebody's ear, then saunters back. He exchanges a few words with a very tall, unshaven and slightly unkempt man by the name of Sven Brux, who looks like someone who runs a second-hand record store and drinks too much coffee, but is in fact FC St Pauli's head of security. Then Schulte stares at the floor some more.

At the opposite end of the small room, Hoffenheim's coach Ralf Rangnick is saying that his team was lucky to win the game 1-0. St Pauli's coach Holger Stanislawski is saying that his team played well and made just one mistake at a set-piece late in the game. The journalists, many of whom have to stand because there are not enough seats, ask a lot of questions, addressing Rangnick as "Mister Rangnick" and Stanislawski as "Stani".

Rangnick says the Millerntor pitch is in a bad shape, probably because — as he was told — it has been recently used for a game between fans. "I guess that wouldn't be possible anywhere but here, where they have a special relationship with their fans," Rangnick adds, looking like a schoolteacher who tries to be tolerant and forgiving even though he cannot understand the kids of today.Schulte and Brux shake their heads simultaneously. "That's not true," Brux says in a low voice. He adds, louder: "It was sponsors, not fans!" Stanislawski leans forward to speak into the microphone: "I'm sorry, that was my mistake. I told Ralf it was a game between fans, but it was a game organised by sponsors." He grins mischievously. "Fans, sponsors — that's all the same here, isn't it?"

When, at last, there are no more questions and the two coaches rise from their seats, Schulte quickly opens the glass door to a long corridor, steps inside, closes the door and takes a deep breath. The glass must be sound-proof, because all of a sudden it's very quiet. Schulte walks towards his office, now relaxed and calm. It seems as if his irritation in the press room had nothing to do with the fact St Pauli have lost, rather with the noise made by more journalists than this place has ever seen before and the bustle of the countless cameramen who have covered this Saturday evening game. It has been a long and taxing day for the man who is now St Pauli's general manager and is thus responsible for finances.

The Hoffenheim match wasn't just St Pauli's first home game after promotion, it was also the first game played in front of the new, rebuilt main stand. The club came under criticism from some hardcore fans when it began to modernise the ground and added luxury boxes for wealthier fans and sponsors. (With typical St Pauli humour, the luxury boxes are officially known as "Séparées", which is the Reeperbahn expression for rooms where prostitutes conduct business.) In April, Ballesterer even reported that some old supporters, among them Doc Mabuse, had left St Pauli for fifth-division Altona, because they feel there's now too much commercialism at the Millerntor. German television then picked up the story and confronted Holger Stanislawki with it when the St Pauli coach appeared on a sports show after his team had won the opening game of the season, away at Freiburg. "It's not always easy," Stanislawski replied, "to walk the thin line between doing what is economically necessary to be competitive and preserving the charm of a club that has very close ties to the quarter. We now have two new stands, but those fans who thrive on the atmosphere of decay can still use the old stands."

At the end of a very long day, Schulte is trying not to waste too many words on this subject, just saying that, "it's strange how this is made into a story when we're talking about only 40 people or so who are unhappy and have left". (René Martens, the club's premier historian, who also knows the Altona scene very well, argues: "It's not 40 people. It's 15 at the most. And they're only making room for others. There are so many people who are eager to go to the Millerntor but can't because it's always sold out.") And Schulte really doesn't have to defend his club. Not on this day. Not when St Pauli have just played Hoffenheim — a team from a tiny village that is bankrolled by a billionaire and plays in a brand-new stadium that isn't even in Hoffenheim.

"Luckily enough, I was here to experience it first-hand when FC St Pauli grew into what it is now," says Schulte. "There was nobody who drew up a marketing plan and said this is what we should become." He is fully aware that this was an enormous stroke of luck. In the decade during which St Pauli changed and acquired a unique identity, there were quite a few so-called "second teams" from larger cities doing quite well in German football: 1860 Munich, Kickers Stuttgart, Fortuna Köln, Blau-Weiss 90 Berlin. They are all in a very sorry state today, at best poor cousins, at worst just a memory. Not so St Pauli. "When you are the second club in a city," says Schulte, "you cannot just try to duplicate the first club. It'll never work." You'll lose your identity, and even though they have lost many things in St Pauli over the years, usually money, this is one thing they haven't lost. "It developed organically," says Schulte, looking back, adding: "That is how we have become a brand."

A brand is certainly what is at sale downstairs, below Schulte's office. The game is long over, but the fan shop — which mustn't be and cannot be confused with the Fanladen — is jammed with men, women and children buying official club merchandise, most of which prominently features the skull and crossbones. It is now the official club logo and was trademarked a few years back, which should earn St Pauli good money. But it doesn't.

"This club could be rich, you know," says Dirk Matzke, exaggerating for effect. He is walking through St Pauli shoulder to shoulder with Roger Hasenbein, who is pushing his bike and smoking another self-rolled cigarette. The two encounter many fans in club shirts and sweaters and Matzke points to the logo. "But St Pauli gets only ten percent of the profit made from all that merchandise. And this won't change for many years to come!" Hasenbein, the member of the club's supervisory board, raises a hand. "Unless we win the lawsuit," he modifies Matzke's statement.

Ten years ago, FC St Pauli sold half of their marketing and half of their merchandising rights to a Hamburg event agency by the name of Upsolut. Four years later, the deal was renegotiated because the club realised it needed the marketing rights back. But to achieve this, St Pauli had to grant Upsolut another 40 per cent of the merchandising rights for no less than thirty years. It is this unusually long duration of the contract that gives the club some hope. The lawsuit Hasenbein mentions was filed in October 2009, citing unconscionability. The outcome is unclear, though, because Upsolut has since been bought by Lagadrère, a huge French media group that has the power and the financial means to see this through to the bitter end and probably will do so. After all, every skull and crossbones on a black hoody and every display of the (smart) club motto "Non established since 1910" means cold, hard money in a bank somewhere in Paris.

Which begs the question: why did St Pauli commit such a folly? Why did the club more or less throw away the right to profit from a good part of its identity? Well, it's simple — the rights were sold at a time when St Pauli was once again so desperate for cash it needed every cent just to stay alive. While the fans outperformed all their rivals, the club's officials just couldn't handle the finances and led the club to the brink of bankruptcy yet again. It was almost as if St Pauli had been catapulted back to the late 1970s. The team was even playing in the third division again, having been relegated from the Bundesliga in 2002 and then from the Second Bundesliga in 2003. FC St Pauli needed another miracle — and once again it happened off the pitch.

In late 2003, the club's members made Cornelius "Corny" Littmann, the owner of a theatre on Reeperbahn, St Pauli's new president. Littmann was outspoken, funny, flamboyant and openly gay. The rest of Germany treated his election as further proof — as if it had been needed — that St Pauli did things differently and always went for the unexpected and crazy. Many observers also recalled that Littmann had once taken part in a television debate about homosexuality in sports, during which the former Köln defender Paul Steiner said that gays were too soft to play professional football. Whereupon Littmann deadpanned he'd had sex with footballers, including one of Steiner's former team-mates. And this guy was now a club president — whoa!

What the rest of Germany failed to understand was that Littmann was first and foremost a shrewd businessman. Not for nothing had he been voted Hamburg's Entrepreneur of the Year in 1999. Some of the things he did over the next years have served to make him a controversial figure among the purist fans, such as the Upsolut deal and the idea of selling the naming rights to the ground. ("I tried to find a sponsor whose name would fit," Littmann said. "I quite fancied Poker Room; that would have been my kind of humour.") But he did manage to turn things around. With more than a little help from the club's many friends.

Because the worse the situation became, the more people sprang into action to help. The club offered lifetime season-tickets and people bought them. The club printed shirts that simply said "Retter" (saviour) on the front, and 40 McDonald's stores in Hamburg agreed to help sell them. The shirts proved extremely popular, as seemingly everybody wanted to announce that he had played a part in saving the club.

At the same time, pub owners in St Pauli added 50 cents to the price for a beer, promised the extra profit would go to the club and urged customers to "Booze for Pauli". In the red-light district, some prostitutes followed this example by increasing their fees and telling punters to, well, also do something for the club. Even the hated Bayern Munich played their part and organised a friendly between the two teams to raise money. Somehow it all worked out and FC St Pauli were saved a second time. And as usual, surviving a crisis made them stronger. Those difficult years helped forge an even closer bond between the club, the quarter and the people who live here.

"We finally have professionals working for us in the various departments," says Roger Hasenbein. "They are not St Paulians, but that's okay; they are here to do a job. They will never become St Paulians, because they will never understand what this is all about." That may sound strange coming from someone who was born in Cologne, but Hasenbein has been in living in St Pauli for so long now that he's almost become one with the place. "The quarter is there for the club," he says, "and the club is there for the quarter. This close connection is absolutely essential." It is why the members have elected Hasenbein, a former fans' spokesman, on to the supervisory board. His task to is prevent the club from coming up with silly ideas that could alienate the fans. Such as Littmann's plan to sell the naming rights to the ground, a scheme that caused uproar among the support and was eventually vetoed by the club's members. These days, the most important club representatives (Littmann stepped down in May) seem to understand this and are, to use Hasenbein's definition, "St Paulians" even if they come from Westphalia, like Schulte, who returned to St Pauli in 2008.

"I spent ten years at Schalke," he says, "but there was never any doubt that I would one day come back here. I understand St Pauli and all that comes with it. I know what the Millerntor means and conveys. I know that it is sacrosanct. St Pauli is an experience — and you must treat it with the utmost care."

Which makes you wonder if "all that comes with St Pauli" isn't almost more important than the actual football. In every other German city, this would have been a day of great celebration and excitement — the first home game back in the Bundesliga after many years. But in this quarter, where a famous graffito says "St Pauli is the only option", it seems promotion is of almost secondary importance. Of course it's great and lucrative finally to play against all those famous teams again, but finances and fame have never been what St Pauli is all about. "You have to have a philosophy," is how Schulte puts it. "If you say you want to win, so that you'll earn more money to buy more players who will then help you to win some more... well, that is not enough." That is not enough in St Pauli, he means, where it's not really that important in which league you play. The most important subject among the fans after the end of the Hoffenheim game was not the result, but how the South Stand had problems interacting with the new main stand. ("It wasn't as it used to be," said René Martens, "but maybe that will come with time.")

And outside a famous fans' pub called Jolly Roger, the atmosphere is almost jolly an hour after St Pauli have lost the game. Hundreds of people mill about outside, drinking beer and talking about upcoming gigs rather than the 90 minutes just past. There is a slight commotion when some members of St Pauli's ultras object to being photographed. They say you never know where the pictures end up and some right-wing HSV hooligans search the internet for pictures of their enemies.

But in general the atmosphere outside the pub is so relaxed, so devoid of disappointment, that it seems winning or losing, playing in the second or the first division is really not what it's all about. "Of course all that other stuff is more important," says Roger Hasenbein, searching his jacket for the tobacco. "I would be a St Pauli fan even if the club stopped playing football tomorrow."

"They'd rather be playing in the second division?" Hermann Schmidt, the seasoned fan with the Gates of Hell story, is stunned when he hears that people like Heini (and also Dirk Matzke) think St Pauli would be better off in a lower league. "Only people who have never played the game can say things like that. As a footballer, you want to play at the highest possible level." Despite his age, Schmidt is not at all given to nostalgia. "Those people who romanticise the 1980s have forgotten how bad the football was. It was terrible, much worse than today. Today we've got quite a few boys who can really play."

Those players have almost all come cheap; even St Pauli's most prominent player joined on a free transfer. That man is the former Germany international Gerald Asamoah, who misses the Hoffenheim game through injury. It's probably the most spectacular transfer St Pauli have ever made, but at the same time it's much less spectacular than it seems. Asamoah is nearing the end of his career and was no longer wanted at his previous club, Schalke. What's more, Asamoah seems to go well with St Pauli. Not so much because he, a black player, has openly criticised right-wing tendencies at some clubs from the former East Germany. (There's often trouble when FC St Pauli plays one of those teams.) Rather, it's because of his outgoing personality — and his humour. In August, a German magazine asked one player from each club to take part in a phone-in so that fans could call and ask a question. The St Pauli player was the striker Marius Ebbers and one of the first callers said: "Hi, this is Gerald from Hamburg. What do you think about St Pauli's new signings?" (Ebbers recognised the voice, though.)

Yes, it takes a special breed of player to play here. After all, only very few footballers can be such perfect St Pauli material as the legendary Volker Ippig, the 1980s goalkeeper who helped build a hospital in Nicaragua and lived in a Hafenstrasse squat for a while. "Most players have no idea what's waiting for them when they sign for St Pauli," says Matzke. And even though Hermann Schmidt thinks that "they learn very fast, because they have to", this aspect of the St Pauli experience doesn't make the general manager's job easier.

"When we scout players, we look for footballing things first," says Helmut Schulte, "but we also look at the personality. Our players have to be open and tolerant, they have to approach the fans." That's putting it mildly. When a player signs for St Pauli, he is not exactly forced to DJ down at Knust, which some players have done, but if he expects to live in a nice villa in the posh part of town, drive a Porsche to training and communicate with people only via his agent, he'll be gone within a month, no matter how many goals he scores.

This is a club where the training ground is not closed off and not protected by security, because people are encouraged to come, watch and then ask the players why the they played the way they did on Saturday. And so Schulte says about new signings: "It really helps if a player has spent some time in Germany and knows a little bit about us, so that he is prepared."

This seriously limits St Pauli's catchment area. Because where, outside of Germany, can you find players who won't suffer a culture shock when they see all this? Where can you find players who may actually like the rapport with the fans, not to mention the pirate flags and the punk rock and the politics? "Sweden," says Schulte. "We have spent the past year collecting information about Sweden and we're now scouting this and some other Scandinavian countries. We think that the mentality is comparable and we hope that Swedish players will learn the language more quickly." In case you're a professional footballer currently looking for a job: what Schulte means is that you are supposed to learn German so that you can talk to the fans, not the media.

At the Millerntor, the fans are indeed given special consideration, and not just those wearing the skull and crossbones. Over at the Knust, Dirk Matzke had insisted that "the club doesn't do that much for the fans. This is now a club like any other. St Pauli is a totally normal club." But it's not normal that the stadium PA plays the Hoffenheim club song twenty minutes from kick-off to welcome the travelling fans. It's not normal that even the people who have tickets for the expensive business seats are handed a leaflet that reminds them to respect the opposition. And it's not normal that, fifteen minutes before kick-off, the stadium PA is turned off.

At St Pauli, they refrain from playing music or advertisements during this quarter of an hour so that the fans can sing their songs undisturbed. Songs such as "No one wins at the Millerntor," meaning that even if the visiting team should happen to score more goals than the home side, FC St Pauli will never be defeated, can never be destroyed. Hearing that song reminds you of the bunker that towers over the North Stand. And as you cast a casual glance over to that concrete monster ... you freeze and don't trust your eyes.

The figure of a man dressed all in black has appeared on the roof of the bunker. Behind him, storm clouds are forming in the distance and the light changes constantly, so you can only make out his silhouette. Slowly, he unfurls a large black flag. He begins to wave the flag almost at the exact moment when the PA plays those ominous bells that introduce the AC/DC song which indicates the players are coming. The man on the roof will later be joined by a second shadowy figure, dressed in what from this distance looks like a striped football shirt and waving a red flag. They stay up there for the whole game.

The bunker, that monstrous monument, is now home to musicians, artists and media people. There's a radio station in the building and a nightclub, on the fifth floor, which is renowned for cool parties. There's a big store that sells drums and guitars and a dancing school. Like they did with the football club, the people have taken over something that was ugly, hopeless and unloved and have turned it into something vibrant, unique and strangely attractive. And there's really no answer to the question if that is cool and crazy or crass and commercial — or actually fairly normal. Because it's all of these things at the same time. What else would you expect of a place that is named after a church for Paul the Apostle but rises above the gates of hell?

"Well, I don't know what else I can tell you," says Hermann Schmidt and empties his glass. Then he gives one of his sons some money so that he can buy another round of Guinness. "Are you going to the game?" he asks. I nod my head. "Actually, it's a first for me," I say. "I've never seen a game here before." Schmidt smiles and says: "Well, that means that today is the day you become a St Pauli fan."

This article appeared on Episode Fifty of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.