German footballers have little obvious incentive to move to England. With such a strong domestic set up at home, those that leave are generally heading for the financial riches of the Premier League. It is a rare thing to find a German playing in League One, but Brentford’s new centre back, Marcel Eger, is showing no signs of culture shock following his move to West London. Eger had spent the past seven seasons with FC St Pauli and had become a popular player with their famous fans. Given the cult status of St Pauli in European football, I was intrigued to find out how that translated to the players – who are essentially transient representatives of the club – and what tempted Eger to abandon life in his homeland for the third tier in England.
I arranged to meet Eger in a West London pub near Ladbroke Grove. It’s the kind of pub where you can watch the football, read the paper and take the family for Sunday lunch, and is therefore a lot more gentrified than some of the places you might find in the St Pauli district of Hamburg, home of the world famous Reeperbahn. But, we’re not far from the bohemian fare of Portobello Road, which Eger has already explored. “I bought my first record player when I moved here so I could start buying vinyl. My agent gave me a copy of the White Album to start my collection, and now I go record shopping at Portobello market. I got a copy of Bridge over Troubled Water”, Eger says. To be honest, I was expecting something with a little more bite than Simon and Garfunkel from a former St Pauli player, but Eger isn’t finished, “I used to listen to US punk like NOFX, a bit of German Hip Hop, The Prodigy – that kind of thing. At St Pauli I got more into alternative rock and indie, and at the moment I really like the Black Keys, Arcade Fire and Kasabian.”
It doesn’t take long before Eger is reflecting on his life in Hamburg, “I had a lot of friends working in the music business, so I could always get into shows.” It sounds like an obvious perk you’d associate with a football club that sells merchandise at German music festivals, but it’s one that Eger wasn’t entirely comfortable with. “I started to think, why should I get in for free? It didn’t seem fair that everyone else has to pay. So, me and some friends started to make it a requirement for people on the guest list to make a donation to charity. I feel that you should pay for art, I never download music for free, I think it’s wrong and you ruin it for everyone.” I’m sensing a strong St Pauli perspective already.
Getting your name on the guest list at Hamburg’s best venues isn’t the only music based opportunity playing for St Pauli provided for Eger; “there were two things I most wanted to be in life: a rock star or a footballer, so I’m lucky to have achieved one of those, although I’d rather have been a rock star.” In fact, he may have achieved both, but his moment as a rock star was a certainly more fleeting: Eger played drums in a cover of Song 2 in front of 20,000 people at the club’s Millerntor stadium as part of a concert celebrating St Pauli’s centenary year.
Eger’s life is sounding like a pretty sweet deal – football, music, and all the trappings of a life in a great city like Hamburg, but there was one moment that could have changed everything. During his first season at Pauli, Eger endured the injury all footballer’s dread, he damaged his cruciate ligament. At this point he admits he was considering his options, and contemplated quitting the sport to enrol at university. “It was hard, but my coach [Holger Stanislawski] was great; he had faith in me and the club extended my contract, even though I was injured. I managed to get fit and the next season I came back and played every game as we won promotion,” he says.
Whilst his recovery from injury and success with the team were personally satisfying, it wasn’t just football that cemented the bond with St Pauli. “All the new players have a kind of induction process. They teach you all about the origins of the club and the history of the St Pauli district, which is quite a poor area,” Eger explains. If this is intended to humble the players, then it seems to be working; “you have to remember that the fans might not have much money, but they have paid to come to the game. There is a responsibility of the players to respect that. There is a philosophy at St Pauli that dictates the club is the real star, not the players.”
Whatever it is that St Pauli represents, it’s obvious that it had an impact on Eger, who embraced the club’s history with genuine enthusiasm. Leaving was always likely to be an emotional challenge, but Eger has fond memories of his farewell. “It is tradition for players who are leaving to say goodbye to the fans at the end of the last game. But, I still didn’t know if I was going to get a new contract, so I missed out on that. When me and my friend [Florian Lechner] found out we were leaving we arranged a farewell match with some friends,” he says, describing the scene as a typical German outdoor event: beer and sausage. “It was supposed to be a small party, but people started talking about it on the internet, and we ended up with a couple of thousand people there. The ultras came and were lighting their flares and chanting, it was amazing.”
With his girlfriend studying in London and his time St Pauli finally at an end, Eger was clear where his future lay, “I really didn’t want to play for another club in Germany after St Pauli. I told my agent to find me a club in England, preferably in London. I guess having Uwe Rosler at Brentford helped, as he would be more aware of my background, but we didn’t know each other. I met him briefly in Berlin during the summer and then a few days later the deal was done.”
Eger has played in Germany’s top three divisions with St Pauli, but League One football brings a new challenge, highlighted by some bruising around Eger’s eye socket. Eger explains, “the referee didn’t give me a free kick,” said Eger, “I’ve had to get used to that. I used to be one of the biggest guys when I played in Germany; some of the guys here are like machines. But, I feel I have arrived here now, I’m getting used to it. I know what is and isn’t a foul!”
Given the obvious supremacy of the German national team over their English counterparts at present, I was surprised when Eger claimed the third tier in England is of a higher standard than the equivalent in Germany. The hours in England are apparently longer, making his chosen profession feel more like a full time job than it had done in Hamburg. In fact, during the couple of hours we spend together, Eger’s only real lament is that he doesn’t have more time to explore London and go to more concerts (he was particularly excited about seeing the Kills at Brixton academy).
As we discuss music Eger recommends I give Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros a try; they are an alternative folk-pop collective who I later realised I had seen at a festival. Not really my thing, but an interesting choice and I wondered if his teammates at Brentford approved of his tastes, “Jonathan Douglas is my music buddy at Brentford; we went to see Ryan Adams together.” He looked cautious as I wrote this in my notes, then adds, “that’s Ry-an, not Bry-an, Adams”. I underline the name Ryan to put his mind at rest.
A lot of London’s footballers live out in the Home Counties, but Brentford wages probably don’t buy you a mansion house. In any case, I don’t think that would interest Eger, who is embracing his new life, albeit with a Germanic practical streak shining through, “I get the tube to training in the morning. It’s not too crowded and it doesn’t take me very long. Most of my teammates use their cars and they’re always getting stuck in traffic. I don’t understand it.”
It’s not being unkind to Brentford to suggest it doesn’t have quite the same cult status as St Pauli. Even so, there are aspects of playing for the Bees that are particularly appealing to Eger; “the St Pauli stadium is in the heart of the city. This is less common in Germany, but not in England. Griffin Park is surrounded by houses and there’s a pub on each corner; it’s really in the community.”
In the community it may be, but Griffin Park is not known for its radical politics. This hasn’t deterred Eger from maintaining an active interest in the left wing views so closely associated with his former club. He revealed he had visited the Occupy London Stock Exchange protests, and spoke in glowing terms about the views of Slovenian Marxist philosopher, Slavoj Žižek (not someone I was aware of). Eger believes it is positive to see movements emerging from the banking crisis, but the talk of direct action leads us inevitably to discuss the London riots.
Eger suggests the obvious disparity between rich and poor in London must have been a factor, and references the Hafenstraße (an area in the St Pauli district) riots during the 1980’s; “investors wanted to kick out the residents and make it more exclusive for wealthier people. There were lots of meetings, and a lot of those residents went to the stadium to watch St Pauli. It was a place for them to meet.” Perhaps this is further evidence of the St Pauli history lessons leaving their mark, and now they’re affecting me; I end up looking up the Hafenstraße riots on internet at home. Footballers are less inclined to voice their political opinions than they might have been in the past. This is not surprising, they get in enough trouble on Twitter just from criticising referees. Even those that are curious are unlikely to represent a club that actively encourages them to develop their interests, as St Pauli did for Eger.
But, Eger isn’t preaching. He is not a superstar footballer with incredible riches, but he appears to be fully aware of the opportunities that his career can provide, and determined to enjoy them. It was hard not to feel a little envious.
Fans are more inclined to treat a player’s pledge of allegiance to their club with guarded cynicism than in previous eras. A regular feature in one English newspaper called ‘Love This Club’ mocks the statements made by players declaring their loyalty shortly before seeking a transfer. After listening to Marcel Eger for a couple of hours, it is reassuringly hard to doubt his sincerity or his enduring bond with St Pauli.
Marcel Eger supports Viva con Agua, a charity campaigning for clean drinking water world wide.