Swedish football is an enigma to me. Every year a new team tends to dominate – if you look at the Allsvenskan winners in the past few years you can see a pattern emerge:-
2009 – AIK
2008 – Kalmar
2007 – IFK Göteborg
2006 – Elfsborg
2005 – Djurgården
2004 – IF Malmo
Every season the team that seems to do well is the one that has the most home grown players. With Sweden playing March to October they essentially only have the August transfer window to make their changes, by which time the league is often all but over. So clubs develop their squads, do well and win the league and then sell off all of their best talent. Of course for the champions this means that by the time the Champions League campaign starts the following July, all of their decent talent has gone and more often than not their campaign is over quicker than they realise. And this season was so far no different.
2008 champions Kalmar were out of Europe before most of us had returned from our summer holidays. Wind forward nine months to the start of the 2010 season and after such a stella campaign last season, AIK came into their sixth game of the new season 2nd to bottom with just two points, and one goal from their five games. Hardly the start they needed to set them up for a long season, with their European adventure due to start in mid-July, although based on the previous form of the Swedish Champions it would be over almost before it had begun.
Here is what has happened to the champions in the past few Champions League campaigns.
2009 – Kalmar – eliminated at 2nd qualifying round
2008 – IFK Göteborg – eliminated at 2nd stage of qualifying
2007 – Elfsborg – eliminated at 3rd stage of qualifying
2006 – Djurgården – eliminated at 2nd stage of qualifying
2005 – IF Malmo – eliminated at 3rd stage of qualifying
So next July when qualifying starts again AIK Solna will hopefully get to the “promised lands” of the Group Stages, something no Swedish team has done since 2000/01 when IF Helsingborgs reached that stage. In the same period of time, look at Norway with Rosenborg and you can see what a disappointment it has been for the Swedes to fail to see their teams progress.
So back to Stockholm on this sunny Tuesday. Allmänna Idrottsklubben, or “The General Sports Club” are the biggest club in Sweden. How can I quantify this? Well they are the current Allsvenskan Champions, the Swedish Cup winners and Swedish Super Cup holders. And to make matters better, they beat bitter rivals IFK Göteborg in the final of all three.
Whilst the league is not a “winner takes all” game but played over seven months, but last season’s Allsvenskan actually came down by random luck to the last game of the season when 2nd placed IFK hosted league leaders AIK. One point separated the two teams and when IFK took the lead in the first half it seemed the title was going back to Göteborg. But it was left to AIK’s captain Daniel Tjernstrom to net the winner and bring the trophy home to Solna for the first time in eleven years.
The last few years have been disappointing for AIK. A gap of ten years without a major honour has been hard to bare for the loyal fans. In that last title winning season they had also made it as far as the Champions League group stages, playing Barcelona, Fiorentina and Arsenal in their season of misery when they played their European games at Wembley.
The club have been the best supported in Sweden for many years, taking advantage in some ways of playing at the Råsunda, the 36,600 capacity national stadium. Their fans are notorious across the whole of Scandinavia, both in terms of their vorocious support but also in terms of their organised displays at home games. Groups such as the AIK Tifo, Black Army, Ultra Nord and Sol Invictus are well known across all Scandinavia and try to promote the club in a positive light.
Unfortunately that has not always been possible, and a chat over lunch with two Swedish football fans filled me in on some of the more recent stories about the antics of fans of the top teams. I myself saw a strange incident at the Helsingborgs v IFK cup game last season and how the police seemed to set a trap, or “honey pot” as I prefer to use, for the home fans (you can read all about it here).
Most of the issues have occurred in games between the three clubs from the city, which have a diverse range of supporters. For the visit tonight of Halmstad from the west coast I hadn’t come expecting to see fireworks off the pitch.
AIK Solna 0 Halmstads 1 – Rasunda Stadium – Wednesday 14th April
Two home games, 1 point, no goals scored – the unenvious record of AIK coming into this game. On a lovely spring evening all but the hardcore fans had stayed away for this one and it took a rousing rendition of the clubs anthem to generate any atmosphere in the ground. It was a pity that the team wasn’t on the field at the time as their offering in the first half was poor to say the least.
They lined up with just one player who had actually found the net this season, and he was a centre back (Walid Atta) and it was the visitors who made the early running, spurred on by their following of 46 (that was how dull it was for a while that I had an opportunity to count them!). The home fans kept up a continuous display of passion but it simply did not filter through to the players.
The first chance came to the visitors in the 11th minute when the Lewis Hamilton look-a-like (the racing driver, not the Lewes FC full back) was tripped as he accelerated dangerously into the penalty area but the free kick from a perfect position deflected away for a corner. Ten minutes later Alexander Prent’s shot from the edge of the box was well tipped over by AIK’s keeper Tommy Maanoja. From the resulting corner Emir Kujovic was presented with a great chance but he hit his shot straight at Maanoja. Then Kujovic again came close when his shot from distance was fumbled by the Finnish keeper but the ball trickled the right side of the post for AIK.
In the 37th minute the home team had a chance at last. Martin Kayongo-Mutumba (don’t fancy paying for a replica shirt with his name on) found some space on the edge of the box and curled a shot towards the top corner but Johnsson in the Halmstads goal did well to tip it over. One player that did catch my eye for the home team was Kenny Pavey – hardly a Swedish sounding name, and a quick t’internet check revealed he is a Londoner who started his career at Millwall before a spell at Ryman’s League Sittingbourne. Last season he was actually voted “Sweden’s Dirtiest Player” by his fellow professionals – the first Englishman ever to win the award!
And it was Pavey who created the first chance of the second half as his run into the box and low cross just eluded the two in rushing AIK forwards. On 64 minutes AIK midfielder Sebastian Eguren found himself in acres of space in the Halmstads area. It was too good to be true surely – and it was with the linesman flagging for offside. Eguren put the ball into the net just to remind the crowd what it was like to score a goal (there is a song in there somewhere) and got a yellow card for his troubles.
AIK threw men forward and in truth should have scored at least one if not more from one of the headers that fell to the forwards. As the game wore on so did the desperation and with just a few seconds left of normal time Halmstads took the lead with a shot from distance from Jonas Gudni Saevarsson that seemed to take a deflection on its way into the back of the AIK net.
Despite there still being four minutes of injury time to go, AIK knew they were beaten. Their heads went down and the body language said it all. This was a team who last season dominated Swedish football – tonight they sat in the relegation zone with just two points and one goal from six games.
I wandered down to the press conference afterwards to listen to the Halmstads manager, Lasse Jacobsson say he was “over the moon” with the result but despite the team climbing up to sixth but he was still “taking each day as it came”. Or that is what his body language said he was saying anyway! AIK’s coach meanwhile could hardly look anyone in the eye and talked about regrouping and moving on, but you could see the fight had been knocked out of him.
So that was that – an overall disappointing experience – I had expected more fans to be behind the team at the stadium. Those who were there cheered the team passionately but they were restricted to the few thousand Tifosi in the north stand. I do not think there is any long term danger of relegation for AIK, especially as the season stops for 6 weeks for the World Cup and will give AIK a chance to regroup and re-assess the squad before the August transfer window opens. Quite why the Swedish league has to shut down is a mystery to me – after all its not as if many players are going out to South Africa is it!