Seven seasons with seven different champions has made for an exciting domestic scene but European impotence, reports Marcus Christenson
Djurgaarden fans could be forgiven for celebrating as if there were no tomorrow after their team won their first league title in 36 years, before beating Stockholm rivals AIK with an extra-time winner in the cup final to complete the double.
The two successes, only two years after the team returned to Allsvenskan, the Swedish premier league, are mainly due to the aggressive transfer policy adopted since the foundation of investment company Djurgaarden Fotboll AB, which signs players for the club and takes all the financial risks, in return for a substantial cut should they be sold on at a profit.
Young goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson was signed from Juventus, then highly regarded midfielder Kim Kallstrom arrived from Hacken despite interest from foreign clubs. When the goals dried up in the summer, Johan Elmander was loaned from Feyenoord.
All three played major roles in securing the title, but remarkably it was a 36-year-old former Everton reserve who was the team’s undisputed leader. Few will remember Stefan Rehn’s unsuccessful spell on Merseyside at the end of the Eighties, but the clever and skilful player has got better and better with age.
Rehn always seems able to deal with a situation. Even if surrounded by three or four opponents, he will find a team-mate, with a back-heel, a deft chip or a 40-yard belter. The fans love him and have dedicated a song to him, “Stefan Rehn has shaved legs” (it rhymes in Swedish, if that makes it any better), to show their devotion.
So can life for a Djurgaarden fan get any better? Er, probably not. Because the next step is to make an impact in Europe and for all the Stockholmers’ creativity and fluency, it is almost impossible to see them posing any threat whatsoever to the top teams on the continent. And this seems to be the problem with Swedish football at the moment. While it is exciting to have a new team winning the league every year, which has now been the case for the past seven seasons, it also means that there isn’t a team that plays regularly in the Champions League and so has the money to compete effectively. It is a rather sad state of affairs for a country which saw Malmo reach the European Cup final in 1979 and Gothenburg twice win the UEFA Cup in the Eighties.
This season, Gothenburg went out to Moldova’s Zimbru Chisinau in the qualifying round of the UEFA Cup, and their failure has been just as spectacular as Djurgaarden’s success. They sacked their coach Stefan Lundin midway through the season, players refused to sign new contracts or simply left the club and IFK only avoided the ignominy of being relegated by beating local rivals Vastra Frolunda in the play-offs.
So, at the moment, Gothenburg is out and Stockholm is in. That was unthinkable as recently as 1997, when IFK beat Bayern Munich away and AIK were struggling in mid-table, while Djurgaarden and Hammarby, the third main club in the capital, were slugging it out for promotion from the First Division.
A year later, the Scottish coach Stuart Baxter had taken AIK to the title and Champions League games against Barcelona, Fiorentina and Arsenal, and then Hammarby won their first title in 2001. This year, Hammarby went out in the second qualifying round of the Champions League, 5-1 on aggregate to Partizan Belgrade (who then lost 6-1 to Bayern Munich), but the fact is that few fans in Sweden seem to mind. Domestic attendances have been on the up since the pathetic average of 4,194 in 1992, to 10,149 this season, and a remarkable 42,386 turned up for the Gothenburg derby between IFK and Orgryte.
The media have played a large part in increasing the interest in the domestic football. The Stockholm tabloid Aftonbladet has launched a daily sport supplement, forcing rivals Expressen to follow suit, and Fotbollskvall, the Swedish Match of the Day, is immensely popular despite its dull presenter.
Unfortunately, the season was marred by the death of a Gothenburg fan after the rivals “firms” of IFK and AIK met to fight before a game in Stockholm. It was the first football hooliganism-related death in Sweden and led to a healthy discussion about a problem many thought did not exist any more. Away from Stockholm and Gothenburg, Malmo were again involved in the title race after several lean years and their forward Peter Ijeh, who is a devout Christian and thanks God for every goal he scores, won the Golden Boot with 24 goals in 23 games. Sadly, only God knows how long he and the other young talents will stay in Sweden.
From WSC 191 January 2003. What was happening this month