From Floorball to Handball, Sweden is not averse to obscure sports. Yet most Swedes will be bemused to learn they have a national Australian Football team. Nic Townsend meets the Swedish Elks before they travel to Melbourne for the International Cup.
Few Swedes have even heard of Australian Football let alone played it. Yet the sport has already outgrown the Australian expatriate community, and increasing numbers of Swedes are playing too. The fact that a national team will be in Australia
this August representing Sweden in the International Cup is a measure of how far the game has come.
“It’s a fantastic sport!” says Andreas Svensson, “In Sweden we watch soccer where nothing really happens. But in Aussie Rules things are happening every single minute.”
Svensson is one of Sweden’s veterans, having first played in 1994. Back then Sweden only had one Aussie Rules team but over recent years clubs have formed in towns and cities all over the country. Today over 300 people play the game in Sweden. Around 30 Swedes have pledged to take time off work this August to play for the national side in Australia.
“It’s exciting to represent your country in a sport,” says Joel Språng, “I never thought I’d get to do that.”
The history of Aussie Rules in Sweden started in 1993 when Ingmar “Terry” Lundquist started the country’s first club: the Helsingborg Saints. Lundquist moved to Melbourne at the age of 7 and it took little time for the young Swede to be infected with a typically Melbournian obsession with Aussie Rules.
At 24 Lundquist moved back to Sweden, and soon started experiencing withdrawal symptoms.
“From the moment I moved back to Sweden I hoped Aussie Rules would become popular in Europe,” says Lundquist.
“Imagine the thrill I got when I was at the Australian embassy in Copenhagen and saw that they started a league there.” Thus Lundquist was inspired to set up a team in Sweden.
Being so close to Denmark, Helsingborg were able to join the Danish Australian Football League (DAFL), currently the largest league outside of the English-speaking world.
Until 2002 the Saints remained the only team in Sweden (apart from the short-lived Lund Bulldogs in 1995) and attracted players from all over the country. However since 2002 football clubs have gradually proliferated throughout the rest of Sweden.
Today Skåne hosts a four-team league, as well as two teams in the DAFL. There are clubs in Gothenburg, Karlstad, Falun, Uppsala and three clubs in Stockholm. There are also plans to establish teams in Linköping, Kalmar and Oslo.
Last August the Svenska Australiska Fotbolls Förbundet was established, becoming Sweden’s first national body for Aussie Rules. Creating a national team was the next logical step.
“I'm very exited about the national team and the direction it is going,” says Lundquist today.
“It seems we have good numbers of every region travelling to the International Cup, and if we bring a strong team I think we'll surprise a few sides.”
Playing Aussie Rules in Sweden entails making a lot of compromises. Ordinarily the game is played on Cricket-oval sized fields with 18 players per side. Here most matches take place on smaller rugby pitches with makeshift posts and teams are often only 10-a-side. There are also quotas limiting the number of Australians on each team.
Naturally starting up a team isn’t easy. Joel Språng has done it twice: first in Gothenburg, and more recently in Karlstad. Språng was introduced to the game through his older brother Martin who in turn discovered it after inadvertently watching it on cable TV.
In 2003 the Gothenburg Berserkers had their first training session with the Språng brothers amongst the first recruits. In the beginning training consisted of only four people, but despite low turnouts they persisted and kept turning up every week.
“You have to be dedicated,” says Språng. “You can never give up.”
Optimism, dogged determination and even a little eccentricity are important qualities. Gradually the Berserkers grew and today they’re even attempting to start a second team.
Cameron Crooks has also undertaken the massive task of starting an Aussie Rules team in Sweden. Three years ago he left Melbourne for Falun in Sweden’s north.
“I thought I had no chance. Falun is just way too small,” states Crooks. “But in many ways its easier here than in the big cities. Everyone knows each other so word spreads a lot quicker.”
Before long training sessions were attracting up to 25 people and within two months the newly established Falun Diggers played their first match against Stockholm.
“I started with two people from work, and it just branched out from there,” claims Crooks. “Friends, friends of friends, just sitting in the local pub talking to people.”
It’s a remarkable achievement considering Crooks started from scratch with absolute beginners, and has had to teach skills like bouncing an oval ball while running.
“Everyone we’ve recruited has come to this club never having even heard of Aussie Rules football,” says Crooks.
“We’ve started with nothing but managed to build a reasonable team.” He will go to Melbourne as one of Sweden’s coaches as Australians are disqualified from playing in the International Cup.
Roger Nilsson is one of the few Swedish footballers with experience playing in Australia. In 2004 he won a scholarship from the DAFL and spent a year in Melbourne playing for amateur side Powerhouse.
“It felt like I’d never even seen a footy before,” says Nilsson, commenting on the sharp contrast in playing standards. By non-Australian standards however, the Elks look promising. Last August they won the EU Cup in Hamburg.
“Skills wise we’re not going to get flogged,” claims Nilsson. “But we’ll probably only have 30 players. We have to play a lot of games in only a few days which will take a lot out of us.”
Under the circumstances however results don’t seem too important. As Cameron Crooks says: “How well we do doesn’t really matter. The achievement will be just getting there.”
The International Cup might not be the highest standard football in Australia this August, but if the Swedish team is any indication, it will include some of the most devoted players of the game in the world. It just proves you don’t have to be Australian to be an Aussie Rules fanatic.
See also: Swedish Elks Photo Gallery
Contact the Swedish Australian Football Association:
Media Liaison - Joel Språng
Contact the Stockholm Australian Football Association:
Clubs in Stockholm:
Clubs in the rest of the country:
Helsingborg West Raptors