For someone raised on the rough and tumble of the English lower leagues, I was still surprised by the intensity of my first Swedish football match – the Stockholm derby between Hammarby and AIK.
The game was marred by violence when Hammarby’s Louay Chanko was struck by an object thrown from AIK supporters as he prepared to take a corner. What followed was a 15 minute interval as referee Stefan Johanesson ordered the players off the pitch.
Extraordinarily, AIK coach Richard Norling even appealed to his club’s fans over the loudspeaker system as passions threatened to boil over at the Råsunda stadium.
Meanwhile Hammarby supporters patiently waited for the game to resume, and one regretfully told me: “I have seen this happen before, but they should be out again soon.”
On the pitch the game was open but often lacked quality, especially in the final third. It was not helped by a whistle-happy referee who would not let the game flow.
Louay Chanko’s delightful free kick – clipped over the wall into the top corner from 25 yards – was a rare moment of class. It would have been worthy of winning any game, and almost did until a soft penalty deep into stoppage time gave substitute Jorge Ortiz the chance to equalize.
There was an irony that this of all games should be stopped because of violence. Before the match both Hammarby and AIK fans united in holding white sheets of paper aloft before kick-off in protest against new rules ordering away teams to cover costs surrounding the security of their own fans. Flyers were left around the stadium with the headline: “Stop the threat to Swedish football!”
But it seems that a minority of supporters were determined to ignore the plea.
Perhaps the most striking difference between Swedish and English football is the crowd. Since the advent of the Premiership in 1992, English crowds have become both older and richer. The terraces have been replaced by corporate boxes and football is as much a business as it is a sport.
But in Sweden this change is yet to happen. Young men dominate the stadium, often drunk, and often in large groups. This makes for an electrifying atmosphere. Flares and fireworks are periodically released. Fans chant relentlessly for the whole match. Huge banners are unfurled around the ground.
And with this comes the threat of violence like that seen on Monday evening.
The Swedish game remains closer to its working class roots than its English counterpart. One proud Hammarby supporter proclaimed his team ‘Stockholm’s true club’ because its fans are not as wealthy as those of AIK.
But if violence is to be curtailed, the game in Sweden will likely need some serious investment – much like what happened in England during the early 1990s. With the vast sums of money ploughed into the Premiership by satellite television came a crack down on the hooliganism and violence which had plagued the sport during the previous decade.
But as a result a lot of clubs lost the sort of passionate support so clearly on display at the Råsunda stadium. Back in 2000, Roy Keane attacked Manchester United’s ‘prawn sandwich’ fans, claiming some sections: “Can’t even spell football let alone understand it.”
There is no doubt that the majority want to see an end to crowd trouble in Swedish football, but this cannot be at the expense of the unique atmosphere its supporters create.
Swedish football finds itself at a crossroads, and it must act decisively to curb the threat of the hooligans. But if it is serious about removing violence from the game, the sport could also lose part of its appeal.