Swedish football has long exported top players and managers to the rest of Europe, but there are signs that the trend is beginning to reverse.
This season Sweden’s top flight boasts more foreign players than ever before, all hoping to become stars in a new country just as the likes of Freddie Ljungberg and Zlatan Ibrahimović have across Europe.
Just one of the many foreign imports is James Keene, an English striker who was only 19 when he made the switch from Premier League Portsmouth to the Allsvenskan.
“It all happened really quickly,” Keene remembers, “I was playing at Portsmouth and had made a few appearances when the assistant manager Jim Smith asked me if I would be interested in moving to Sweden for a year to get some experience.”
Smith had received a call from Roland Nilsson, then manager of GAIS and a coach he had worked with at Coventry in 2002. The two had kept in touch and when Nilsson asked if Portsmouth had any players available for loan, Smith was happy to recommend Keene.
“Jim came to me and told me about the opportunity to get some first team experience. I didn’t find it to hard to adapt, and my now-wife moved with me too which made things easier. The biggest difference was the game. It is far less physical than back home in England. I remember getting booked in my first match.”
Keene finished his first year at GAIS as the club’s top scorer, catching the attention of some of Sweden’s bigger teams before completing a move to reigning champions IF Elfsborg. Despite emerging as one of the league’s best strikers, he still dreams of a return to the Premiership one day.
“It was hard to break through at Portsmouth. You look at them now and sometimes they only play one or two English players, but then that’s why they have done so well.
“Of course it’s everyone’s goal to play at the top level, and at the moment that is the Premier League, but I am happy where I am for the time being.
Despite this new wave of footballing immigrants, the Allsvenskan is still struggling. It places 28th in UEFA’s ranking of Europe’s top divisions, behind leagues in Cyprus, Slovakia and Israel. No Swedish team has reached the group stages of the Champions League since Helsingborg during the 2000/01 season.
The league is still considered by most as a stepping stone to the Premiership, or one of Europe’s other major leagues. Although both Ljungberg and Ibrahimović began their careers in Sweden, it was not long until they had signed lucrative contracts at Arsenal and Ajax respectively.
“A lot are looking to move to England or France,” Keene notes, “but the Swedish league is getting better all the time. More foreign players are arriving and more money is being invested. Perhaps it is going the way or the Premiership but then Sweden are at the European Championships and England aren’t.”
The influx of foreign players was helped last December with a ruling which saw the Swedish Football Federation (SFF) remove its cap on non-European players. Previously clubs were only permitted to field three players from non-European countries.
At the time Helsingborg director Bo Nilsson, a team renowned for its foreign contingent, heralded the decision as a “victory” for his club. Malmö and Liberia defender Jimmy Dixon claimed it would “give more opportunities to African footballers in Sweden.”
But some are concerned that it will stunt the development of young Swedish players. Former Sweden captain Glenn Hysén fears that Swedish clubs are signing too many mediocre foreign players.
“It is great if you can bring in a player from Brazil who is really good, like Alfonso Alves was, as it is someone the youngsters can look up to. The problem is we are bringing in players who are not good enough.
“The young Swedish players are not coming up as they don’t get a chance. It won’t be a problem right away but in the long run it will harm us. What happened in England could happen to Sweden. I think England did not qualify for the European Championships because the best players at each club are not English.”
Still, if Keene’s example is anything to go by, some of the Allsvenskan’s new talent is more interested in helping, rather than hindering, Sweden’s international prospects.
“It would be a great honour to play for any country. I have been here two years now and I think it takes five before you are eligible for the national side. I would love to play for Sweden, and if the opportunity came along I would definitely take it,” Keene says.
Perhaps Sweden’s football immigrants could prove a hit for both their clubs and the national team.