The first thing many newcomers to Sweden will notice about the Allsvenskan, the top tier of the country’s domestic football, is the low playing standard. Schoolboy errors and comical goals will amuse neutrals as much as they’ll frustrate fans.
Like many smaller European leagues, the Allsvenskan has had its most talented players poached by other leagues and at increasingly younger ages too. Swedish clubs have also struggled in European competitions, denying the Allsvenskan its share in Champions League riches. Even many Swedes have come to prefer the leagues of England, Spain and Italy over their own, so why should foreigners be interested?
Well, for one, the Allsvenskan is possibly the most even and unpredictable league in Europe. While the big competitions are increasingly dominated by the same handful of clubs, nine different teams have won the Allsvenskan Guld in the last eleven seasons.
Very little separates the top teams from the bottom and often the title race goes right down until the final minutes of the final round. This season, at least six clubs can boast the right credentials to mount a serious tilt at the title, while others have every reason to believe they have a chance too after watching Kalmar’s title winning season last year.
With many teams comprised of local players, playing at suburban stadiums where the fans still stand in terraces, the Allsvenskan also has a simpler down-to-earth feel compared to the bigger leagues. It will remind fans what football was like before Sky TV. So, do your research, pick a team, learn your key players and arch rivals, and get down to a game.
Arguably the Manchester United of Swedish football, IFK are one of the most popular clubs in Sweden with supporter groups all over the country. They are the only club in Scandinavia with European trophies having won the UEFA Cup in 1982 and 1987. In 1995 IFK made it as far as the Champions League quarter finals beating Barcelona and Manchester United on the way.
The club later went through a period of decline and financial turmoil but a title win in 2007 and a strong finish to 2008 mean Blåvitt (Blue & Whites) are back and likely to be strong contenders again this year. They can boast a squad of exciting youngsters including emerging Swedish internationals Mattias Bjärsmyr, Pontus Wernbloom and Gustav Svensson. Other key players include former Sunderland winger Tobias Hysen (son of IFK legend Glenn Hysen) and defender Karl Svensson who returns to Gothenburg after an unsuccessful stint at Glasgow Rangers.
If IFK are Manchester United than Malmö FF are Liverpool. In 1979 Malmö lost to Nottingham Forest in the European Cup final, and to date remain the only Swedish club to progress so far in Europe’s premier club competition. A number of Swedish internationals have started their careers in the Himmelsblått (Sky Blues), the most famous being Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
However like IFK, Malmö’s domestic dominance has since been broken. Last year the club finished a disappointing 9th and if manager Roland Nilsson doesn’t produce results he could soon be living off A-kassa unemployment insurance. Captain Daniel Andersson is still a regular in the Swedish squad, while Jeffrey Aubynn and Edward Ofere are also important players.
Along with IFK and Malmö FF, AIK round out the ‘big three’ of Swedish football. The trio easily have the largest fan bases and at present AIK are attracting the largest crowds in the Allsvenskan.
With a fearsome reputation for hooliganism and universally disliked by opposition supporters, the boys from Solna are very much Sweden’s answer to Leeds United or Millwall. Nicknames include ‘gnagare’ (Rodents) and ‘råtta’ (Rat). Their derbies against fellow Stockholmers Hammarby and Djurgården are comparable to any in Europe.
A number of current and former Swedish internationals have played for AIK including Johan Mjällby, Magnus Hedman, and Olof Mellberg. This year key players include Argentinean forward Ivan Obolo and former Manchester United youth player Bojan Djordjic.
If you only know one player in the Allsvenskan, that player will be Helsingborg’s Henrik Larsson. After a distinguished career with Celtic and FC Barcelona, ‘Henke’ returned to his boyhood club in 2006 and remains there today. Celtic shirts are still a common sight at home games.
The club enjoys a lively derby with Skåne rivals Malmö FF. They also are the most recent Swedish team to play in the group stages of the Champions League when they eliminated Inter Milan in 2000. Having finished fourth last season they’ll qualify for this year's UEFA Cup, and will aim for another top four finish this season too.
At the time of writing Larsson, who spent the winter playing professional floorball, looked set to sign on for another year. Despite his age Larsson will be integral again, along with Rene Makondele and Christoffer Andersson,
Kalmar surprised many last season by winning their first Allsvenskan title ever. Through a combination of nurturing local talent and importing flamboyant Brazilians, manager Nanne Bergstrand has transformed second division regulars to league champions.
However like most successful Swedish sides, they have been decimated over the winter with key players being poached from clubs in Denmark and Holland.
On the positive side Rasmus and David Elm remain and hopefully will step up to cover the loss of their brother Viktor, while Daniel Mendes also returns from AIK. Player sales and participation in this year’s Champions League mean the club’s finances are sound, and they should be a strong force again.
The boys from Borås have enjoyed a brief renaissance of late having won their first title in over 40 years in 2006, and being strong contenders every year since. The club lost last year’s title by only a single point and will no doubt be challenging again this year. The resurrection of Elfsborg and IFK Göteborg has added further significance to their already tense Västra Götaland derby.
In Anders Svensson (formerly of Southampton until they were relegated), they can boast one of the few regular Swedish internationals playing in the Allsvenskan. Other key players include Stefan Ishizaki, Fredrik Berglund and former Portsmouth junior James Keene (one of the few Englishman playing in Sweden).
Djurgården are popularly known as Stockholm’s posh club, and fittingly their home ground Stockholms Stadion, built for the 1912 Olympics, is one of the nicest in the Allsvenskan.
Having won titles in 2002, 2003 and 2005, Djurgården have been the most successful team of the last 10 years and have come closest to achieving any sort of hegemony in Sweden. Players from that brief period of dominance include Kim Källström, Johan Elmander and Andreas Isaksson. But things fell apart and last season they finished a lowly 12th despite being amongst the favourites at the beginning of the year.
This season sees the return of Zoran Lukic as manager who was in charge during the club’s last purple patch. He’ll be working alongside Andree Jeglertz who helped build Umeå IK into one of the best women’s football teams in the world.
Trivia buffs might like to note that English legend Teddy Sheringham spent a season on loan at Djurgården in 1985.
Despite winning their first league title in 2001, Hammarby still pride themselves as being perpetual underdogs. Hailing from Stockholm’s historically less affluent Södermalm district, fans like to think of themselves as the club of the working class and downtrodden.
They may have fewer fans than rivals AIK, but Bajen can boast a passionate cult-like following and strong English-style terrace culture. Until recently the club had the reputation as a yo-yo club, constantly moving between the two top divisions.
They’ve successfully consolidated themselves in the top flight now but anything can be expected this season. Regardless of results, fans will prove loyal and passionate. Key to their success will be American international Charlie Davies and Louay Chanko.
Halmstad BK have to be admired for their ability to punch above their weight. Despite coming from a small town with limited resources they won Guld in 2000 and Silver in 2004, and have produced an impressive array of Swedish internationals including Freddie Ljungberg, Michael Svensson and Petter Hansson.
This season they’ll be relying on Brazilian Anselmo and German Michael Görlitz, although the real player to watch will be youngster Anel Raskaj who manager Janne Andersson claims will be better than Ljungberg.
GAIS are one of the oldest clubs in Sweden and were once a dominant force in the Allsvenskan’s early years. But these days they lag a long way behind Gothenburg rivals IFK both in terms of supporters and trophies. Times have been tough for the Grönsvart (Green & Blacks) who not so long ago were playing in the third tier.
However their long-suffering supporters have a great reputation for their passion and loyalty. Popular captain Fredrik Lundgren bleeds green and black while goalkeeper Dime Jankuloski can often been seen clapping in sync with supporters while standing in goal. Even the most hardened IFK supporter finds it difficult to dislike the Makrillarna (Mackerels).
Yes its true, ‘Häcken’ does mean ‘the arse’ in Swedish, a fact not lost on opposition fans. Although it also translates as ‘the hedge’ and it's this latter interpretation that applies. Hailing from Hisingen, the ‘island’ in Gothenburg’s northern suburbs, the club is fiercely parochial to the point of unveiling banners that read ‘Hisingen is not Gothenburg.’
While attracting minuscule crowds, Häcken have financial backing out of proportion to their support due to their Gothia Cup, the world’s largest youth football tournament held in Gothenburg every summer.
Häcken can struggle to attract players and have had to be imaginative in their recruiting. The signing of Nigerian midfielder Dominic Chatto from Finnish club FC Inter Turku was initiated via Facebook!
Nicknamed Sällskapet (the Society) ÖIS are very much Gothenburg’s posh club, hailing from the city’s leafy inner western suburbs. Much to the delight of IFK supporters, ÖIS have been languishing in the Superettan (Division 2) for the past two seasons.
But the return of favourite son Marcus Allbäck last summer led to a quick return to the top. Czech set piece specialist Pavel Zavadil and former Helsingborg hero Alvaro Santos will ensure they’ll have a good chance of survival, allowing them to resume their rivalry with IFK, which ranks as one of Sweden’s biggest derbies.
Former players include Brazilian international Afonso Alves, who currently plays for Middlesbrough.
Trelleborg have spent most of their history outside of the top tier and like many teams with few resources they’re renowned for playing pragmatic defensive football. Survival is the aim at the beginning of every season and this year won’t be any different.
Their player list is unremarkable but admittedly unique in the Allsvenskan for it's notable lack of foreign imports, all but one player being native Swedes. Their most famous past player is PSV Eindhoven goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson, who was born in Trelleborg and played for the club in 1999 before moving to Italy’s Juventus.
Back in 1994 Örebro SK lost the Allsvenskan Guld by a single goal, an event that no doubt has haunted supporters ever since. They have never won a trophy and apart from ’94 have never really come close. Like Trelleborg, the club won promotion in 2006 and has been aiming for survival every season since, although last year’s 7th finish suggests they are very capable of consolidation.
Örebro have acquired a strong Finnish influence with manager Sixten Boström, captain Fredrik Nordback, and star players Roni Porokara and Tommy Wirtanen all hailing from the other side of Åland.
Gefle IF, from the town of Gävle, will be Norrland’s sole representative in this season’s competition. If you’re looking to prove your credentials to fellow ultras at your adopted club, you’d do well to make the trip to the cold barren north as an away fan.
In a town more renowned for ice hockey than football, Gefle IF achievements are modest at best and they will basically be another club just happy to survive. Key players are Hans Berggren and Yannick Bapupa, while Norrland local Jonas Lantoo looks like an exciting prospect.
BP’s main claim to fame is the fact that they are actually the largest club in Europe in terms of teams and registered players. They have around 247 teams of different ages, with over 3,000 registered players and a youth academy that has produced some of the best players in Sweden. However unfortunately for the senior club side, most of them are poached at a young age. Juventus’ Albin Ekdal was the most recent sale.
They’re likely to struggle this season, only their second ever in the Allsvenskan, but they’ll be exciting to watch simply because of the prospect of seeing Sweden’s next big star emerge.