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Multicultural football team unites Malmö

With Malmö’s football club poised to win Sweden’s top-flight Allsvenskan football league, The Local’s Peter Vinthagen Simpson looks at how the team's multicultural make up has united a city that is so often cited as a negative example of the challenge of integration.

Multicultural football team unites Malmö

A recent spate of apparently random shootings directed at people with a non-traditionally Swedish appearance, has raised concerns about growing racism in Malmö and across Sweden as a whole.

The shootings, which police continue to investigate, have often been discussed in the context of the difficulties of integration and have tarnished multicultural Malmö’s reputation.

Sporting success this weekend will go some way to shifting that negative focus and highlighting one of Malmö’s most shining examples of the successes of multiculturalism: the city’s only professional football club, Malmö FF.

Malmö FF’s 2010 squad includes players from nine different nations. It also includes a number of key players who represent the myriad of cultures that make up Sweden’s most culturally mixed city, where around 36 percent of the population is registered as having a foreign background.

“It is the team’s success that unites people. One goes along and watches the matches and the team consists of a group of individuals, it is those players that you cheer on,” Marie Holmberg at the city’s tourism office, Malmö Tourism, tells The Local.

“On the pitch (their background) doesn’t mean anything, they are individuals.”

They are all local men with roots in a slew of various countries and cultures, and on Sunday the likes of Agon Mehmeti, Dardan Rexhepi and Guillermo Molins, will line up alongside talismanic captain Daniel Andersson and goalkeeping stalwart Johan Dahlin, united in their goal of bringing Sweden’s Allsvenskan title back to the football-mad city for a record 16th time.

“Malmö has always been a football town, other sports have never meant that much to us. The entire town town revolves around the team, and we have only one where other Swedish cities have numerous,” says loyal Malmö FF supporter Martin Palmer.

Malmö FF leads Sweden’s Allsvenskan, on goal difference ahead of local Skåne rivals Helsingborg. A win on Sunday will secure the “gold” for MFF for a record 16th time (barring a massive win for Helsingborg).

It will also give a welcome boost to the city, which has been in something of a state of shock after the shootings were classified by the police as a having an apparently racist motive.

The tourist office’s Holmberg explains that the success of the women’s football team in winning the national title a fortnight ago, followed by the prospect of a title win for the men’s team on Sunday, is of great benefit to the city, and its image.

“It is naturally very positive for the city for the women to have won the championship and now if the men can bring home the ‘gold’,” she says, adding that football is a unifiying factor for the city.

Martin Palmer agrees that Malmö’s footballing success has helped local people focus on the positive aspects of integration.

“I think the team’s success has definitely helped. There are so many people with different backgrounds within this town. Everyone likes MFF, and everyone likes Zlatan (Ibrahimovic),” he says, referring to the Malmö native son who stars for both Sweden’s national side as well as storied Italian football club AC Milan.

The election of the Sweden Democrats to Sweden’s Riksdag on a platform to dramatically cut immigration and challenge the multicultural society, has been cited by some observers as a causal factor behind the shootings, having allowed anti-immigrant sentiment to be aired more freely.

Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson is a keen supporter of Mjällby FF, Malmö’s opposition on Sunday. Åkesson, who was born in Skåne, has previously described Sweden’s captain Zlatan Ibrahomivic, as a “bought in” player, and has furthermore questioned his “unSwedish” footballing style, despite the Milan star being born and bred in the country.

When Ibrahimovic broke into Sweden’s national team back in 2001, he was surrounded by established names such as Larsson, Andersson, Svensson and Allbäck. He was seen as little more than a joker in a pack of Swedish organization and did not establish himself in the team until the summer of 2004, the same year he signed for Italian giants Juventus.

Ibrahimovic’s success story from the gravel pitches of one of Malmö’s toughest suburbs Rosengård, to the riches of Milan’s San Siro, serves as an inspiration for Malmö youth seeking to get ahead and better themselves.

Malmö FF midfielder and playmaker Guillermo Molins, who arrived in Sweden as a one-year-old with his parents from Uruguay, coined the phrase “Zlatan effect” when talking to the Dagens Nyheter (DN) daily this week.

“Of course there is a Zlatan effect. His achievements have ensured that we all get a chance,” Molins told DN.

“There is a cockiness among players with foreign roots, another belief in themselves. One should believe in yourself and not listen to much to what others say.”

Palmer, who will take his normal seat alongside a packed house at the Swedbank Stadium in central Malmö on Sunday, says that the players’ backgrounds matter little to the average MFF football fan.

“They are very much seen as Malmö players first, immigrants second. Of course there is the foreign element. But there is such a broad variety of backgrounds. In the end people don’t care, they are so fanatical about the football,” he says.

Malmö’s multicultural players have all been schooled in the Swedish footballing system, with a focus on solid technique, teamwork and organisation. Swedish clubs tend to look to Brazil and Latin American countries when seeking to bring a little flair to their teams, and Malmö’s purchase of Wilton Figueiredo is a case in point.

But the rapid globalisation of football in recent decades, and the changing face of Malmö’s diverse population has had its impact on how the proud residents of the city view their “Himmelsblått” (Sky Blues) and, with half of the national side now made up of “new Swedes”, how the nation views its footballing future.

“It works because it has to work, people are working for the same objective, together. It is a lesson for the city as a whole,” Palmer says.

Malmö FF entertain Mjällby FF at the Swedbank Stadium in Malmö on Sunday, while Helsingborg host Kalmar FF. Both games kick off at 4.30pm.

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SHOOTINGS

US criminologist lauds Malmö for anti-gang success

The US criminologist behind the anti-gang strategy designed to reduce the number of shootings and explosions in Malmö has credited the city and its police for the "utterly pragmatic, very professional, very focused" way they have put his ideas into practice.

US criminologist lauds Malmö for anti-gang success
Johan Nilsson/TT

In an online seminar with Malmö mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh, David Kennedy, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said implementing his Group Violence Intervention (GVI) strategy had gone extremely smoothly in the city.

“What really stands out about the Malmö experience is contrary to most of the places we work,” he said. “They made their own assessment of their situation on the ground, they looked at the intervention logic, they decided it made sense, and then, in a very rapid, focused and business-like fashion, they figured out how to do the work.”

He said that this contrasted with police and other authorities in most cities who attempt to implement the strategy, who tend to end up “dragging their feet”, “having huge amounts of political infighting”, and coming up with reasons why their city is too different from other cities where the strategy has been a success.

Malmö’s Sluta Skjut (Stop Shooting) pilot scheme was extended to a three-year programme this January, after its launch in 2018 coincided with a reduction in the number of shootings and explosions in the city.

“We think it’s a good medicine for Malmö for breaking the negative trend that we had,” Malmö police chief Stefan Sintéus said, pointing to the fall from 65 shootings in 2017 to 20 in 2020, and in explosions from 62 in 2017 to 17 in 2020.

A graph from Malmö police showing the reduction in the number of shootings from 2017 to 2020. Graph: Malmö Police
A graph from Malmö police showing the reduction in the number of explosions in the city between 2017 and 2020. Graph: Malmö Police

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In their second evaluation of the programme, published last month, Anna-Karin Ivert, Caroline Mellgren, and Karin Svanberg, three criminologists from Malmö University, reported that violent crime had declined significantly since the program came into force, and said that it was possible that the Sluta Skjut program was partly responsible, although it was difficult to judge exactly to what extent. 

The number of shootings had already started to decline before the scheme was launched, and in November 2019, Sweden’s national police launched Operation Rimfrost, a six-month crackdown on gang crime, which saw Malmö police reinforced by officers from across Sweden.

But Kennedy said he had “very little sympathy” for criminologists critical of the police’s decision to launch such a massive operation at the same time as Sluta Skjut, making it near impossible to evaluate the programme.

“Evaluation is there to improve public policy, public policy is not there to provide the basis for for sophisticated evaluation methodology,” he argued.

“When people with jobs to do, feel that they need to do things in the name of public safety, they should follow their professional, legal and moral judgement. Not doing something to save lives, because it’s going to create evaluation issues, I think, is simply privileging social science in a way that it doesn’t deserve.”

US criminologist David Kennedy partaking in the meeting. Photo: Richard Orange

Sluta Skjut has been based around so-called ‘call-ins’, in which known gang members on probation are asked to attend meetings, where law enforcement officials warn them that if shootings and explosions continue, they and the groups around them will be subject to intense focus from police.

At the same time, social workers and other actors in civil society offer help in leaving gang life.

Of the 250-300 young men who have been involved in the project, about 40 have been sent to prison, while 49 have joined Malmö’s ‘defector’ programme, which helps individuals leave gangs.

Kennedy warned not to focus too much on the number of those involved in the scheme who start to work with social services on leaving gang life.

“What we find in in practice is that most of the impact of this approach doesn’t come either because people go to prison or because they take services and leave gang life,” he said.

“Most of the impact comes from people simply putting their guns down and no longer being violent.”

“We think of the options as continuing to be extremely dangerous, or completely turning one’s life around. That’s not realistic in practice. Most of us don’t change that dramatically ever in our lives.”

He stressed the importance of informal social control in his method, reaching those who gang members love and respect, and encouraging them to put pressure on gang members to abstain from gun violence.

“We all care more about our mothers than we care about the police, and it turns out that if you can find the guy that this very high risk, very dangerous person respects – literally, you know, little old ladies will go up to him and get his attention and tell him to behave himself. And he will.”

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