Monday night’s clash between south Sweden rivals Malmö FF and Helsingborg IF featured all the traits which football supporters have come to expect from this fixture.
Fiercely competitive on the pitch combined with the menace of trouble lingering in the stands.
The central train station in Helsingborg, located about 65 kilometres north of Malmö, was packed with police as both sets of supporters arrived several hours before kick-off.
There was also an increased security presence for the latest match in a series which has been marred by crowd trouble in recent years.
Last season the game in Malmö was called off after a firework hit a player who was later assaulted by a rival fan. Police took no risks for the latest contest in Helsingborg, deploying officers on horseback as well as other police personnel with trained police dogs.
One officer told The Local that the evening’s major operation is standard procedure for Malmö-Helsingborg matches, but added the caveat that both clubs have taken a new approach: trying to tackle the hooliganism problem themselves.
Monday night’s threat of violence is a far cry from what was once considered a friendly rivalry between the Scanian giants in Sweden’s top football league, the Allsvenskan.
According to Martin Alsiö, author of 100 år med Allsvensk Fotboll (‘100 Years of Allsvenskan Football’), trouble has become an increasingly familiar spectacle for these matches following the defection of a Helsingborg icon to their Malmö-based rivals.
“Malmö FF’s appointment of Helsingborg native and former star Roland Nilsson in 2007 has increased the rivalry significantly,” he explains.
“He was an icon for Helsingborg and his decision to join their sworn enemies was deeply controversial.”
Alsiö adds that Nilsson was “never fully accepted” by MFF supporters, despite helping the club claim the 2010 Allsvenskan title.
“The violence in last season’s abandoned game was the excuse Nilsson needed to finally complete his long goodbye from Malmö and move to FC Copenhagen,” he says.
Clashes between both sets of the more extreme fans, known as ultras, are the chief motivation for the heavy police presence which now accompanies the Skåne derby.
It’s well known that the ultras meet up away from the stadium for arranged brawls, sometimes as early as a week before the game.
The police freely admit there is little they can do to prevent the organized fights which occur away from the stadium.
Protecting the majority of fans who are there just for the game is their priority, and despite the prospect of trouble, there are many families who attend matches featuring the last two winners of the Allsvenskan.
A quick lap around the stadium revealed the occasional sight of rival fans speaking cordially before they filed off in different directions. However, there was also the more frequent sound of spitting when other rival supporters crossed paths.
With less than an hour before Monday night’s match, police tactics were stepped up a notch with an abundance of vans and horses circling into position just in time for the stampede of visiting Malmö ultras.
And wall of sound accompanied the vast hordes of travelling Malmö supporters.
What occurred between the arrival of the Malmö fans and their eventual entry into the stadium was both frightening and confusing.
The chanting fans let off flares and marched towards the police while a few threw glass bottles in the direction of the officers.
This was followed by an almighty charge as police on horseback attempt to circle the supporters into position.
Some supporters responded with a barrage of profanity, telling police in no uncertain terms where to go.
Football historian Alsiö attributes the violent tendencies of hooligans to a sense of alienation.
“Hooligans are basically regular fans who are frustrated with being neglected and alienated from the game and club they love,” he says.
He believes that three sub groups – the clubs, the police and the media – are responsible for the present problems with supporter behaviour in Swedish football.
“The three groups are indeed different but they agree on the one fact that hooligans are something assumed to be horrible and who can never be talked to – but only about,” says Alsiö.
“Hooligans are the perfect scape-goats for people in power.”
On Monday night, the game was stopped nearly almost as quickly as it began after the Malmö ultras let off flares and firecrackers in response to Helsingborg’s own flares. Smoke enveloped the pitch before the match got back underway.
Then Helsingborg’s ultras unveil an effigy with a message for former Helsingborg player Simon Thern, who switched sides to join Malmö last year. The banner reads “Simon Thern should die” with an accompanying blow-up doll hanging off the side of the terrace.
As it turned out, Thern was unavailable for the match due to injury, and after pleas from Helsinborg stewards, the ultras removed the banner, although the effigy remained in place until half-time.
A spokesperson for Helsingborg IF later said they were prepared to stop the match as a result of the offensive threat to Thern.
There are parallells to be drawn with the ‘English problem’ of football hooliganism in the 1980s and what is happening in Sweden today.
Many ultras in Sweden claim to be influenced by films such as ‘Green Street’ and attempt to glamorize the violence associated with such behaviour on internet message boards.
While the advent of all-seater stadiums in England combined with the high cost of tickets has practically eliminated the hooligan problem, ticket prices in Sweden are still very affordable, with tickets for Monday’s derby swapping hands for as little as 100 kronor ($15).
Alsiö adds that hooliganism in Sweden is also a byproduct of a downward spiral pitting clubs against their own supporters.
“Hooliganism tends to rise in any area where the people in power start to use tougher measurements to deal with their supporters. As a result some fans will respond violently to the new treatment and that response will justify the tougher actions already taken,” he explains.
Monday’s uninspiring match ended in a draw which, given the heated atmosphere in the stands, was probably best result, particularly for those wanting a safe escape home.