Swedish Somalis playing bandy in the town of Borlänge. Photo: Pontus Lindahl/TT
Bandy is one of the biggest winter sports in Sweden, but until recently it was barely known outside of Scandinavia and Russia. Now some argue that the game is generating so much buzz it could soon become an Olympic sport.
It's a sort of field hockey on ice that's been played in Scandinavia for decades, but now the game of bandy is pressing to win a broader fan base – and international recognition.
A distant second favourite to the popular global winter sport ice hockey – of which it is thought to be an early ancestor – the high-tempo game involves two teams of 11 players on ice skates using hockey sticks to try to hit a ball into goals on a frozen pitch the size of a football field.
The sport – which is believed to have its origins in the the Middle Ages and gained brief popularity in England a hundred years ago – is mainly played in the Nordics. The first national bandy league was started in Sweden in 1902. The game is also popular in the Russian hinterland, where it is commonly known just as 'Russian hockey'.
At the 2016 annual Bandy World Cup held earlier this month in provincial Russia, teams from as far a field as the United States, China, Germany and even, surprisingly, war-torn Somalia took part.
The team from Somalia is made of up of refugees from the country living in Sweden. It started as an integration project, initiated by team manager Patrik Andersson in 2014. He said he and his friends were out on a pub crawl when they began discussing how to work together on the challenges faced by Borlänge, an old industrial town 200 kilometres west of Stockholm.
Speaking to the AFP news agency last year, he said he thought creating bridges between coexisting cultures "would make Borlänge a good city to live in".
However the team was knocked out in 2015
as well as in this year's tournament, which was eventually won by the hosts – and favourites – Russia.
Members of Somalia's bandy team, who live in Sweden. Photo: Pontus Lindahl/TT
Nevertheless Russian President Vladimir Putin – who often takes to the ice to play highly choreographed hockey games with his buddies before the state media – shone a rare spotlight on the sport by hosting the winning Russian team at his residence near Moscow.
"I'll give it a go. I've already learnt how to stand up on ice skates," joked Putin after one of the players asked him to try out bandy.
Veterans of the sport say that while its popularity may still be limited outside of the Nordics and Russia, there is plenty about the game that can get the fans excited.
"It's still unfamiliar with the public in many countries around the world but I'm positive that they will love it just after they have a chance to watch the action," Russian bandy great Mikhail Sveshnikov told AFP.
"It's a fast-paced and high scoring game and it's very hard not to fall in love with it."
President Vladimir Putin being given a bandy stick by Russian national player Yevgeny Ivanushkin in February. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/TT
But the game still seems to have a long way to go before the crowds come flocking.
On a recent evening only a handful of places were taken at a stadium just outside Moscow as local team Zorky took on Rodina from Kirov in central Russia.
"Unfortunately young people don't come to watch this game. I can't understand why," Zorky fan Maxim Bobrov told AFP.
Bobrov said that while bandy is more popular in its stronghold in the vast eastern region of Siberia it struggles to compete with other sports elsewhere.
"Maybe its because they don't have any alternative. But here we also have football and ice hockey."
That, however, has not stopped those in charge of the game here setting their sights high.
World bandy governing body (FIB) chief Boris Skrynnik said he is convinced the game can gain international popularity – and is currently pushing for it to be included at the Winter Olympics.
"I believe that bandy has the best chances among all of the winter sports to be included into the Olympic Games programme," Skrynnik told AFP.
With major Winter Olympic powerhouses such as Russia, the US, and China boasting teams, as well as Sweden and other Scandinavian nations, he says that should give the sport as good a chance as any of making it into the Beijing games in 2022.
"I don't see any serious obstacles that can prevent our game from becoming an Olympic sport."