‘Sweden is a really easy country to settle into. I’d recommend it to anyone’

How does a professional footballer end up stranded on a quiet little island off the Gothenburg coast, hunting frantically for somewhere to sleep?

'Sweden is a really easy country to settle into. I'd recommend it to anyone'
English footballer Laurie Bell, who is currently plying his trade in Sweden. Photo: Laurie Bell

By diving into the Swedish experience head first, as Laurie Bell has since he moved to the Nordic country.

“Last year on my 24th birthday I had a couple of days off. So the day before it I got a train by myself from Örebro down to Gothenburg, then a tram and a ferry out to the archipelago,” he tells The Local.

“I had a quality day exploring the beautiful islands, on and off ferries. I didn't have any food with me. It was late summer so a lot of places were shut and I was literally eating wild apples off the trees. I went swimming, for a hike… then at the end of the day, I had found a great spot, and was enjoying myself so much I missed the last ferry.”

It gets better. He continues:

“I decided to stay on the island, but the B&B was shut. So I went next door to what I thought was a B&B. I ended up speaking to this old couple, and asked 'can I have a room?'. I eventually realized they had no idea why this English guy was in their living room.”

After leaving them in peace, he unsuccessfully hunted for another B&B and even considered sneaking a night's sleep in one of the boats moored on the island. But eventually the Englishman decided to swallow his pride and go back to the poor couple he had confused before.

“I thought 'god, what am I going to do?'. I went back to them, and they called their daughter and granddaughter who had a spare room. The daughter picked me up, took me back to their house and put me in their little guest house. When I woke up the next morning they had made me a birthday breakfast and said happy birthday to me!”

Bell in his Karlsunds gear. Photo: Laurie Bell

If you haven't noticed already, Bell isn't the average British footballer. Players from the UK are notoriously travel shy, rarely opting to test themselves on foreign shores. But at the age of 24, this midfielder's career has already taken him to the US, where he earned a scholarship and a first professional contract, then on to Örebro in central Sweden.

“I went to uni on a football scholarship in the US and signed my first pro contract at a club in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After that I only got a short term work visa in America – it's very competitive. So once it expired at the end of the first season I had to get out of the country before I was kicked out,” he explains.

“I moved back to England, applied myself to getting back to America as lots of my life was based there, but it was proving very difficult. Then one of my old coaches in the US, an English guy, sent me a message on Facebook one day saying there's a Division 2 team in Sweden who need a central midfielder urgently. 'If you can get to Karlslunds in Örebro in less than a week, you have a contract'.”

Though he knew very little about Swedish football, and less still about Örebro, it was an easy decision to make.

“I just went for it. I had run into a brick wall and was at a loose end. I was really excited by the prospect of Sweden, it seemed like a new adventure.”

From the minute he landed in Sweden the country proved to be a pleasant surprise.

“The first drive from Arlanda to Örebro, through the countryside, passing the lakes, typical Scandinavian red houses… I just thought 'Wow. All right, I'll be ok here'.”

His new home city also quickly left an impression:

“Örebro is gorgeous. I was so impressed. The first thing I noticed is it's absolutely spotless, like all Swedish cities compared to Britain. There's a beautiful castle castle with a river and moat, leading out to one of the enormous Swedish lakes.”

Those lakes are the location of another of his travel mishaps however. This time involving a well-travelled paddle board, and a possible puncture.

“I got an inflatable paddle board for my 21st, took it to the US for three years, left it at my girlfriend's house there, then went back to get it at the end of last year. I brought it back to Manchester, then Sweden this year. So on the first nice day of spring a couple of weeks ago I took it out and tried to pump it up… then realized it either has a hole in it or the pump doesn't work anymore.”

The paddle board in happier times. Photo: Laurie Bell

“So I spent probably the best part of a grand (£1,000) carting it around the world only for it not to blow up. But there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors here – I just need some updated equipment to do so,” he laughs.

Paddle board or not, Bell has found the Swedish outdoors and Örebro are an easy sell for some of his friends back home, who have also fallen in love with the country.

“One of my mates came to visit who is a coach in English football and he's so sold on it he's looking at coaching opportunities in Sweden. I've absolutely endorsed it, I've been trying to get friends out, my parents have been, my sister, my brother in law, they're all impressed. I'm really happy here.”

Importantly, his day job is also a satisfying experience. The former Manchester City academy player admits he didn't know much about Swedish football, and experiencing it first hand has been an eye opener.

“I was surprised by the passion, and the level is good. I've been to quite a few Allsvenskan games and it's a really high level. At my level too there's a lot of good players who I’m sure could make it in the UK. I expected to come over and for it to be quite a difference in class and attitude towards football, but it actually felt pretty similar to back home.”

Which is why he constantly implores British pros to try their luck abroad, especially in a country like Sweden where the leap isn't too daunting.

“There's so much less to worry about if you move with football than if you just do it by yourself, trying to find a job. You're immediately in an environment with 25 teammates who are inevitably ready-made friends. Staff who can smooth the transition. You'd do well to mess it up. That's why I don't really see the risk in recommending to people that they come abroad. There's so many people who want to make it work for you,” he notes.

“Sweden's a really easy country to settle into. There's a clear football pyramid and if you do well you'll get an opportunity to advance. It's a beautiful country to explore too. I'd recommend it to anyone.”

But that doesn't mean it’s a free ride. The Karlsunds IF player has noticed Swedes don't take kindly to foreign players who come with an entitled attitude.

“With Swedes you have to show you want to be there, respect the local culture and show you're not just another international player out for themselves. If you're a good teammate the local guys will be brilliant to you. You have to show willingness. I always think it's on the foreign guy to convince the locals he's a good asset,” he emphasizes.

Swedish buildings left a quick impression. Photo: Laurie Bell

One thing the Englishman has been willing to do, but which hasn’t been particularly easy, is learning the Swedish language. While his knowledge of Swedish football vocabulary is solid, getting on a Swedish For Immigrants (SFI) course has been difficult due to his location.

“I'm still waiting to begin SFI, it's taking far too long. I've got a German mate and we're both desperate to learn but it has been a nightmare getting on that course. We've had a few meetings, but trying to pull together enough people for a course for people with a previous higher education is hard. There aren't enough of us in the city at the moment, so it's a matter of waiting.”

“I basically know football words and how to order food. Those are the two fields I nailed early on,” he chuckles.

With no Swedish classes to keep him busy, one way Bell has managed to fill his time is by writing. Along with football, writing is a life-long passion, and one that has led to getting articles published in prestigious outlets like the Guardian and quality football site In Bed With Maradona.

“When I was a kid I wanted to be a footballer and a sports journalist. I've always thought that even a top level pro gives a maximum of five hours a day to football, you inevitably have time to fill. One of my last projects studying in the US was a long form piece about my journey across the world to sign my first professional contract. It got published on In Bed With Maradona, then the Guardian picked it up. I was absolutely bouncing.”

A more reliable method of transport. Photo: Laurie Bell

Inspired, he kept pitching, and editors kept saying yes. The Guardian has published further pieces, and a mini-series has also been commissioned for a sport website. Sometime in the future he wants to write a book, too.

Writing has also somewhat changed his perspective on the lack of Brits playing abroad. Could it be that more want to take the leap, but most just don't know how to?

“Since I've been writing my inbox is full of British lads saying they'd love to try it out. Maybe the avenues aren't really there, it's not a particularly well-trodden path, there aren't a lot of role models,” he muses.

“Sweden is an easier culture to stumble into as they speak such good English,” he adds, going on to praise English football's most successful export to the Nordic nation of recent years, Östersund coach Graham Potter. The manager has taken the side from the lower leagues to to the Allsvenskan for the first time in their history – not to mention booking them in their first ever cup final.

“He has done incredibly well. He's a sensation. They're the inspiration for teams at my level. He has proven himself and I'm sure he'd be more than capable of getting a shot in England, but I'm not sure he's celebrated there as much as he could be. Publish those nice words and maybe he'll bring me with him to Östersund!” he jokes.

Looking to the future, the 24-year-old admits that he is torn between furthering his travels at some point and staying in the adopted home he enjoys so much.

“My goal is to play in one of the top two divisions in Sweden, but it really depends on opportunities. You never know how long your career is going to be. Me and my girlfriend have plans to stay in Sweden and I'll try to get her out here in the next year or so. I'm definitely considering Sweden for the longer term, but a footballer's life is unpredictable. Especially at this level where everyone has one year contracts,” he reveals.

Exploring Sweden with friends. Photo: Laurie Bell

As for that bizarre but wonderful spell on an island near Gothenburg, the chance encounter has left a permanent impact, and since flourished into a friendship.

“I took all of my roommates back there, four of us went out, and the same family came into the city, picked us up, and took us on a boat to the island for a tour,” he recalls.

“I now have friends on Gothenburg's islands! I love that place. I think when you decide to go abroad, you're so much more likely to explore the country than you would if you stayed at home. I still need to explore more of Sweden to make a fair assessment, but I was pretty won over by Gothenburg,” he concludes. 

For members


Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”