The Djurgarden of Eden


Just over a year ago I was lucky enough to attend one of the final football matches played in the Olympia Stadion in Stockholm.  In normal circumstances, clubs move elsewhere because they have outgrown their grounds and they can gain greater financial rewards by moving to the out-of-town, identikit stadiums.  In the case of the Olympia Stadion, and its then tenants, Djurgården IF, it was a case of them being told they could no longer play games there.  The iconic stadium is a legacy of a past era of watching football, with wooden benches, poor sight lines and a creaking infrastructure and the Swedish FA, after giving them a few stays of execution, finally told them that 2013 would be their final season in the ground.

8900669783_0e4f02f888_zFast forward twelve months and the Järnkaminerna are now firmly at home, with their slippered feet well under the table at the Tele2 Arena in the Johanneshov area of the city.  Average attendances have gone from just below 9,000 in the last decade to over 15,000 in the first year, with over 25,000 for the explosive derby matches against AIK.  As you would expect from a brand spanking new arena, with thousands of shiny metal plates attached to the outside and a sliding roof that moves with the action of a CD player at Tandy’s (Partridge gag).  Transport links are excellent, with a number of train stations around the ground – who would have thought of that when building a stadium eh!

After numerous troubles on and off the pitch in recent years the club is at last able to look up.  Coming into this game, nearly at the half way point in the season, they seventh, one point and one place behind the visitors, BK Häcken.  A little run of form now and they could be putting pressure on city rivals AIK who sat in second place, jut six points away.

10837676685_f17af0b580_zWork done for another day I took my place in the new arena which looked relatively similar inside to the stadiums in Cardiff and Düsseldorf.  Three things were lacking for me. One was a beer (Swedes and their crazy alcohol rules for you), two was any flares from the home fans – especially as I had seen their displays in the past at the good-old Råsunda and last year in the game at the Stockholms Stadion and finally was any away fans.  In fact there were 8 of them, with a flag between them, perched in the upper tier.  Whilst it is a fair way from Göteborg, it wasn’t a school night.  Still, at least there was probably room on the team bus for them to get a lift back home.

Djurgården IF BK Häcken – Tele2 Arena – Monday 21st July 2014
After collecting my media pass I followed signs to the press seats which takes you up a tunnel and onto the edge of the 3G pitch which was enjoying a liberal watering.  With ten minutes to kick off the DIF fans were in full voice and it was tempting just to stand there and get a close up of their pre-match display.  Alas, a friendly steward pointed out to me that I was likely to have things thrown at me if I did so I took refuse up in the stands.

14730122413_5f5d42bebb_zTen minutes on the clock and with their first attack the visitors forced a corner.  The ball bobbled around the 3G pitch before Carlos Strandberg häckened (too good an opportunity to miss) it home from close range. The DIF fans behind the goal didn’t miss a beat, simply turning up the volume a notch, launching into the Swedish version of “Build a bonfire” (well, the same tune at least), bouncing choruses between the Ultras behind the goal and a section standing under a banner that said Östermalms Gentlemannaklubb, which Google translate told me was not family friendly nor was it open for breakfast.

Twenty minutes later and another mix up led to Martin Ericsson being allowed to sneak behind the defence (as they were all positioned to look the other way – fact from my scouting course) and he side-footed into the corner of the net.  Two-nil and for a full thirty seconds the stadium was silent.  The truth was that the visitors had only had two forays into the DIF area and scored on both occasions, whilst at the other end the Häcken keeper, Källqvist had to be on his toes to keep out chances from Jawo, Radetinac and Tibbing. The noise slowly built again and the whole stadium rose in unison, with a symphony of “ooohs” as Stefan Karlsson’s rocket was tipped the bar.  It looked like being one of those nights for the home side.

As you would expect, DIF came out fired up for the second half and created a number of chances in the opening fifteen minutes.  But try as they might, and willed on by a wall of noise they simply couldn’t break down the stubborn Häcken defence.  It’s also fair to say that the half-time substitute Prijovic had an absolute stinker, somehow managing to connect with every part of his body bar his head or foot when in a dangerous position.

14709960342_461a2c57ee_zFinally in the 74th minute they got their slice of luck.  Martin Broberg beat the offside trap and with only the keeper to beat managed to slice his lob sideways into the path of Fejzullahu who walked the ball into an empty net.  What effect would that goal have on the team? In short very little.  They took the tactic of trying to stretch the visitors, looking to get in behind them and to the by-line but the pace of the artificial surface often took the overlapping runners by surprise.

So in the end it was a missed opportunity to gain some ground on those above, whilst the visitors closed the gap themselves with AIK to just 2 points.  However, there is more to football than just a result and it had been an entertaining game, in a very impressive new stadium.  With a loyal fanbase that oozes passion and now a brand new home it can’t be too long before DIF will be challenging for the major honours again.

 

 

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The Golden Generation of German football


There has been millions of words written about the most remarkable game in the history of the World Cup Finals.  The six or so first half minutes when Germany scored four goals in Belo Horizonte stunned 60,000 fans in the Estadio Mineirao, the 200 million Brazilians watching on TV and hundreds of millions more around the world.  The Germans showed little mercy for some appalling defensive play, yet they came into the tournament not even favourites to win Group G, let alone progress to the latter stages.  Their opening game thrashing of Portugal made people sit up but nobody expected the utter domination of the Brazilians.  Irrespective of if they go on and beat Argentina today in the World Cup Final, that one game has re-defined the notion of Brazil as one of the best teams in the world.

The records came tumbling down in just an hour and a half of football.  Brazil’s first competitive defeat at home for 39 years, their biggest ever defeat, the biggest margin of victory in a World Cup Semi-Final, Germany’s biggest away win outside Europe and so on.  Is our shock at the result due to the strength and ruthlessness of the German side or the lack-lustre performance of the Brazilians?  A bit of both I’d say, although the home nations weak performance in the 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands four days later would suggest that they were rabbits caught in the headlights of 200 million fans.  The Brazilian media have naturally focused on the weaknesses of their squad and team management rather than the German performance.  Is thatSAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA fair?  Perhaps not.

Ten years ago the English media waxed lyrically about our “Golden Generation”, the core of players who would go on to dominate world football.  Beckham, Ferdinand, Lampard, Owen and Rooney. We went into the 2004 European Championships in Portugal full of hope that this time we would get it right, finally delivering some glory after nearly forty years of wasted effort.  Unfortunately injuries once again were our undoing (as well as penalties) as we crashed out in the Quarter-Finals to the host nation on penalties after Rooney, the 19 year old talisman of the England team, was injured early in the game.  Two years later in Germany it was déjà vu as Rooney was sent off in the repeat performance against Portugal in Gelsenkirchen and England crashed out on penalties once again.  The Golden generation slowly faded as age caught up with them and off the field issues became distractions.

So who would replace these potential world class stars?  In theory they should have been already moving up through the ranks, gaining experience in the England Under 18’s, 20’s and finally Under 21’s.  Stuart Pearce was working very closely with Fabio Capello in nurturing the young talent.  In June 2009 Pearce took his young squad to Sweden for the UEFA European Championships, full of confidence that they would come home with the title.

Two wins and a draw from the group stages took England into the Semi-Finals where they raced into a 3-0 first-half lead against the host nation.  The English media in the stadium couldn’t dream up enough superlatives for the team, already pencilling a number in for Capello’s World Cup squad the following year in South Africa.  In an all too familiar story, England then conceded three second half goals and had to rely on penalties, winning for once, to progress to the final where Germany would be waiting.  The only black mark was that keeper Joe Hart would miss the final having picked up a second tournament booking needlessly in the penalty shoot-out.

Hart’s absence would be crucial.  On the 29th June in the impressive Swedbank Arena in Malmö, nearly 19,000 fans saw the unfancied Germans destroy England.  The final score was 4-0 but it could have easily been double that, mustering 17 shots to England’s 6.  The star of the game was a small midfielder of Turkish descent, Mezut Özil.

Fast forward five years and six of the starting line-up from that game in Malmötook the field in Belo Horizonte.  A seventh, Thomas Müller, scorer of four World Cup goals already in Brazil wasn’t deemed good enough to make the squad back in 2009.  From that same Swedish night, only James Milner had made the squad for England’s squad in Brazil.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAWhilst the likes of Martin Cranie, Nedum Onuoha, Mark Noble and Michael Mancienne have failed to progress further than the Under 21’s, the Germans have continued to produce young talent, constantly pushing them into the national team if they are deemed good enough.  In the squad that got on the plane for Brazil, nine were aged 24 or less.  Some players, such as the Bayern Munich trio of Müller, Kroos and Götze with an average age of 22 have over 30 caps.

So why have the Germans got it so right?  The whole issue of the number of coaches has been discussed before, with Germany having over 30,000 qualified coaches to England’s less than 5,000.  But that doesn’t tell the whole story.  We have some decent young players in England.  The issue is that they simply do not get enough game time to progress and develop.

Many Premier League teams have simply abandoned the principals and process of bringing young players through their Academies.  The chances of ever seeing anything like the Class of ’92 at Old Trafford is about as likely as Arjen Robben staying on his feet for more than five minutes.  Today, Premier League clubs seem more likely to invest in overseas players rather than investing in the development of their home-grown youth players.  Consequently promising youngsters often ending up with a career moving from club to club on loan.  Look at the example of Michael Mancienne, still a Chelsea player when he took the field as a second half substitute in the Under 21’s final back in 2009.  He went on to play just four times for the Blues, including two cup games where they fielded weakened teams.  He was forced to go on loan into the Championship to get game time, finally leaving Chelsea in the summer of 2011 for a fee of £1.7 million to Hamburg.  Since then he has played 40 times in the Bundesliga, but is nowhere near an England call up.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERACompare that to the likes of Kroos and midfield anchor man Bastian Schweinsteiger.  They have Bundesliga and Champions League medals to their names despite their relatively young age.  The German model of building their teams around young home developed talent is now reaping rewards for the national side.  Seven of the squad have been regulars for champions Bayern Munich over the past two seasons, with an eight, Marcus Reus only denied a place through injury.  Just over a year ago Germany’s two biggest clubs faced each other at Wembley in the Champions League Final.  Seven of the German squad played in that game.

The introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) is supposed to ensure that the best young players have access to the best facilities, although many see it another way for the big clubs to simply hoover up the best young talent at an early age, stockpiling them to stop anyone else getting them.

We have a number of promising youngsters playing at the top level, with the likes of Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxley-Chamberlain playing regularly at the highest level of the Premier League.  If English clubs can realise the error of their ways then there is hope for us yet.  Could the next “Golden Generation” be waiting in the Premier League wings already?

Closing time


“Closing time…every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”

So here I am at last.  It has taken me five years of visiting this wonderful city to finally take my seat in the Olympiastadion, and not a moment too soon.  In just a few weeks, Djurgårdens IF will be packing their bags and departing from this historic venue to take up home in Johanneshov, where the new Tele2 Arena will open its doors in July.  The new stadium, close to the Globe Arena (the largest hemispherical building in the world as if you didn’t already know) will be shared with Stockholm’s third team, Hammarby IF meaning that in the space of twelve months two brand spanking new stadiums will have opened in the city(The 50,000 capacity Friends Arena in Solna being the other one).  It’s been like London buses around these parts.

If there is a stadium that oozes history more that the Stockholms Stadion then I’m yet to hear about it. Of course it is totally unsuitable for a club with lofty ambitions such as Djurgårdens IF, and finally the Swedish Football Association have given them notice to conform with new ground regulations and that is why they are finally moving out next month. But on a warm summer’s night with the stadium bathed in sunshine it was a perfect venue for the home side to prove that they had turned a corner. Defeat on penalties in the Svenska Cupen final to Göteborg last weekend had been hard to take, but even harder was the fact that they propped up the whole league with just two wins so far.

8900602326_9ca0118289_bEverywhere you look in the stadium it is old brick and wood. Grand entrances, century-old turnstiles and two iconic towers at one end of the stadium. The canopy that once protected the Royal Family and dignitaries at the Olympic Games is still in place, although it could do little to protect us from the slowly setting sun shining in our eyes. It was enough to get in here an hour before kick off and just soak up the history.

The other reason to watch a game here was to see the Djurgården ultras in action (in a positive sense) and they didn’t disappoint with an excellent move that saw them all swap flag designs mid-act. How in earth they get these sorts of thing right on the night is beyond me, especially as the extent of our “tifosi” displays involve holding up bits of coloured cards at a unspecified time which invariably looks a bit shit compared to what we see on the continent.

8901266718_225a4c49f3_b

But back to tonight.   Stockholms Olympiastadion,  or just Stadion to its friends, has its place in history already assured even after DIF depart in a few weeks.  Built for the Games of the V Olympiad in 1912, very little in the design of the stadium has changed in the past century. The wooden benches, the gothic-style brick entrances that would look more in place at a castle, the elaborate entrance to the arena at one end.  Alas it is doubtful that anyone who witnessed the drama of the 1912 Tug of War competition is alive today.  The event, which is still the shortest ever held in the Olympics history, was completed from start to finish in less than 5 minutes when Sweden beat Great Britain 2-0, being the only two competing nations, to take the Gold medal. The stadium is also famous for holding events in two Olympic games.  In 1956 it hosted the equestrian events for the Melbourne Olympics due to quarantine regulations.  Two facts in one paragraph to amuse and amaze your friends.  You don’t get that from behind a pay-wall do you?

The last golden period for DIF came a decade ago when the team won three Allsvenskan Championships in four years, including the domestic double in 2002 and 2005.  Unfortunately they weren’t able to make any progress in the resulting Champions League campaigns, a fact that was probably their undoing in the end, as the best players moved on and the gravy train didn’t deliver enough cash to re-invent a new, better, team.

Since then the club have floated around the lower mid-table in the Allsvenskan.  There have been many false dawns and even more disappointments.  Seeing arch-rival AIK win the double a few years ago was a bitter pill to swallow, but perhaps the move to the Tele2 Arena may well see the rise of the blue half of the city once more.  Despite a crap start to the season, the majority of sides were separated by just a few points and so a win or two could take them up into the European spots in just a week or two.

Djurgårdens IF 1 Kalmar IF 0 – Stockholms Stadion – Thursday 30th May 2013
Of course, Swedish football is the best in the world. Why? Because when all other options are exhausted at the end of the season in May, the Swedes are just getting going in their season. DIF’s campaign so far has been a bit of a nightmare.  Coming into this game against Kalmar, The Iron Stoves (Järnkaminerna) prop up the rest of the league.  The visitors came into the game just one point outside the European spots although having only scored 12 goals in their opening ten games didn’t really suggest they were the most attacking team.

8900669783_0e4f02f888_bWith the hope in their hearts the home side began the game with some purpose, having discovered their mojo with the first real appearance of summer. Cool, calm defending that belied the fact they had shipped an average of over 2 goals per game so far this season, and some good movement from the pacey front two Fenzullahu and Jawo. Fifteen minutes in and they had their reward as a ball over the top of the Kalmar defence saw Jawo outpace his markers and beat the keeper with ease from 10 yards. For the rest of the half they “Kalmar’d” the storm, with Kenny Höie called into action on frequent occasions to clear his lines.

The second half saw the teams welcomed back onto the pitch with a display of flares from the ultras, which meant that until they all had been extinguished they game couldn’t start – and that just encouraged them to light a few more through the half, which always resulted in a stern PA announcement that probably said something like “don’t go back to fireworks once they have gone out” or “don’t gargle petrol when holding a flare”.

8900661751_42308d86ea_bDespite forcing some early corners, Djurgårdens didn’t have that cutting edge that a player like Teddy Sheringham could bring. Oh Teddy, Teddy. Young Edward as Cloughie used to call him, had a very productive season in these parts back in 1985 and enjoyed his time in the Swedish capital – and who wouldn’t?  Stockholm is a fantastic city to relax in and I am sure Teddy made full use of his Saarf London persona in the bars and clubs of Gamla Stan. More of his adventures can be found in a new book, published this summer by Ockley Books called The Football Tourist, written by erm…me.

With ten minutes to go Martin Broberg should have doubled the lead when he headed over from six yards and then young Martin broke the offside trap to seal the victory but blazed high and wide. It hadn’t been the best night for him, but for the team as a whole it had been a performance that would give them confidence of the battles ahead. Relatively assured at the back, positive going forward. No Bayern Munich but certainly no Stoke City.

8901220232_a22eac7eb6_bWhen the clock hit ninety minutes the fans unfurled a banner – “Djurgården – we’re gonna live forever” accompanied by a rousing verse of the club’s hymn. The three points won’t give them immortality but it did take them up five places in the table which on a beautiful Stockholm night is about as good as life could get for the blue side of the city.

“Closing time. So gather up your jackets, and move it to the exits.  I hope you have found a Friend”

A poor man’s Andy Carroll? I don’t think so


Just two weeks ago the lights dimmed and a lone voice welcomed over 45,000 people to the opening of Europe’s 2nd largest indoor arena (Schalke’s Veltins Arena is classed as the biggest). The 2.8 billion Swedish Kroner Friends Arena had finally arrived, years after talking, debating and finally construction in Solna, just north of the city centre in Stockholm. The opening event featured the best of Swedish music including appearances by Björn and Benny themselves (the BB in ABBA silly) as well as Roxette. Alas, other classic Swedish music acts such as Ace of Base, The Cardigans and Europe were missing from the line up.

But the Arena wasn’t just built just for Swedish House Mafia concerts. It will primarily be a football stadium, home of AIK and the national team. So it was only fitting that the opening game to be played here should be against a team who have a passionate away following, who could generate some real noise and atmosphere. Unfortunately, Denmark had a previous engagement with Turkey so England agreed to step in. The good news was that I was already due to be in the city for work purposes; the bad news was that it was likely the ban on the England band from Poland wouldn’t be in force for this game. Continue reading

On the first day of Christmas….The best atmosphere


Welcome to our annual “awards” – celebrating all that is good about the game from our tours around the world.  By 31st December we will have seen 115 games in 2011, which as CMF reminds me is one almost every three days.  She would only get bored of me if I was at home every day anyway.  These are awards based on our opinion.  No votes, no favouritism (well, almost none), no trophies and no speeches. Last season’s nominations and winners can be found here.

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me, an atmosphere so red-hot it will make you wee”

3rd Place – Brondby IF
A fantastic display in the two derbies we attended in 2011 against FC Copenhagen saw the Danes keep their place in the top three this year.  The sheer noise and flag waving needs to be seen to be believed at the Carlsberg Classico.

2nd Place – AIK
People who have no knowledge of Swedish football may dismiss it as pedestrian, laid back and functional – a bit like Ikea.  But attend any of the big games features IFK, Malmö FF or AIK and you will see what Scandinavian passion is all about.  The biggest game of the season is undoubtably the Stockholm derby, played at the Råsunda stadium (until the new Stockholm Stadion opens in November of course) where AIK meet rivals Djurgården.  The notorious AIK hardcore fans, The Black Army, prepare their displays for months and it shows.  Recent legislation has meant that if any flares are let off whilst the players are on the pitch then the game needs to be stopped, meaning this game is a long affair.  The noise and colour will make your ears ring, the hairs on your neck stand up and your nose fill with smoke.  Beautiful.
1st Place – Legia Warsaw
The first time I went I lost my hearing for about an hour afterwards, and that was at a game where they had the lowest attendance of the season.  Two weeks ago when the temperature plunged well below zero, thousands of the fans jumped, sang, hugged and generally got 100% behind their team dressed in white t-shirts.  If there ever was a “twelth man” theory then this was it in practice.  Most Polish fans, irrespective of their allegiance will begrudgingly say Legia have the best fans in Poland.  As someone who watches the game all over the world I can honestly say that they are the best that I have seen.

Still England’s finest export


We think Kenny Pavey is the best English player currently playing outside of these shores.  Whenever we are in Sweden we try and make time for him, simply because he is a really nice bloke.  After my trip over to the Stockholm derby I asked Andy Hudson, our expert on Swedish football, and author of the excellent website Blågul Football to meet up with Kenny when he was next over in Stockholm.  Over to you Andy.

Pavey thanks to Robert Henriksson

I’ve been involved in many great situations since I started writing about football, but one stands out. It’s June 26 2011 and I’m sitting in O’Leary’s, a bar in Örebro. I’ve just ordered another beer, my fifth of the day, and AIK have won 2-1 away to Trelleborg. The only people celebrating as Teteh Bangura struck the winner in the 77th minute were me and a friend, in stark contrast to our protests when AIK wrongly had a goal disallowed in the first half; the other lads with us are still fuming about the ÖSK loss earlier. I fire off a text message and then there’s a look of disbelief from around the table as I read out the reply. My AIK supporting friend, the person to blame for the amount of time I spend talking about AIK; the person to blame for me checking the internet for the latest news; the person to blame for me listening to Swedish radio coverage of games whenever I can, can’t believe it. Kenny Pavey, ‘scorer’ of the disallowed goal, has replied. The same Kenny Pavey who can also happily be blamed for my AIK lust.

An infectious smile comes across the face of every AIK fan when I mention one name: Kenny Pavey – crowd favourite, idol of the North Stand, legend. If you wanted a definition of a whole-hearted, passionate player then I would give you Kenny Pavey. But he isn’t an English clogger, this guy has skill to go with the tough tackling. Continue reading

The start of the gravy train for another season


“Ce sont les meilleures équipes
Sie sind die allerbesten Mannschaften
The main event!”

Of course we all recognise the above three lines as the opening verse of the Champions League anthem.  The music that stirs our loins for a night of the “best football in the world” ©UEFA and seduces us into thinking that we are the privaliged few in being able to watch the superstars.  For those trivia buffs amongst you you may want to know that the song was commissioned by UEFA in 1992 and was aired on the night of the first ever round of games in the tournament in August 1992.  In fact for you real real trivia buffs you may want to know that it was first played on the 19 August in the Ta’Qali stadium in Malta when the teams from Valletta and Maccabi Tel Aviv took to the field.

It was written by English composer Tony Britten and he adapted George Frideric Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” from the Coronation Anthems, and the piece was performed by London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and sung by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Continue reading