European Football

Happy Halmstad and the ghosts of ‘58

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The first post-war World Cups in Europe were relatively low key affairs. Interestingly, both the 1954 and 1958 competitions were held in countries that were neutral during WW2. Understandable, since many other nations were still reassembling their cities and towns.

In 1958, post-modern Sweden hosted the World Cup. We all know Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo, but there were other, smaller and lesser celebrated locations such as Vasteras, Orebro, Uddevalla and Halmstad.

Just one hour or so from Gothenburg, Halmstad is Sweden’s 20th largest city with a population of some 63,000. Halmstad BK, more commonly known as HBK, was the club that launched the managerial career of current England boss Roy Hodgson. He led the club to its first Allsvenskan title in 1976 when they just edged out reigning champions Malmo. Halmstad haven’t had the best of times in recent years and they slipped down the Swedish pyramid to the Superettan in 2011, returning 12 months later via the play-offs. They are essentially a small-town club.

However, back in the early 90s, I was tipped off about a young winger by former Danish manager Richard Moller-Nielsen who was playing for Halmstad. His name was Freddie Ljungberg and he did indeed fulfil the promise he showed in his early years with HBK. Ljungberg was pivotal in Halmstad’s 1997 Allsvenskan title win, scoring five goals in 24 games. His performances earned him a transfer to Arsenal in 1998 and his club £3m.

Halmstad don’t have a Freddie Ljungberg today and in the 2015 Allsvenskan, they’ve been struggling. It’s a quiet town, or at least it seems to be on a Saturday afternoon and you wouldn’t have guessed that a top Swedish league game was about to take place. Only when you got near to the Örjans Vall stadium did you sense that a sporting event was due to kick off. And on a bright, sunny and stifling hot afternoon, the Halmstad floodlights were already on. I wondered why, but then I remembered, Swedish cars have their headlights on permanently, perhaps it is part of the culture?

Örjans Vall was a World Cup venue, which today is a little hard to believe. Not that its an unpleasant place, because it’s delightful and everyone seemed to have a smile on their face. I always take the view that anyone who goes around grinning all the time is either a hippy, on drugs or simple. With the Swedes, I think its just because they live in such a bloody nice, even-tempered and efficient country!

Just approaching Örjans Vall told us it was not a high security, high octane venue. It was built in 1922 and that’s easily recognisable. It has the down-home look of a municipal recreation ground, but that just adds to its charm. Inside, there were cottages and wooden buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in a village cricket club. People were sprawled on the grass, eating, drinking and grappling with their lovers. It could have been Wimbledon or a between-play break at a Test match in England. And of course, there was the brilliant blue and yellow Swedish flag flapping in the feint breeze.

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It was difficult to equate this homely ground with a FIFA event. Perhaps the only things that remain from 1958 are the giant trees that fringe the arena. The Örjans Vall hosted two games in that competition: Northern Ireland v Czechoslavakia (1-0, att: 10,647) on June 8, 1958, and three days later, Northern Ireland v Argentina (1-3, att: 14,167). Ireland’s team included the likes of Danny Blanchflower, Jimmy McIlroy, while the Czechs included Josef Masopust.

But there, almost unnoticed as you walked towards the playing area, was the ground’s monument to 1958. A huge rock, almost runic by design, with the legend scratched on it, “Arena VM 1958”. It had a very Norse look about it and certainly won’t be going anywhere soon, unless a giant troll emerges to toss it into the air. I was tempted to look for any comments like, “there be dragons”, or “treasure here” etched into the surface.

Halmstad and Kalmar had a hard task to live up to World Cup fare, but then they have a difficult job keeping pace with the top clubs in Sweden. Halmstad were fighting for survival near the foot of the table with two wins from 14 games. Their opponents, Kalmar, were in 10th position.

Halmstad took the field to the sound of Colonel Bogey, well, a Swedish adaption of it. The home fans took their position along the side and were very vocal throughout, urged on by a drum and assorted instruments. Behind the goal, Kalmar’s travelling support, slightly fractious due to the removal of their banner from the hoarding by police or stewards, were equally good natured and noisy.

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As for the game, the quality wasn’t very high, but the enthusiasm was there, despite the very hot weather. It was noticeable that Swedish football seems to really go in for mass advertising. Every part of their kit was covered in commercial opportunism!

After an even first half, the ground was filled with the smell of barbecue smoke as sausages and hamburgers were gulped down with cold beer. There was a real sense of people enjoying themselves – of all ages, because one thing is very clear from our experience of Swedish football, it is much more of a family and community event than anything you will see in England. After being soaked in sun for the first period, we took up a more strategic position on the terrace under the trees of ’58.

We finally saw a goal in the 62nd minute when Halmstad’s Jesper Westerberg crossed and former Portsmouth striker James Keene crouched to head home. It was enough to win the game and extend Halmstad’s unbeaten run to five games. Most of the 4,686 crowd were happy.

We didn’t need to compete to get out of the ground or back to Halmstad Central Station, and we had time to give a quick nod to the 1958 stone. It’s a monument to a more innocent time when everyone walked around with a smile on their face. In Halmstad, they’re still smiling.

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