Sweden: Häcken and Djurgårdens go head-to-head

WHILE Sweden’s women are making a splash in Euro 2022, the men’s league programme is approaching the mid-point, with BK Häcken of Göteborg and Stockholm’s Djurgårdens leading the way. Last season’s champions, Malmö are languishing in fifth place, but cannot be written off.

Häcken host Djurgårdens on July 24 in a big top-of-the-table clash on the artificial turf at the Bravida Arena. It has been an interesting season so far, with crowds averaging 10,400 – currently the best average since 1968 – and Häcken launching a bid for their first Allsvenskan title.

Häcken are in their first full season with Norwegian national team manager Per-Mathias Høgma in charge of the club. Last season, they finished 12th, but in the previous four years, Häcken had been one of the most consistent clubs in Sweden. Their patient build-up play and very controlled defence have proved very successful in 2022-23, and before meeting Djurgårdens, they had lost just once, at home to IFK Göteborg.

Häcken are not one of Sweden’s best supported clubs, their current average is around 4,500, but the game with Djurgårdens could fill their home ground. Häcken have benefitted from the goals of 28 year-old Alexander Jeremejeff, who has netted 14 times in 12 games. The journeyman striker was previously with Dynamo Dresden but also had a loan spell with Twente. Another forward, Leo Bengtsson, has moved from Häcken to Aris Limassol after two and a half years with the club.

Reigning champions Malmö started the season well, but then had a losing streak that lasted three games. They’ve lost four times already, after just five defeats in the whole of 2021. They have had the distraction of the Champions League qualifiers, getting past Vikingur Reykjavik and are in the middle of a two-legged tie with Lithuania’s Žalgiris. They lost the first game 1-0 in Vilnius. Malmö are struggling to score goals, just 19 so far compared to 58 in 2021.

AIK are in third place, just behind the front two, hoping to win their first Allsvenskan since 2018, and Stockholm rivals Hammarby, who enjoy the best crowds, more than 27,000 , are in fourth.

Swedish football continues to be something of a nursery for other football markets, such as the Premier League and Ligue 1. The national team didn’t qualify for the 2022 World Cup, but in Euro 2020, only three of the 26-man squad was playing in domestic football in Sweden and most were spread right across Europe. However, only the Danish Superliga has a higher ratio of club-trained players among Europe’s leagues and the Allsvenskan also has one of the lowest percentages of expatriates (just 28%).

Swedish football tries to make a broader contribution to society and last year, Malmö pledged to increase employment opportunities for refugees. The city has had its problems with migrants and has a history of engaging refugees, such as during the second world war when they helped save 7,000 Danish Jews.

Although Malmö are currently trailing the likes of Häcken, many will expect them to make a strong bid for the title in the second half of the season. IFK Göteborg are still a long way from their historic highs and last won the Allsvenskan in 2007. They can still draw 15,000 to their stadium, but they have been overtaken on the field by Malmö, among others.

Häcken and Djurgårdens may not last the pace, but they have a chance to strengthen their title bids when they meet at the Bravida. Häcken went close in 2012, finishing runners-up to Elfsborg by just two points, Djurdårdens, who have won the Allsvenskan eight times, were last champions in 2019. A victory for Häcken would endorse their credentials, but there’s still half a season to run in the 2022 Allsvenskan.

Northern Ireland in the ascendancy?

BELFAST club Crusaders will soon be the latest club from Northern Ireland to benefit from substantial financial investment. The Crusaders fans overwhelmingly voted to approve the potential £ 2.5 million investment by a consortium fronted by former Liverpool striker Ian Rush, a decision that could transform the Hatchetmen’s fortunes.

Irish football has already seen Glentoran and Larne receive fresh investment in the form of British-Iranian businessman Ali Pour and online mogul Kenny Bruce respectively. Crusaders’ chairman, Ron Millar, said “standing still is not an option”, a reflection of the new wealth in Irish football that is forcing clubs to reassess their situation. 

Increasingly, clubs from England and Scotland are scouring the Belfast area for players, one of the reasons being Brexit, which has prevented clubs from signing youngsters under the age of 18 from the European Union. Nottingham Forest are just one of the clubs who have identified Northern Ireland as a rich source of raw talent. Not everyone is happy with this development, though. Glentoran manager Mick McDermott spoke out earlier this year, suggesting English clubs are exploiting the situation and should pay what the players are really worth.

The Irish League was where footballing legends Danny Blanchflower (Glentoran), Jimmy McIlroy (Glentoran), Derek Dougan (Distillery) and Peter Doherty (Coleraine) began their careers. The players making headlines at the moment, such as Jay Donnelly and Conor McMenamin of Glentoran are arguably too old to make a mark in England.

Linfield, Northern Ireland’s leading club, are leading the way once more in 2021-22.  They have won the league title 55 times, more than double the number of their rivals Glentoran. They currently lead the table by a single point over Cliftonville, another Belfast outfit.

Linfield announced in 2021 that they will adopt a full-time model with the aim of optimising European competition participation and increasing their support base. Glentoran and Larne have also turned full-time, but opinions are divided over the benefits and pitfalls of full-time football. 

Linfield’s finances underline the modest state of the game in Northern Ireland. Total revenues in 2019-20 were £ 1.5 million and wages accounted for £ 1.1 million of overall income. The club’s average attendances, pre-covid, were around 2,400 which equated to almost double the league average. The biggest wage bill belongs to Cliftonville, but around 40% of their outlay is on non-football staff. Larne, Coleraine and Glentoran pay out close to half a million in salaries.

Irish teams didn’t fare too well in Europe in 2021-22. Linfield went out of the Champions League in the first qualifying round to Žalgiris of Lithuania and then the third qualifying round of the Europa Conference League. Larne, Coleraine and Glentoran also failed to make an impact.

But nobody should underestimate the importance of football to society in Belfast and other towns in Northern Ireland. Only recently, a new mural depicting the city’s favourite son, George Best sprung up, emphasising that the Manchester United legend will never be forgotten, and a study by UEFA revealed that the game contributes around half a billion pounds to the local economy. Football also features in the Kenneth Branagh film, Belfast.

Most people realise that more investment is needed in the game in Northern Ireland. The Irish FA published its paper, “A roadmap for football” in 2021 and among the priorities was an intitiative to get 100,000 young people and 50,000 adults playing football. Furthermore, the Irish FA wants to raise £ 100 million over five years to reinvestment in the development of the game. However, a scheme to provide funds for stadium redevelopment has stalled owing to political hurdles. The £ 36.2 million programme would allocate £ 10 million for the refurbishment of the Oval, home of Glentoran, and £ 17 million to the Premiership and £ 3 million for the Championship. A new training centre would also receive £ 3 million.

The days when every major team had an Irishman somewhere in their squad may have gone, but there are a number of promising young Irishmen with top clubs in England, such as Shea Charles (Manchester City), Ethan Galbraith (Manchester United), Conor Bradley (Liverpool) and Isaac Price (Everton). 

Meanwhile, back in Belfast, the battle for the Premiership title reaches a crucial phase. There’s six rounds of matches to go and the two main contenders, Linfield and Cliftonville, will meet at some stage in the coming weeks at the latter’s Solitude stadium. It’s a title race that could to the very last game.