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.

Fanfare for the common team

DOUBTLESS the euphoria that greeted England’s penalty triumph over a Latin side schooled in the dark arts will have raised expectations beyond the wildest dreams of Gareth Southgate and, indeed, the nation. When England embarked on this “journey” (everyone is on a journey these days), a place in the quarter-finals would have been seen as “job done” by a squad relatively inexperienced in “tournament management”, but the way the draw has evolved gives them hope of becoming an unlikely success story.

A better side than England would have had Colombia dead and buried long before the added-time equaliser that sent the tie into a tedious 30-minute period that was a good advertisement for “straight to penalties”. There’s something very 1990 about this England campaign, a team extracting a lot from their resources, a down-to-earth manager and a striker on form (for Lineker read Kane). As in 1990, momentum is building.

By beating Colombia, England successfully confronted one of their hang-ups, the penalty shoot-out. A relief for the country and something very Stuart Pearce for Gareth Southgate. The heartbroken defender of 1996 cannot redeem himself on the field, but at least his charges can bury the hoodoo. The pitfall for England now is not taking Sweden seriously enough. If they can overcome a notoriously difficult Scandi-noir team, England could beg, steal and borrow their way to the final.

The fact is, though, Sweden, Croatia and Russia could quite easily all do the same. Russia may be one of the least equipped of all host nations, but such is the shape of this interesting World Cup that they could, just maybe, make their way to a July 15 climax against Belgium, France, Uruguay or Brazil. There, in the impressive Luzhniki Stadium, the dream will surely be extinguished for any finalist from England’s half of the draw.

There is, though, no truly outstanding team just yet. France looked very attractive in the last 16, but they did concede three goals against miserable Argentina. World Cup winners tend to be the most solid performers these days rather than the most cavalier of contenders. The competition’s most attractive teams have invariably fallen before the final and France are only too aware of that having been victims in 1982 and 1986. Belgium are unused to latter stages, although they did reach the semi-final in 1986. Uruguay, with the delightful Cavani and strangely maturing Suárez, will have no better chance of rekindling past glories, while the media favourites, Brazil, are looking remarkably contemporary and steady. These two quarter-finals, France v Uruguay and Brazil v Belgium will surely provide the eventual winner if on-paper analysis is anything to go by. From this quartet, a truly decent team may emerge in the closing stages.

The final is not going to be a classic encounter, although if England were to find themselves up against Brazil, it would trigger a wave of 1970 revivalism anticipating the titanic struggle that took place in Guadalajara 48 years ago. Time has moved on and teams are far more systematic these days, as we saw with Japan (so unlucky, so refreshing), so the virtuoso has far less of a platform to perform on.

Which is why claims of a “best ever World Cup” are, at the moment, inappropriate and frequently resemble bold attempts at “presentism” and marketing dialogue, a condition which afflicts modern football at every major tournament. True, there have been some breathtaking moments, although penalty shoot-outs should not be providing the thrills and spills, these are a function to ensure the competition keeps to timetable. A World Cup can only be considered as a legitimate benchmark if outstanding teams and extraordinary individuals come to the fore. There’s still time for that to happen – Kylian Mbappe will be closely watched in the remaining ties and Neymar will be anxious to cement his reputation as Brazil home-in on a sixth World Cup success. FIFA, the media and, ultimately, Russia’s organising committee, will be hoping that in this next fortnight, the competition has the finale and heroes it deserves, especially after a promising first stage and round of 16.

GOTP flawed predictions: Last four – France, Belgium, Russia, England.

Photo: PA