The warning sounded again and again, first in Swedish, then in English. Fire detected. Please evacuate the stadium. The players left the field. Fire crews arrived outside. But in the stands, as the thick cloud of smoke rose and curled in the spotlight, no one moved. The fans wanted the match to be completed by sheer force of will.
This was a match they had been waiting for for some time. The two best teams in Allsvenskan, Sweden’s elite league, were separated by just three points on the last day of the season. A quirk in fate’s planning meant that their final game was against each other. Malmo, the host, had to win to win the championship. It was enough for Elfsborg, the visiting team, to avoid defeat. It was billed as golden finale: gold medal match.
The idea of one match deciding the fate of a league title is vanishingly rare in modern football, where championships are won over the course of a season rather than in a winner-takes-all final. This hasn’t happened in England since 1989, and in Italy it hasn’t happened for over half a century.
It’s also becoming increasingly rare for the title to even be in play at the end of the season. Football has become so financially stratified over the last 30 years that many national tournaments are little more than months-long processions for the richest teams. Sweden, however, is different and stands as a lone beacon of competitive balance. In four of the last six editions of Allsvenskan, the championship was decided.
How this happened is a story of rejection of orthodoxy, questions about why sport exists and for whom it exists. But it is also a story about how difficult it is to live alone and how fragile even the most uplifting success can be.
The walls of Malmö’s Eleda Stadium are full of reminders of the glory days, a time when Swedish teams could compete with, and sometimes even beat, European giants.
In 1979, Malmo, fielding a team of amateurs, reached this place European Cup final. It is still the only Scandinavian team to appear in this match and its successor, the Champions League final. In the 1980s, IFK Göteborg won the (minor) continental trophies twice. Back in 1994, IFK defeated Manchester United and Barcelona in the Champions League.
These victories turned out to be the last chance. The dynamics of the game changed dramatically as money poured into football in the 1990s, first from broadcasters, then private investors, and finally oligarchs, corporations and nation-states. The wealth created a new class of undisputed national powers.
“Big money has been going into the biggest clubs,” enabling them to build squads full of superstars, said Mats Enquist, who from 2012 to earlier this year was secretary general of Svenskelitfotboll, or SEF, the body that runs Sweden’s professional leagues. He said Sweden, like many countries outside Europe’s main TV markets, was “impossible to keep pace.”
Instead of grasping at the shadows, Sweden’s response was – effectively – resignation. In 1999, the country introduced a rule that 51 percent of sports teams must be owned by their members, i.e. fans. In 2007, when this rule was challenged, fans fought fiercely to protect it.
“It was the moment when fans first realized how much power they had,” said Noa Bachner, author of the book a book examining Sweden’s rejection of football’s economic orthodoxy.
Yet they wielded it over the bleak landscape.
“The crowd numbers were dropping, the standard of play wasn’t good, the league had a lot of problems with hooliganism,” Enquist said. A survey he commissioned as one of his first appearances showed that only 11 percent of fans considered Allsvenskan to be their favorite competition, far behind the English Premier League and the Champions League. “It wasn’t a good place,” he said.
Mr. Enquist was an outsider in the game when he took on its leadership role: a software entrepreneur by profession and a passionate volleyball and golf fan. However, his task was to sort out the situation.
Its dissolution set Sweden on an almost heretical path in modern football. Unable to turn to wealthy investors, SEF tapped into the country’s most obvious power: the fans. Faced with considerable skepticism, authorities “touched hands” with fans, Enquist said, and set about designing a league they wanted to see, and live.
They negotiated limits on behavior, designating field invasions and rocket throwing as red lines, but allowing tacit leeway for pyrotechnics in the service of spectacle. They persuaded the police to take a more conciliatory approach rather than “treating all fans as potential hooligans,” as Lars-Christer Olsson, who served as league president until this year, said.
A decade later, the transformation is stunning. Swedish football, almost the only mid-tier league in Europe, is an example of health. Over the course of 20 years, she had 11 different masters. Turnout has doubled over the past decade; Record crowds gathered this year. League revenues tripled during the same period. Currently, over 40 percent of Swedish fans consider Allsvenskan their priority.
The match of the year between Malmoe and Elfsborg should be the perfect distillation of all this work and an illustration of what makes Sweden a standard-bearer for another version of football. Instead, it highlighted how thin the line is between empowering fans and losing control over them.
The start of the second half was delayed for 30 minutes as Elfsborg fans were confronted by a line of police officers, and then for another half an hour when the Malmo Ultras, the team’s most ardent supporters, set off so many smuggled pyrotechnics that they set off a fire alarm. When Malmoe’s victory was assured, thousands of fans rushed onto the pitch. A handful ran towards their counterparts in Elfsborg and threw lit flares at their packed sections.
“The difference is small,” said Pontus Jansson, the experienced defender who returned to Malmoe this year after ten years abroad to draw the curtain on his career. “They made it through.”
For fans, by fans
The moment Malmoe’s players and staff won the title – two hours later, after all the smoke had cleared – was something of a homespun celebration. They left in small groups to collect their medals in velvet presentation boxes from a folding table. There were no glitter cannons or smoke machines behind them.
Instead, the photo that will one day decorate the walls along with all the other mementos of past triumphs captures the two elements that make up the club: the players and the fans gathered on the pitch behind them.
Everything that Swedish football has become has been built by the people and for the people who go to the stadiums to watch it. The author, Mr. Bachner, cites a long list of examples: the lack of corporations, sovereign wealth funds and “multi-club projects” in the ranks of club owners; continued investment in women’s teams; an unofficial ban on organizing training camps in authoritarian countries; a rule stipulating that the league must give at least two months’ notice before moving games to television.
The clearest illustration, however, is that Sweden – alone among Europe’s largest nations – opposes the introduction of video assistant referees. Clubs, at the behest of their members, have consistently voted against this technology, which has been controversial elsewhere due to its frequent errors and endless delays.
“I think the fans feel it disturbs the atmosphere in the stadium,” Olsson said.
There are things that the Swedish democratic tradition cannot vote on. Malmoe’s championship, for example, represents another potential injection of Champions League revenue, which could be enough to give the club – already Sweden’s richest – an insurmountable competitive advantage.
The issue of ultras is also a problem. “It feels like there are two games going on,” Bachner said. “One on the field, one in the stands, where these groups see how they can show their strength and they don’t mind that 20,000 other people have to wait for them to do it.”
Sweden is not the only country facing this challenge, but Bachner expressed fear that the chaos on the day of the season premiere would lead to calls for more aggressive policing, which could threaten the delicate alliance between authorities and fans.
For many it would be a step back. “It may not be the best league in Europe,” said Johan Lindvall, the league’s general director, “but the atmosphere in the stands is there.” Match days are both the cornerstone on which all success is built and proof of how far it has come.
“When we scored the goal, the noise was crazy,” Jansson said. His very presence is proof of this. He has spent the last seven years becoming part of the furniture of English football. At just 32 years old, perhaps he could still play there among the Premier League stars. Instead, in April he decided to return home to experience what Swedish football had become.
“That atmosphere,” he said. “That’s what brought me back.”