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Identity and innovation: the rise of Östersunds FK from Sweden to European football

As odd as it may sound, one of the major secrets of Swedish side Östersunds FK, who will play Arsenal in the Europa League round of 32, is the coffee break. The Swedes call this moment “fika”— a time which is not restricted to players and staff, rather one where supporters can participate and have a chat with their idols.
We are not only a club to support,” said executive Lasse Landin, “but one you perceive as yours”. A good to be shared with the whole community, notably the one of Jämtland, a county in North Sweden where Östersunds FK come from. Their city, Östersund, is better known as the “Winter City” for its seemingly endless cold season and has a population of around 100,000, which is 68 times fewer than London’s, the house of their next European rivals.

Identity and roots are two elements of paramount importance in Jämtland.

After a long dominance from the Norwegian Crown, these lands came under the control of Sweden, but are still reticent to forget their past — in fact, every summer a party recalling the former republic is organised. It is not about secession or independence, but rather an occasion to have fun while paying respect to your own tradition. Such spirit has fully pervaded Östersunds FK since owner Daniel Kindberg took over in 2005. But while the idea of being close to the community immediately recalls Athletic Bilbao’s model, based on exclusivity, the Swedish club is quite the opposite, as their attachment to the local territory and population goes hand-in-hand with a policy of integration, as evidenced by countless initiatives in support of refugees, against homophobia and violence towards women. In other words, Östersunds FK promote the union of sport and culture.

It’s no coincidence that in the early months of Kindberg’s stewardship it was Karin Wahlen, Lasse Landin’s daughter, who played a key role by working as a cultural mediator.
But it came a time where Kindberg was about to give up. After a time in the Swedish special forces, followed by a successful experience in the real estate, his arrival at Östersunds FK looked like many other takeovers — accompanied by ambitions of improvement which would soon be frustrated by results on the pitch. In 2010, a number of players joined the club on loan from England in an attempt to turn the tide, but the move backfired and relegation to the 4th tier followed. 
There was a lot of negativity around the club,” Kindberg recalls.

At least half of our fans only came to the stadium to jeer. They believed that only a billionaire owner, or winning the lottery, could change things.

Back then, it was the players who advised their president against leaving. “If you quit, we do the same.” Kindberg loves reminding of his time in the army (he fought in Bosnia, Congo and Sierra Leone), when bad decisions could affect and endanger all his peers. It was all about common purpose and a strong esprit de corps.

These were Östersunds FK’s foundations too: putting the men first, the players second, through the establishment of a common sense of belonging. Again, sport and culture.

The relevance of the local territory takes a back seat when it comes to the pitch. There, Östersunds are definitely a club of global reach — their Kurd-Iraqui captain Brwa Nouri is a keystone of the team, and so are Alhaji Gero, from Nigeria, and Malmö-born Iranian Samman Ghoddos, who’s already netted five goals in the current European campaign. Nouri had drug issues in the past, but football and Östersunds FK gave him a way out. Fouad Bachirou, who joined in 2014 before making a move to Malmö last january, gave a sample of how things work at the club: “Ten days after my arrival I found myself in a room with other teammates, they asked me to paint. I asked Billy Reid (coach Graham Potter’s assistant) what was it about, and he told me: ‘Welcome to Östersunds, this is our philosophy.’”

Stefan Iličić found himself completely covered with paint by parents and children during an open session.

It’s all about pushing players out of their comfort zone, to free them from their mental barriers,” said Landin. And here we go with painting, dance, theatre but other activities too, such as night shift spent helping local police patrol the streets, because as the sun goes down “Winter City” gets a bit of a ghost town and the risk of sexual assaults increases. “Maybe some hotheads can make up their mind if they find themselves before their own idols,” said Kindberg. Two days after one of these nocturnal sessions, Östersunds hoisted the Swedish national cup, their first trophy ever, which was the way in to the current Europa League campaign.

But all of this would have not been possible without the job coach Graham Potter did on the pitch. A degree in social sciences, coupled with a MA in leadership and emotional intelligence (he boasts work experiences as assistant of the English university team, as well as technical director of Ghana’s female national team), Potter arrived in Jämtland in 2011 — the feeling was immediate, the club immediately realising they had found the man for the job. At the helm of Östersunds FK the English boss reached two promotions, spent three seasons in the second-tier and eventually steered the club to the country’s top-flight Allsvenskan in 2015. The rest is history. “My job is to help players understand football,” the manager said.

But I do not forget that I have persons, fathers, brothers and friends before me. If my players don’t act as a group, you can do a great tactical job but it will never work properly.

But can Östersunds FK’s model be exported? According to their former player Bachirou, that’s a ‘no’. “I lived in France, it wouldn’t work down there. Every club is different, everyone should think and develop their own model.”
Modest means, but valuable ideas — Östersunds are one of the best anomalies of modern football. But don’t tell that to Kindberg. He would reply that “modern is something that works, and the current structure of the footballing system doesn’t.

We are the modern football.



Cover photo © Östersunds FK & Johan Axelsson
Photos of Athletic Bilbao, Nouri e Potter © LaPresse