Identity and innovation: the rise of Östersunds in Sweden

The Swedes call the traditional coffee break fika. A necessary premise to avoid unpleasant misunderstandings by writing that one of the secrets of Östersunds, the revelation club of the 2017-18 Europa League , is the fika. That is, a moment, open to everyone and not limited only to players and people who work in the club, in which it is possible to have a chat in peace.
“A team not only to cheer for,” says general manager Lasse Landin, “but also to feel like something of your own.” An asset of the whole community, in this case Jämtland, the county in northern Sweden from which Östersunds comes. A land in the grip of General Winter – it is no coincidence that the city of Östersund is nicknamed Winter City, because there really the season of the great cold never seems to end – inhabited by about 100 thousand people, or 68 times less the population of London, where the team comes from (theArsenal) who Östersunds will face in mid-February in the Europa League round of 16.

Identity and roots are two very popular concepts in Jämtland.

For a long time these lands remained under the rule of the Norwegian crown, before passing to Sweden, and every summer a festival is organized in honor of their fictional republic. No secessionist or independence instincts, but just a great desire to have fun without forgetting where you come from. A spirit that Östersunds has fully absorbed thanks to Daniel Kindberg, the man who bought the club in 2005.
Nowadays talking about a team linked to one’s community can make one think of a closed model like Athletic Bilbao (also faced in this edition of the Europa League). The Östersunds is the exact opposite, because the symbiosis with the territory and the population is combined with a policy of integration that has taken shape over the years in initiatives in favour of refugees, against homophobia and violence against women and, more generally, of the union between sport and culture.

It is no coincidence that, in the first months of Kindberg’s presidency, an important role within the company was played by Karin Wahlen, daughter of the aforementioned Landin and owner of an office that deals with cultural mediation.
Yet there was a moment when Kindberg was about to give it all up. A former soldier (he belonged to the special forces of the Swedish army) who had successfully launched himself into the real estate sector, initially his arrival at Östersunds resembled that of dozens of other changes of ownership, i.e. ambitions of a leap in level (in this case, the ascent from the third division to the Allsvenskan) punctually frustrated by the results on the field. In 2010, the loan card from England was tried. Result? Relegation to the fourth division.
“There was a lot of negativity around the team,” Kindberg recalls.

At least half of our fans came to the stadium to boo. They believed that only the arrival of a millionaire, or a lottery win, could change things.

It was the players who asked Kindberg to stay. “If she leaves, we’ll do the same. Kindberg likes to remember that when he was on a mission in the army (he fought in Bosnia, Congo and Sierra Leone) making the wrong decision meant endangering not only himself, but all his comrades. Unity of purpose and a strong esprit de corps were needed.

This is how the new Östersunds was born: the development of the person, before the player, through the creation of a sense of common belonging. Sport and culture.

Despite the purely local premises, the team has a global scope, given that the stars are the Kurdish-Iraqi Brwa Nouri (also captain), the Nigerian Alhaji Gero and the Iranian from Malmö Saman Ghoddos, the latter scoring five times in the Europa League, including the preliminaries. Nouri has had drug problems in the past, which he overcame thanks to football. A taste of the Östersunds world was offered by Fouad Bachirou, who arrived in 2014 and has just been sold to Malmö. “After ten days, I was in a room with other teammates. They asked me to paint. I asked Billy Reid (assistant to Graham Potter, the Östersunds coach, ed.) what that stuff was. He said, “Welcome to the Östersunds.” That’s our philosophy.”

Stefan Iličić found himself completely painted by parents and children during a joint session.

“It’s about getting players out of their comfort zone,” Landin says, ” freeing them from their mental barriers. So here is painting, theatre, dance. But also night patrol sessions, supporting the police on the streets of Östersund, because in the evening the Winter City becomes a ghost town and increases the risk of assaults, especially of a sexual nature. “Maybe when they see one of his idols, some hotheads might have second thoughts,” Kindberg says. Two days after the evening initiative, Östersunds won the Swedish Cup, the first trophy in its history, as well as a prelude to the current European adventure.

However, it is impossible not to mention the work done by Graham Potter on the field. With a degree in Social Sciences and a master’s degree in Leadership and Emotional Intelligence (curriculum vitae including experience as an assistant for the English university team and one as technical director of the Ghana women’s team), Potter landed in the capital of Jämtland in 2011. The feeling with the Rossoneri was immediate: the right man in the right place. Two promotions, three seasons in Superettan (the Swedish B), the arrival in 2015 in Allsvenskan and the rest is known history. “My job is to help the players understand football,” says the coach.

But I don’t forget that I have people, fathers, brothers, friends in front of me. And if the team doesn’t feel like a group, you can also be tactically brilliant, but it will never work well.

But can the Östersunds model be exportable? According to Bachirou, no. “I lived in France, and it wouldn’t work there. Every team is different, every club is different, everyone should think and develop their own model.
Few means, valid and structured ideas: Östersunds remains one of the beautiful anomalies of modern football. Don’t tell Kindberg that though. He would reply that “modern is something that works, and the current structure of the football system does not work. We are modern football.”


Cover © photo Östersunds FK & Johan Axelsson
Photo Athletic Bilbao, Nouri and Potter © LaPresse