• Aage RadmannEmail author
  • Torbjörn Andersson


Without a doubt, football is the largest sport in Sweden, whether judged on the numbers of spectators or active players. The sport has always had intimate connections with the more general political and social developments in the country. Swedish football has been a mixture of voluntary and commercial forces and has developed hand in hand with the social democratic model of the welfare state. Sweden has been a successful football country in many ways; national teams, male- and females, have performed well in various tournaments throughout football history. Football attracts people from the whole society, both players and spectators; the supporter culture is lively and widespread but there has been, and still is, challenges when it comes to football-related violence.


Swedish Football National Teamnational Team Swedish Sports Confederation Hammarby FIFAFédération Internationale De Football Association (FIFA) 
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1 Political Origins of Football

The British game of football came to Sweden at the end of the nineteenth century. Within England, the game had already split into an amateur variety for gentlemen and a professional sport with a working-class base. 1 The professionals attracted a good deal of attention in Swedish media but there was no doubt that amateurism was regarded as the role model to be implemented in Sweden. Indeed, until 1909 British professional clubs were forbidden to play in Sweden. Sweden has never officially introduced professional football—although in reality the highest League, Allsvenskan, has been fully professional since around the millennium. For a long time, amateurism was the over-ruling ideal and one part of the basic ideology was that football and government politics should remain strictly separated. No one in Sweden has ever won political votes through an alliance with a football club.

What Sweden did with football was to remodel a snobbish upper middle-class sport based on the amateur gentleman to a native, popular amateur model based on the male working class. This was possible because all the popular movement groups in the country—not least the workers’ and the teetotaller movements—were built on the idealism and voluntary efforts of the lower middle and working classes. It was self-evident that the sports movement would also be built on the same foundations. When the Swedish state extended its support to the home-grown Ling gymnastics, there were really no opportunities for sport in military and educational establishments. Football clubs developed entirely within civil society. The influential ideology of Ling gymnastics opposed the idea of competitive sport and was suspicious of all sport coming from the British Isles. Those who represented football had to be careful to ensure that the game satisfied the ideals of amateurism, fair play and a general high moral tone. Overall, there was not much room for mistakes. At the beginning of the 1900s, the nation’s politicians—including those from the growing working class—usually supported the ideals of Ling gymnastics. The production of an all-round healthy body was considered to be more important than winning football matches, which could potentially release aggressive tendencies. The early centralisation of Swedish sports into the Swedish Sports Confederation in 1903 decreased the space available for football even further. This centralisation has continued up to the present and has had the result that all Swedish sports are organised along the same lines. The rules for amateurism were not repealed until 1967. 2 For football, the most important effect of this was that clubs could receive payments when players were sold to become professionals abroad. The Malmö FF players who lost the European Cup Final against Nottingham Forest 1979 and those from IFK Göteborg (IFK Gothenburg) who won the UEFA Cup final against Hamburg SV 1982 and Dundee United 1987 were all amateurs.

In fact, ice hockey was the driving force behind the commercialisation of Swedish sport. The players turned fully professional in the 1990s, at least 5 years before those in football. During this decade, ice hockey led an attack on the Swedish model that had been built on concepts from popular movements, amateurism and idealism. Ice hockey clubs wanted to attract money by stock exchange listing. The attack had limited success though: a 51% rule was introduced in Swedish sport in 1999 to ensure that the members of a club would continue to have the majority vote. An essentially united political opinion supported this model of the Swedish Sports Confederation which has been an effective disincentive for big investors and patrons to invest in Swedish football clubs. The neoliberalism which during recent years has made its entry into almost all walks of Swedish life has been kept at a distance in the sphere of sport. The effect of the Bosman ruling (introduced in 1995) has been to make Sweden into one of the major exporters of male football players in Europe, which in turn has resulted in an anaemic development of its club football. Sweden has become a paradox in the world of men’s football: a rich and highly developed country with poor football clubs. 3 Few voices from politicians have been heard to complain that Swedish football has been one of the bigger losers as a result of globalisation. The Swedish Parliament discusses popular sport, not elite sport.

The early political attention given to football was mostly negative. The industrial city of Gothenburg, with its closeness to the British Isles, was from the start the capital of Swedish football. Initially, there were no rules to prevent foreign players from membership of Swedish teams. At the beginning of the 1900s, the middle-class Gothenburg club Örgryte IS (founded 1887) became the leading football club thanks to recruiting a number of Scottish players. Örgryte was soon challenged for supremacy by IFK Göteborg (founded 1904), representing the male working class of the city. During the period after 1910, the matches were hotly disputed with incidents occurring repeatedly among the spectators. Local members of parliament reported these back to Stockholm, and even within the monarchy, concerns were raised on the problem. Indeed, the incidents cast a shadow over the whole future of the game in Gothenburg. 4 Although the Gothenburg crisis was overcome, the moral problems of football became of wide general interest to society. Many politicians at both local and national levels saw football as leading to problems of public disorder, drunkenness and a hidden threat towards professionalism. The illegal betting industry which developed during the 1920s contributed to a further decline in the public image of football in Sweden. The clubs countered this by forceful efforts to improve respectability; for example, in several clubs, members were fined for drunkenness, swearing and card-playing.

The desire for respectability that characterised the political struggles of the working class in Sweden at the time also formed the attitudes of the sports clubs. The difference was that the sports clubs were able to attract members who were turned off by the seriousness of the political organisations. Youth political organisations saw football as a powerful competitor for the limited amount of leisure time that was available. This made football controversial up to the beginning of World War II when the main conflicts around the game had been solved. One conflict was politically solved: in 1934, Sweden became the first country in the world to nationalise the controversial betting industry (Norberg 2009). In the same year, Malmö FF became the first large club to be punished for infringing the rules regulating amateurism; the leaders and players of the team were disqualified. This happened at a time when many European countries had realised that it was unreasonable to defend the principle of “amateurism at any price”. The consequence of this was the introduction of professional football in many continental countries. However, the only change made to Swedish football was to slightly liberalise the amateur rules (in contrast to the more purist approach to amateurism taken by Denmark, Sweden’s main rival in football). A committee was formed with the tasks of controlling both accounts and morals. Clubs were not allowed to give players monetary rewards or excessive restaurant meals. Alcohol was highly controversial at this time, as in 1922 Sweden had introduced restrictions on the amounts of alcohol that could be purchased in the state liquor shops and consumed in restaurants (a morally based model that was in force until 1955). 5

In spite of these restrictions, the popularity of the game grew rapidly. Football was so entertaining for all involved that it quite overwhelmed the much stricter Ling gymnastics. The most obvious turning point in the balance of power between sport and gymnastic came with the Olympics of 1912 in Stockholm, in which sport was given broad prominence in the media. Starting in 1913, the Swedish sports movement received annual state grants, which were managed through the centralised Swedish Sports Confederation. The potential for in-fighting between disciplines was diminished because most Swedish clubs organised a number of different sports. Football, track and field and skiing were the most popular. A number of football players also achieved eminence in other sports, such as ice hockey. Versatility was a hallmark of early Swedish sportsmen, in part as a consequence of the ideal of the balanced body purveyed by Ling gymnastics. The requirement for versatility resulted in the development of sports grounds that were able to cope with a variety of sporting activities; for example, a running track was always included around the football pitch.

The role that politics had in sport at the time, particularly at the municipal level, was to make financial contributions to sports facilities. The construction of municipal sports facilities began in the interwar period. The unemployment crises of the 20s and 30s were partially buffered by various forms of emergency relief works, which helped the construction of sports facilities in many communities. When betting was nationalised in 1934, a political decision was taken to give the surplus to the sports movement, in spite of the fact that only football matches, not least British ones, were the targets for betting. The surplus was much larger than predicted, and this made it possible to build many new small-scale sports grounds all over the country.

As Swedish industrialisation to a large extent was built on forestry and water resources, the countryside in many respects became as important as the cities in creating the new modern society hence the wide distribution of sport and football over the entire country. On the continent, football was much more limited to the towns and cities. Throughout history, Stockholm has been an underachieving football town. In every period, the real talent has mostly developed in small industrial towns, frequently with only a few thousand inhabitants. Already by the end of the 30s, talents, such as Gunnar Nordahl, were coming from the freezing northerly part of the country. This broad talent base enabled Sweden to harvest important football successes during the golden era of the 40s and 50s, with an Olympic gold medal in 1948 and World Cup silver medal in 1958 as the high peaks. The amateur system was indeed rational and effective. The players—of which the majority came from the working class as early as the First World War—were prepared to accept serious training programmes without demanding payments for their efforts.

The motivating power behind this serious approach to football in Sweden was mainly provided by the desire to gain the first victory for Sweden against Denmark, the great power of continental football. A rational systematised training programme for the national team was among the novel approaches. The first international match against Denmark took place in 1913, and the totalised Swedish loss of 18-0 in two matches created a mania to catch up with the Scandinavian master. Matches against Denmark, especially up until the 1950s, were the high points of the Swedish sports year. A consequence of the matches against Denmark was the emergence of a broader, popular Swedish nationalism in sports. This was important for a nation that the beginning of the twentieth century was generally considered to have a weak sense of national pride. By that time, over a million people, out of a population of 5 million, had emigrated to the USA. Neither farmers nor workers could see a future for themselves in their homeland. Even players on the national team chose to emigrate. A strong nationalism during this time period was only found in the upper class. This lack of national feeling was a source of concern to the ruling class, and it was in this context that the increasing strength of a national identity connected with the matches against Denmark was viewed as marking a new trend. These developments fitted in well with the political developments that resulted in the social democrats achieving power in 1932—and keeping it until 1976. Per Albin Hansson, the social democratic “Father of the Nation”, was himself passionately interested in football, characterised by his comment that he wanted to turn somersaults when he heard about Swedish national team victories. The first occasion on which the Swedish national anthem was heard at a football match was apparently in 1918 at an away match in Copenhagen. According to comments in the Swedish press, the majority of the Swedish supporters didn’t seem to recognise the song. However, this state of affairs soon changed and nationalistic rituals became incorporated into international matches. In the interwar years, the crowd regularly sang the national anthem before the kick-off and the Stockholm Stadium was decked out with Swedish banners—a symbol which in 1916 had had to be made more popular by a campaign called “The Day of the Swedish flag”. Another early element of the ritual was supporters waving Swedish flags in the arena and the flags themselves were of course on sale in connection with games. US-style organised cheering came to be intimately connected with international events. The classic chant was: Heja Sverige, friskt humör! Det är det, som susen gör! Heja! Heja! HEJA! (Come on, Sweden, show some spirit! That will help us on to win it! Come on! Come on! COME ON!). It is notable that from the very first of international match, against Norway in Gothenburg in 1908, a decision was taken that only the Swedish national team was allowed to play in yellow and blue kit.

A specific problem associated with the early international matches was the regional conflicts connected with the selection of team members. These conflicts demonstrate that Sweden was still not a functional sporting imagined community . The players from the two largest football metropoles, Gothenburg and Stockholm, were unable to pull together, a situation that was further exacerbated by players from the rival southern Scanian towns of Malmö and Helsingborg. As a result of such disjointedness, matches in the decade following 1910 were often contested by teams consisting of players from a single region instead of the most skilful individuals. The general opinion was that Gothenburg, where the best players lived, had trouble seeing things from a national perspective. Things went so far that in 1919 at a banquet for the national team, the powerful secretary of the Swedish Football Association Anton Johanson commented that Gothenburgers were not proper Swedes. The situation was more reminiscent of the attitude to be found in countries such as Italy and Spain. However, by the next decade these regional tensions had dissolved and the national team was a unifying element for the whole country.

The policy of the Swedish Football Association was that Sweden should observe a neutral attitude and play against all kinds of nations. Swedish clubs were therefore the first to resume exchanges with German clubs (1919); the Swedish national team was the first of the neutral nations to play against one of the Central powers (Austria in 1921) and against England (1923). The blockade that FIFA had proclaimed against England was first broken by Sweden (1928). Swedish teams were also early enthusiasts over the prospect of matches against the Soviet Union. However, not all friendly gestures fell on fertile soil, as for example when the Swedish team performed a Fascist salute in front of Mussolini during the World Cup in Bologna (1934). Protests at home over this ensured that a similar situation was not repeated, yet Sweden was still able to play two celebrated matches against Germany during the Second World War, the first in Stockholm (1941) and the second in Berlin (1942). The two Swedish victories resulted in ecstatic reviews in the newspapers. German appreciation of the Swedish efforts was also notable. The matches had received political approval at home, and the spectators included both the Prime Minster and the King.

The connection between sport and politics was none the less generally weak, as expressed by the popular slogan “Sport and politics should be kept separate”. This did not signify that politicians were not involved with the sport. In 1936, the well-known liberal politician Elof Ericsson was elected as Chairman of the Swedish Football Association . But this rather emphasised the party-political neutrality that football now enjoyed throughout the social democratic country. Football was seen as a non-political, democratic sphere that overarched class boundaries. This political independence was demonstrated when neither state nor municipal finances were provided to build a new arena for the 1958 World Cup in Stockholm. After the tournament, in which Sweden took the silver medal, it was still possible for the leading daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter to maintain that the World Cup possessed no other values over and above pure entertainment. 6

2 Historical Club Rivalries

In comparison with most other European countries, Swedish club football had a relatively short period dominated by male middle-class clubs and players, lasting no longer than ten or fifteen years. Players from working-class clubs dominated the game already by the outbreak of World War I. A whole group of middle-class clubs, established around the turn of the century, were contesting against local or regional working-class rivals by 1910. Swedish towns experienced a veritable explosion of football clubs, a situation that can be said to have continued up to the present day. In many places, matches were symbolically laden with the class struggle, in which the middle-class supporters occupied the relatively few seats, while the working-class supporters were to be found standing around the pitch. These local derbies strongly stimulated public interest. Such matches were also among the first occasions of unruliness among the spectators. The oldest rivalry of all in Swedish football can be dated to 1899 when AIK played Djurgården in Stockholm and 1907 when Örgryte IS played IFK Göteborg in Gothenburg. Other local derbies of importance were played for many decades in the industrial towns of Malmö and Norrköping. Here, the middle-class IFK Malmö and IFK Norrköping contested against respectively the working-class Malmö FF and IK Sleipner.

In the capital of Stockholm, the matches between AIK and Djurgården were not marked by the overtones of class struggle, as both clubs had a middle-class background. The reason for this unique situation, in comparison with other towns, was that both clubs had their beginnings close to the upper-class district of Östermalm, where the only areas for playing football could be found. Södermalm, the classical working-class district of Stockholm, established its first strong team Hammarby IF during World War I. It took a very long time—until the 1970s—before Hammarby became a genuine rival to the so-called twin clubs of AIK and Djurgården, both of which were founded in 1891. Even today the indubitably strongest rivalry is to be found between these two clubs in spite of the fact that they are in many respects very similar. 7 A clearer geographical difference was established when in 1937 AIK moved from the centrally located Stockholm Stadium to the more northerly neighbouring municipality of Solna and Råsunda, the then newly built national arena of the Swedish Football Association . From that point, AIK became the most significant representative for the northern suburbs of Stockholm, whereas Djurgården got a wider distribution with supporters spread across the whole city. Djurgården, with Stockholm Stadium as its home arena since 1970, had to build new supporter bases because inner Stockholm started losing a large proportion of its residents when families moved to the suburbs. Hammarby on the other hand came to represent the less well-off segments of southern Stockholm. By the millennium, a genuine football boom had started in Stockholm and this was reinforced by the clear geographical separation between the home grounds of the three clubs. The result has been a situation in which the geographical differences between the clubs have been almost endlessly discussed. These discussions have continued although all three clubs moved to new ultramodern stadiums in 2013. AIK moved nearby to the new national stadium Friends, while the situation was more complicated for Djurgården as they moved into Hammarby’s heartland when the two clubs came to share the Tele2 Arena. Both AIK and Djurgården have found it necessary to single out the other as the more snobbish club. Swedish football has always valued its popular image, a relationship that was certainly made easier by the long social democratic grasp on political power. Hammarby has historically been the most genuinely working-class club but that has not been enough to prevent it from being perceived as a less important rival. To some extent, this has changed in the new century as Hammarby has grown so much as a club that currently it has the highest attendance figures in the country. Taken all round, the genuine class differences between the clubs have become more difficult to untangle. Hammarby’s own home district, Södermalm, is the most gentrified district in Stockholm, thereby challenging the mythology of its working-class connections as expressed on the stands. AIK is the major Swedish club that has changed most during its history. From a kind of aristocratic Swedish Arsenal during the 1930s, by the 1980s it was facing the biggest challenge from its hardcore supporters; the club was more and more coming to resemble a Millwall. In contrast to its rivals, since the 80s Djurgården has been associated with the yuppies who made their mark on the glamorous nightlife around Stureplan, not far from the Stockholm Stadium.

If geography has been a Central issue for football development in Stockholm, aspects of class have always been important in Gothenburg. 8 Örgryte IS has always been seen as the only club in Sweden rooted in the middle class and with something of a connection to liberalism (Örgryte is the name of a well-to-do district near Central Gothenburg). IFK Göteborg, on the other hand, has been a kind of flagship for social democracy and the common man. A third club emerged as a major contender after World War I, Göteborgs Atlet- och Idrottsällskap, always referred to as GAIS. These three major clubs all had their base in Central Gothenburg but the political differences were further accentuated by GAIS, which around 1930 had some Communist sympathies among its leadership and in more modern times has developed a leaning towards subcultural and alternative movements among its supporters. Interestingly, these differences have not been reflected in more intense rivalries than those between the Stockholm clubs. One reason may be that IFK Göteborg has become much larger than its competitors. But other reasons, as important, are that the three Gothenburg teams built an alliance in the 1920s and have also shared the same home arena for a long time. Finally, there is an understanding in Gothenburg—the second city of the nation—that putting Stockholm in its place takes precedence over home rivalries. This attitude is general and by no means only limited to football. Gothenburg likes to confront the capital Stockholm. One result of this is that the matches between IFK Göteborg and AIK have become the most important mark of regional rivalry. This situation serves to emphasise that AIK—perceived as the most potent symbol of Stockholm and its political power—is the very epicentre of Swedish club rivalries.

The situation in Gothenburg is mirrored by the situation in the most southerly district, Scania. 9 With its distinctive cultural and geographical features and its closeness to Denmark, Scania might almost be characterised as the “Catalonia of Sweden”. The currently inflamed rivalry between Malmö FF and Helsingborgs IF is a by-product of the growth of a vociferous supporter culture, leading to strong feelings of “us against them”. Earlier generations of Scanians made the same choice as Gothenburgers, who preferred to see a Scanian rival win the top series rather than a club such as AIK. This generous attitude has since disappeared completely between the supporters of Malmö FF and Helsingborgs IF. 10

Overall the rivalries between Swedish club teams are of long standing. The successful new Gothenburg club BK Häcken, nowadays the second-ranking club in the city, has not managed to engage large support. Tradition runs deep. Unlike the situation in Denmark, where club amalgamations have been legion in the past two decades, in Sweden this approach has not been successful. In 2007, plans were announced for the amalgamation of Örgryte, GAIS and Häcken but supporter opposition, especially strong from GAIS, soon caused them to be dropped. Tradition also manifests itself in the lack of genuinely strong rivalries within Swedish women’s football, although this has a successful position internationally. The only new rivalry that has emerged in the past two to three decades is from the city of Södertälje, just South of Stockholm. There immigrants of a Christian minority from the Middle East have managed to create, not one, but two male teams: Assyriska and Syrianska. Both clubs made it to the highest League, in 2005 and 2011–2013, respectively. Some of the most intense emotions in Swedish football are expressed in lower series matches between the two clubs (Andersson 2009; Rommel 2011).

3 Football as a Sports Spectacle

Perceptions and Significance of Football

Sport has a strong position in contemporary Sweden. Out of a total of approximately 10 million inhabitants, there are 3,145,000 between the ages of 16 and 80 who are members of a sports organisation: of these 44% are women. A total of 871,000 are engaged as some type of official, such as managers, coaches and referees: 49% of these are women. As one of the biggest sports for both girls and boys, men and women, football has played an important part in this process. In 2014, there were 441,869 active football players in Sweden, of which 145,816 were females (Swedish Sports Confederation 2015).

Without a doubt, football is the largest sport in Sweden, whether judged on the numbers of spectators or active players. The sport has always had intimate connections with the more general political and social developments in Sweden, although you will not find politicians who actively use football clubs for personal benefits. Scandinavian (Swedish, Danish and Norwegian) football has been a mixture of voluntary and commercial forces and has developed hand in hand with the social democratic model of the welfare state.

Football has since around 1970 been a part of the Swedish sports concept in which “Sport for Everyone” is given a high priority. Swedish social democracy, which held power from 1932 to 1976, regarded football, and sport in general, as an influential tool to help create the Swedish welfare state. In turn, the welfare state expected everyone to pay their taxes and contribute to social and economic cohesiveness. The Swedish government gave economic support to the sports movement by grants to the thousands of sports clubs scattered throughout Sweden’s elongated land. This served not only to implement the concept of a sound mind in a sound body but also encouraged the growth of social democratic values. A government report, published in 1969, propagated the ideas that all citizens should be able to partake in sport and the sports clubs should be the driving force in the process (SOU 1969, 29). Since then, there has always been an “implicit contract” between the clubs and the state so that the clubs have a high degree of autonomy as long as they continue to foster decent, democratic members of society. Young people shall learn to cooperate and respect each other, and the concept of every person’s equal value is Central to the Swedish context (Hedenborg and Peterson 2016).

Football has always had a strong local affiliation in Sweden, and the game has been played all over the country, even though the northern regions are covered in snow for almost half the year. This has produced a large number of individuals who have played the game as youngsters and who continue to play as adults and old-boys, that is to say over 35 years old. This has a direct effect on supporter attitudes as, in comparison with other countries, many Swedish and Scandinavian supporters have had experience as players or indeed are still active in the game.

Football Supporters

Although the Nordic nations (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland) have many common perceptions of the development and the role of sport in the welfare state, this is not the case when it comes to supporter culture. In the Nordic context, it is clear that Sweden has had the greatest problems with sport-related violence and hooliganism. During the 1980s, Denmark became best known for its “Roligans”, supporters of the national team who were characterised by a carnival spirit and positive behaviour. On the other hand, at the level of club football, Denmark has challenges from various constellations of “firms”—hardcore hooligans. Norway, Finland and Iceland have had insignificant incidents of spectator violence (Radmann 2012). Sweden has a very active and partisan football public, particularly in the case of men’s football. The power to define what is a good supporter behaviour has been repeatedly discussed throughout the 120 years during which the game has been played in Sweden. A good deal of the focus has been on rowdyism and other disturbances, including, for example, what should be permitted and what should be forbidden in the stands. The year 2016 had been marked by an intensive debate about the use of pyrotechnics on Swedish football stands, where fireworks were often ignited even though this is prohibited. The limits of tolerance are under constant debate, and the media and their portrayal of football and supporter cultures have been particularly influential in setting the agenda regarding what is a “good” football and supporter culture. But let’s take it from the beginning.

The first public row in Sweden to receive attention occurred in 1906 but even before that event an official Swedish document required that the referee should be given protection from aggression from public and players and that a lane from the changing rooms to the pitch should be roped-off. Three out of four of the early public disturbances in Sweden between 1920 and 1950 were aimed at the referee and players, while only a small number involved aggression between spectators. It seems that the rowdies of a century ago comprised of the same group as today: young men affected by alcohol. Starting from 1920, there are numerous examples of newspapers deploring “football gangsters” in Sweden and the problem seems to have extended to quite young individuals (Andersson 2002, 566–576). The current debate about forbidding entry is nearly 100 years old, and it was not unusual at the time, for those who had misbehaved at previous matches to be denied entry to the arenas. Spectators in the post-war years were mostly well-behaved despite high attendance figures, with an attendance record for the Allsvenskan of 13,369 spectators per match in 1959.

In 1965, the term “hooligan” was used for the first time by a Swedish newspaper, Idrottsbladet, in connection with matches between Liverpool and Manchester United. Four years later, in 1969, live transmissions of English football matches began in Swedish TV and in 1970 both “hooliganism” and “hardcore supporters” made their appearance on Swedish stands. This was the start of the modern form of supporter culture, of which hooliganism is an off-shoot. The start of modern hooliganism in Sweden can be dated to 25 October 1970. During a match between IFK Göteborg and Örebro SK, more than 1000 supporters invaded the pitch before the end of the match and the referee decided to pause the game. IFK Göteborg risked relegation from the top series if they lost, and the team was down when the supporters invaded the pitch. The match was stopped for 45 minutes and approximately twenty arrests were made. The large number of arrests and fights between the teams’ supporters was something completely new in Swedish football culture and gained nation-wide publicity as the match was being televised across the country. 11

The Swedish hooligan culture has its origin in the stands, and from early on, the culture was strongly inspired by the British firms and the subculture surrounding them. In 1981, the first organised supporter clubs started and “klackarna” (a Swedish term for the most dedicated fans who stand together and create atmosphere) developed further, when the three big Stockholm clubs started their own “klack”: Black Army for AIK, Blue Saints for Djurgården and Bajen Fans for Hammarby. “Klackarna” attracted a new sort of supporter who wanted to create his own identity and voice on the stands, directed as much against his own club as against the older supporters and society in general (Hagström et al. 2010). A further ten years passed before the first firms made their appearance. What can be seen as the first organised fight between firms took place in 1991 between “Firman Boys” (AIK) and “Järngänget” (The Iron Gang) of Djurgården.

The Swedish Sports Confederation (Riksidrottsförbundet—RF) made approximately 800 on-site observations at matches between 1989 and 2006. A conclusion was that the highest number of disturbances to public order occurred between 1995 and 2004. Up to 1996, the disturbances were integrated in “klackarna” and usually took place in the arena or on the way to or from the match. After 1997, most of the rows and fights were the result of actions by firms and the violence was more planned and structured.

Sweden seems to have a relatively constant number of men who have been members of firm culture during the preceding decades, about 600 to 700 distributed over nine main firms: about 400 are from Stockholm clubs, about 175 in the Gothenburg district and the remaining mostly in Helsingborg and Malmö. 12

The development of football-related violence in Sweden appears to have followed the same track as in other countries in which hooliganism has been a problem. Initially, during stage one of development, sporadic violence is aimed at the referee and players, stage two is marked by disturbances between supporter groups or between supporters and the police or guards in or around the arenas, and stage three is distinguished by an escalation of violence outside the arenas and an increasingly open firms culture. So far two fans have been killed in Sweden, in 2002 and 2014, due to football-related violence. Hooliganism has led to public investigation reports and decisions (SOU 2012, 23; 2013, 19).

In the new digital media landscape, the fans themselves participate actively in the production of media content for their own web-based home pages and other digital platforms, such as closed Facebook groups. This new medial production process has radically changed the interpretation of the supporter culture. Earlier the right of interpretation was limited to the journalists of the traditional media. Today the story of Swedish supporter culture is told by a multitude of voices and narratives. The biggest digital web forum in Sweden is Svenska Fans (Swedish Fans). This is “made for fans, by fans” and has 175,262 members, in 2016, who mainly follow football. The members can contribute text and pictures to the forum and this transforms them, at least in theory, to “prosumers”, i.e. both consumers and producers of football and supporter culture. A supporter category that has taken more space in the Swedish narrative of football culture during recent years is that of the hooligans themselves. Several Swedish hooligan groups produce their own websites and by this process alter the selection criteria for the supporter cultural narrative. This multitude of voices and narratives has resulted in the inclusion of both supporter culture and hooliganism in a hypertextuality linking various types of media—web pages, films, links, blogs, YouTube, Facebook—to each other, thereby creating a continuous flood of new narratives and interpretations. Traditionally, the “old media” had an ascendency of power regarding the hooligan narrative, which enabled it to set the agenda, define the selection criteria and exercise a “gatekeeper” function—deciding what, who and how the supporter culture should be rolled out. Today thousands of new voices can be heard, with the result that sports reporting is far more diversified and multi-facetted. This is most clearly seen in the firms’ own media reporting. The hooligan group Firman Boys, for example, runs the website, which is the largest hooligan site in the Nordic countries. Its ambition is to provide detailed reports of every incidence of sports-related violence occurring in Sweden. The reports provide information on who was fighting with whom, the time, place, number of participants in each “team”, how the “match” developed and who was the perceived as the victor. The content on the hooligan site parallels reports from genuine matches. Social media play an increasingly important role in creating supporter cultures in general and the subculture of the firms in particular, not least for the younger generation of football supporters (SOU 2012, 23; Radmann 2015). The sharing of personal supporter experiences on social media has created a shared cultural ownership of each individual’s favourite club.

Even if hooliganism has been a problem for Swedish football, it would be unfair not to mention the enormous positive supporter culture that has been created since 2000. The atmosphere on the terraces is often among the best in Europe and usually considered far superior to the actual football performance on the pitch. In Sweden, you find that the crowds are better than the players. Racism that was a big problem at the terraces around 1990 has decreased a lot in recent years thanks to self-regulating work from the supporter clubs. 13

4 Contemporary Issues

Women’s Football

Although women’s football is one of the most popular sports in Sweden, it has lived a life in the shadows compared with male football.

Women’s football will celebrate its centenary jubilee in 2018—the first match between two women’s teams was played in 1918 in front of 500 spectators. This was a controversial event and many opposed that women should be playing football at all. Women were welcome to participate in so-called merry matches, but playing “real” teams against one another in matches was not approved. Women were strongly opposed by men in the world of sport. There was a general fear that football would fuel the flames of women’s equality and support their emancipation. This feeling was so strong that women’s football was unable to become established throughout the interwar years, in spite of the interest of many women. Women’s football had to wait until the period 1965–1980 before it became a popular sport with gradually increasing legitimacy. The modern game of women’s football in Sweden had its roots in the universities of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Lund in the late 1960s. The countryside club Öxabäck IF, which is considered to be the first modern women’s football team in Sweden was founded in 1966. Two years later, leagues for women’s football had started in several districts. None the less an All-Sweden women’s football series was not established until 1988. The number of female players accelerated rapidly from 1970: in that year, there were 728 licensed women players and by 1980 the figure had grown to 26,000. 14 At the time of writing, the figure is 145,000, including girl players. The first Swedish championship for women, arranged in 1973, was won by Öxabäck.

The decade starting in 1960 was a time of great social change in Sweden, and discussions of female emancipation and gender equality were increasingly prominent. These took place at many different social levels and in various structures. At the same time that women’s football was recruiting thousands of participants in a bottom-up movement, politicians were formulating increasingly feminist policies. This combination created the conditions for a more gender-equal society with a better balance between the opportunities for men and women. Women who transgressed norms and values by playing football instead of merely watching it created positive waves in society in general. These pioneering women came to lay the foundations of the national team that has given Sweden so many successes.

The first official women’s international match for the Swedish team was against Finland in 1973 and the result was a draw, 0–0. From this point onwards, the Swedish women’s football team has been able to consider itself as one of the more successful national teams. Initially, the toughest opponents were Denmark, Italy, England and France but more recently Norway, China and USA have contested the major championship titles.

The team has won several championship medals, gold medal in European Championship in 1984, silver in World Cup 2003 and silver in the Olympics 2016.

The picture presented here of women’s football in Sweden seems to mirror the historical development of women’s football internationally. This has been characterised by “negative integration”, as discussed by Jean Williams in her book A Beautiful Game (2007). This documents how both national and international associations hindered women’s football over long periods. Women’s football was even prohibited in several instances. In 1921, those clubs that were members of the English Football Association were not allowed to rent out their grounds to Women’s football (Tate 2013). Although this ruling did not catch on in Sweden, it had a major effect in promoting the perception of football as a male sport in which women had no place. Williams also makes it clear that the premises of women’s football have always been different from those of the men’s game—“equal, but unequal”. Women’s football isn’t real football but as just—“women’s football”. Williams (2007) has also documented how FIFA doesn’t appoint women to top positions. More recent research has shown that women players must still continually reaffirm their right to a “football existence” and actively defend their right to a sports existence, in contrast to the overarching economic, social and cultural power of men’s football (Williams 2013). Sweden has a paradoxical history when it comes to women’s football: compared to men’s football they are always behind in terms of economy and media attention but compared to international female club football Sweden is one of the most successful countries in the world. Sweden has had and continues to have some of the best players in the world. Marta, voted as the best player five years in a row between 2006 and 2010, has been playing for several clubs in Sweden. She started her Swedish career in Umeå IK, a club that won the League seven times during a nine-year period and the UEFA Women’s Cup 2003 and 2004. Marta now plays for the Malmö club FC Rosengård, a true cosmopolitan club. 15 The players in the 2016 team come from nine different countries: Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Brazil, Australia, Canada, France, USA and Macedonia. So when it comes to football performances, the women’s teams in Sweden are world class.

Two Players Who Symbolise Swedish Football Culture

Pia Sundhage and Zlatan Ibrahimović symbolise Sweden as a football nation. They combine the national sports cultures and club cultures, and the trajectories of their individual lives mirror developments in Sweden over the past thirty years.

Pia Sundhage is considered to be one of the most successful women’s footballers in the world. Sundhage played for several Swedish clubs, as well as the Italian Lazio, during her long career. She made her debut in the national team as a 15-year-old in 1975; she played in a total of 146 internationals and scored 71 goals. The fantastic successes that Sundhage achieved as a player were crowned when Sweden won the 1984 (unofficial) European Championship, during which Sundhage was the top scorer in the tournament. Her achievements as a player include successes at both the national and international levels: Swedish champion four times, Swedish Cup-winner four times, gold medallist in the 1984 European Championship and silver medallist in 1987 and 1995 and bronze medallist in 1989, as well as the bronze medal in the 1991 World Cup. Her portrait was put on a Swedish postage stamp in 1988, and in 2000, UEFA voted her the sixth best player of the century.

Notwithstanding her achievements as a player, she may well be most remembered as a coach. This career took off in 2007 when she was appointed to coach the US national team. When her appointment ended in 2012, she could look back on a series of brilliant results. She led the US team to Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012 and the silver medal in the 2011 World Cup. In 2012, she took over as head coach for the Swedish women’s national team. As of writing (2016), this has resulted in a bronze medal in the 2013 European Championship and a silver medal in the 2016 Olympic games.

Pia Sundhage publically “came out” as a lesbian during an interview with Swedish television in 2010 during which she said that she never had had any problem with her open homosexuality during her time as coach for the US team. Sundhage has been a norm-breaker in football throughout her life. When she started to play football as a seven-year-old, there were not many girl players, so she had to play on boys’ teams. Girls were not allowed in teams so Pia had to be called “Pelle”, a Swedish boy’s name. Her courageous and norm-breaking careers as both expert player and trainer have helped to continuously make football culture more equal and open, from her beginnings as 7-year-old “Pelle” to her position today as one of the highest achieving coaches in the world. None the less she is frequently still reminded—and reminds the world—that football is essentially a male culture: when she was asked during an interview in 2014 if she thought that a woman would be capable of training a male team she retorted: “Well, then, let me ask you a question; does it work with a female chancellor in Germany? Angela Merkel runs a whole fucking country. Clearly it works!”

It is scarcely possible to write about Swedish football without mentioning Zlatan Ibrahimović. Without any doubt he is the most renown football player from Sweden and has achieved fantastic successes both as a player and off the pitch. His extraordinary career is also tightly connected to the social changes in Sweden that have taken place over the past two decades. At that time a country characterised by a collective welfare state mode of thought in which the group was always more important than the individual, today a Sweden deeply involved in globalisation and the EU, and a country that has experienced almost a revolution of rampant neoliberalism and privatisation.

That Zlatan Ibrahimović would become a symbol for the “new Sweden” (he might appropriately be called “The Moving Sign of Sweden”) was far from self-evident at the start of his life as a footballer. Born in 1981 in the multicultural city of Malmö in southern Sweden, with a father from Bosnia and a mother from Croatia, he had a tough start in life. He has described his childhood as a constant trek from one to the other of his divorced parents, a time of often-empty refrigerators, beatings and having to go to training with an empty stomach. He made his debut for Malmö FF in the Allsvenskan 1999 and since then has played for a number of clubs in several countries: Ajax, Juventus, Inter, FC Barcelona, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United. He has won about 30 titles at club level and scored nearly 400 goals in approximately 700 club matches during 18 seasons. In 2013, he was ranked as the fourth best player in the world. In addition to his club career, he has had a decisive position in the Swedish national team from his first match in 2001 up to 2016, when he announced that he had played his last match for the national team. Looking back on his international career, he can see 62 goals, the rank of the most potent goal-scorer of all time and no fewer than 10 “Gold Footballs”, a trophy awarded to the best Swedish player of the season. In parallel with his career, Sweden has changed a lot from a country characterised by a “Holy Grail” of nationalised institutions such as the Swedish railways, the postal service, the telecommunications department, hospitals and schools into a country that no longer imposes limits, even to profits in welfare services—a situation that was unimaginable twenty years ago. Individual freedom has challenged collective needs in both society in general and on the football pitch. Despite this individualisation and neoliberal process, Sweden is still considered one of the best welfare states in the world and consistently ranked in the top five among the best countries to live in.

Today Zlatan Ibrahimović is a global name as a sportsman and he has earned billions from his football career. Numerous actors and agencies queue up for the chance to work with him: the United Nations and businesses like Volvo and Nike, as well as politicians and celebrities, all want a bit of Zlatan. He was, and still is, a role model for millions of football players all around the globe and the “Zlatan effect” is still discussed, in Swedish football. The long journey that Sweden has made as a society historically focusing on collectivism to a more individualistic approach, during Zlatan’s career, has, to no little extent, been influenced by Zlatan’s example. In his text “The new Sweden”, the rap artist Dani M epitomised the change and his song was chosen as the signature melody for the Under 21 national team when they won the gold medal in the European Championships in 2016. The chorus went: “Black or white, yellow or blue, we fly high and grasp every chance, we made it here and if we pull together nothing is impossible. Because we are the new Sweden, the new, new, new, new, new, new Sweden. We represent our own future, the new generation, we are as good as we can be”.

Is there any truth in the idea that Ibrahimović has had an important influence for an improvement of integration in Sweden, and especially in the sports context? One can find statistics to support this; in 1999, the Swedish national team had 5.9% of members with a foreign background; in 2004, the figure was 15.4%; and in 2008 as much as 22.4% (Lundh 2016).

Even if it is hard to be sure of the extent to which Ibrahimović has contributed to the increase of multiculturalism in Swedish football, it is beyond doubt that he has had an important effect on multiculturalism in society. He has metamorphosed from the troublesome “immigrant guy” with an inflated ego to a successful individualist who symbolises multicultural global Sweden. His book I am Zlatan Ibrahimović has sold over one million copies in Sweden alone and has been translated into 20 languages. It has even encouraged reading skills, not least among boys. Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that the world’s most visible Swede is now going to disappear from the public eye and the media—Ibrahimović has skilfully built up his trademark through established companies and his own start-ups, such as in perfumes and fashion. He is also the first sportsman to start his own app, “Zlatan unplugged”, and this gives him the possibility to influence his media image to quite an extent. He has himself said in an interview: “I don’t need the media, they need me. It feels like they need me to help sell their magazines. I should get a 20% commission on sales” (Lundh 2016).

In 2014, Zlatan’s portrait appeared on a postage stamp, with Pia Sundhage on another one. Apart from this honour, there is a gigantic gulf between the conditions for men’s and women’s football in Sweden, one of the world’s most gender-equal nations, whether this is judged on interest levels, attention, money or status.

In 2015, Allsvenskan men’s football series was watched by 2,392,098 spectators, an average of 9967 per match: the corresponding figures for the women’s Allsvenskan were 119,762 and 907, a good number in an international context. The average salary for a male football player was approximately 9000 euros (72,619 Swedish crones) per month and for women 1300 euros (10,411 Swedish crones). Although the male salary is considered low and the female quite high in an international comparison, the female salary is just higher than the maximum social support provided by the state, i.e. the support provided to a person without any other source of income.

Despite these sex differences, Swedish football, whether played by men or women, appears to enjoy a massive support from society at all levels—micro-, meso- and macro-levels. The most recent Prime Ministers, Fredrik Reinfeldt and Stefan Löfven, were/are frequent visitors to the different social arenas of football: the changing rooms, the stands, the European and World Championships and, not the least, the debate on the importance of football for the Swedish nation.


  1. 1.

    Unless otherwise noted all references are to Andersson (2002). An English summary is provided at the end of the book.

  2. 2.

    A short history of the Swedish Sports Confederation can be found in Norberg (2011). The Swedish Sport Model is also discussed in Hedenborg and Peterson (2016).

  3. 3.

    A viewpoint on the development of the crisis within Swedish club football has been dealt with in Andersson and Carlsson (2009), and Andersson et al. (2011). A longer and more up-to-date analysis can be found in Andersson (2016, 472–495).

  4. 4.

    The early history of Swedish football hooliganism has been treated in Andersson (2001).

  5. 5.

    The role of alcohol in Swedish football has been examined in Andersson (2005).

  6. 6.

    The World Cup 1958 has been treated in Andersson (2014).

  7. 7.

    The rivalries between Stockholm clubs have been treated in Andersson (2016).

  8. 8.

    The rivalries in Gothenburg football have been treated in Andersson (2011).

  9. 9.

    The rivalries in Scanian club football are discussed in Andersson (2011).

  10. 10.

    Katarzyna Herd, at Lund University, is currently working on a dissertation in English about the rivalries between Malmö FF and Helsingborgs IF and AIK and Djurgården.

  11. 11.

    The start of modern hooliganism in Sweden is discussed in Andersson and Radmann (1998).

  12. 12.

    The Swedish contemporary hooligan scene is discussed in Radmann (2013, 2015).

  13. 13.

    Racism in Swedish football is fully explored in Scott (2015).

  14. 14.

    Early developments in Swedish women’s football is discussed in Hjelm and Olofsson (2003).

  15. 15.

    The story of LdB FC Malmö, the predecessor of FC Rosengård, a club created by entrepreneurs in Malmö, is analysed in Melkersson (2013).



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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department for Physical EducationNorwegian School of Sport SciencesOsloNorway
  2. 2.Malmö UniversityMalmöSweden

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