In my Daily Telegraph column today, I write about the incredible story of Östersund football club. It hasn’t quite been picked up in Britain yet, but I suspect it will one day be made into a Moneyball-style film: about how a small-time English coach was hired to move to a small subarctic town in Sweden with a small budget, and assembled a team of misfits on £600-a-week. But his tactics, and his faith in his ability to get the best out of people, saw them not only win the Swedish Cup but they are now taking on the biggest clubs in Europe. So this town, the size of Inverness, a seven-hour drive north of Stockholm, where winter ends in May and starts in October, is now chartering aircraft to take fans to Spain where their club plays Athletic Bilbao on Thursday next week.
It’s quite a story, and one for which I gathered far more information than you can fit into a 1,000-word column. So here, for those interested, is some of the rest.
When Leicester City won the Premiership, that was an unlikely – and inspiring – event. But the club was set up in the 1880s and the city has a long footballing tradition. Until 1996, Östersund had no club, nor any interest in football. This is a vodka belt town where snowmobiles are the top sport. The football club that was created ended up languishing in the fourth division when in 2011, in desperation, it hired Graham Potter. Hardly a household name; he’d played for Stoke City and had ended up as an English university coach. After his playing days, he studied for a degree in leadership and emotional intelligence – which sounds like a nonsense qualification until you learn how he put it to use.
His problem was his location. As he put it, ‘it wasn’t easy to recruit Swedish players because they didn’t want to move northwards. We had to be creative about how to improve the squad.’ But immigrants were more interested, especially players who had been down on their luck. Sweden’s new heroes, who are doing so well in Europe right now, include:-
- Brwa Nouri, who played for a Kurdish immigrant team in Stockholm, after having been kicked out from AIK for drug abuse.
- Patrick Kpozo, let go by his Stockholm club on the grounds that he had ‘not developed.’
- Ken Sema, who didn’t get a single match, in the A-team of Norrköping, for his old team before being transferred to Ljungskile, where Östersund discovered him.
- Alhaji Gero, who played for Denmark’s Viborg – but when the team changed coach he didn’t get to play: ‘I don’t know what I did wrong,’ he says.
- Ronald Mukiibi, who was left on the bench by BK Häcken. When Östersund expressed interest, he hesitated: ‘I Googled Östersund to see how far up north it was.’
You get the idea. Daniel Kindberg, the chairman, sums it up:- ‘Many of them were discarded by their clubs – leftovers that people perceived as not good enough’. In a Swedish broadcast interview, Graham Potter says:
‘Here [in Ostersund] we haven’t got any history, no culture, no tradition of football. We’re up here in the woods. It’s very, very difficult to attract players from the south of Sweden. So we had to try to look for like a way that we could gain some sort of advantage, a way we could compete as we moved up the pyramid. And it is probably at that point that you start to realise that if we’re just doing the same as everybody else, we’re not going be able to compete. We’re not going to have the resources, we’re not going to have a reason for people to come here. Then we started to get players that were maybe either released or not considered good enough for the conventional sort of way. Pick those guys up, and then to do that you have to play to their strengths So we got the ones that were maybe too small or not strong enough to play typical, conventional football if you like. That helped us evolve towards more possession, more controlling game.’
Now and again, football chiefs like Alex Ferguson write books about leadership which people buy in airports in hope of applying lessons in a broader context. But building a world-beating team is easy if you’re running Manchester United and can pay millions for the world’s best players. To create a team from players who are (as Potter puts it) not tall or strong enough, who were left on the bench by their old teams, whose main asset is that they ‘maybe need to prove something’ – that’s the real miracle of Östersund. Graham Potter worked out that the main clubs were deploying speed and strength, because they paid for speed and strength. He couldn’t afford either so he changed tactics, with a flexible 3-5-2 formation focusing on ball possession.
And then there’s his approach to team-building. Potter has laid on a cultural programme, how he asks his team to perform plays, recite poetry, even have a stab at Swan Lake. And he had, in Kindberg, a to-hell-with-you-all kind of chairman, a former tank commander who was willing to back Potter and his peculiar ways. In Östersund, they thought all this stage performance thing was bizarre – until the team started winning.
So yes, it’s a story of how with how you can create a football club in a remote town with no tradition of it and take on the best. It’s a story of Potter’s technique, but also about Kindberg’s faith in his manager and his idea. In Sweden, it’s quite unusual to do what Kindberg did – have a rich guy put money into his own team, to see if sheer willpower can pull of a sporting vision.
It also makes broader points about gloablisation and locality: here you have a team whose squad is three-quarters composed of first- or second-generation immigrants. And they become local heroes, bringing community spirit in a town that had been notorious for the lack of it. They chartered a train so 450 fans could make the 22-hour journey from Östersund to Berlin, and have chartered an aircraft to fly from Östersund to Bilbao.
And another point, that I again didn’t have space to fit in the column: the star player in Östersund is Saman Ghoddos, born to Iranian parents in Sweden. He’s a hero in Östersund, to old and young, to natives and immigrants. But he recently turned down the chance to play for Sweden at the international level, choosing Iran instead – in spite of having never even been there. This caused anger nationally, but not in Östersund where he’s seen as being committed to the town and the region. Who Ghoddos plays for at a national level doesn’t bother them. So – in David Goodhart’s division – is he a somewhere or an anywhere?
Anyway, their next match is on Thursday. Depending on how Östersund do in the Europa League, it could well be that one of the most inspiring stories in football is getting to the most watchable stage.