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The secret of Östersund, the tiny Swedish team who beat Arsenal

Arsenal, one of the world’s richest football clubs, lost 2-1 to Östersund, which has people on £600 a week. How?

23 February 2018

10:15 AM

23 February 2018

10:15 AM

Last night, a tiny and almost penniless Swedish football club beat Arsenal 2-1 at home. The story of Östersund Football Club is quite unlike any other in sport: I wrote about it in my Daily Telegraph column a while ago when they hadn’t really featured on a British radar. This morning, with Arsene Wenger in despair at his team’s complacency, a lot of people will be wondering what happened. The answer is an inspiring one, full of lessons for politics and life in general. 

Östersund is a tiny vodka-belt town in the frozen north of Sweden with a population smaller than the capacity of the Emirates stadium. It has no football tradition, or didn’t before Daniel Kindberg, a local businessman, was crazy enough to try to start a team there. He’s one of those cheerful Swedes, who didn’t seem put off by the odds stacked against him. Not even when the team he assembled sank to the fourth division. 

He then hired Graham Potter, an English coach and a kind of football hippie who had played for Stoke City and ended up as an English university coach. He has studied 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. This might sound odd to Brits, but there are diamonds in this rough: Zlatan Ibrahimovic played for a Bosnian immigrant side in Malmo and was often seen as too selfish, too much of a dribbler or a show off, to make it work. 

Arsenal is one of the world’s richest clubs with some of the world’s best players. Östersund has people on £600 a week, picked up precisely because other clubs didn’t find a use for them. 

If everybody trains the same, plays the same, organises the same, if we go in doing the same we end up in the numbers game. We’d go exactly where the money takes us, and we don’t have money. As Potter put it:

“We could not compete on conventional terms in Swedish football. We’ve got no history, no tradition, no culture [of football] here [in Ostersund].  You’re looking for the ones that have been discarded,  the ones that conventional football has regarded as being not good enough.”

For example:

    • 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, 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.’

Östersund stadium

You get the idea.  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.’

Graham Potter

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; 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.

Ostersund players give a dance performance

So yes, it’s a story of 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. Against all odds.

It also makes broader points about globalisation 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, Östersund is now out having lost 3-0 to Arsenal in Sweden last week. But last night will have been one of their best ever results – a testimony to what people can do, if used in the right way with enough faith is placed in them. And a reminder that imagination and audacity can beat money and power.

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