BY JOZEF BRODALA
When you think of the creation of most football clubs, it seems aeons away. Most of the clubs that we know and love today were formed over a hundred years ago. When you imagine the early days of teams like Barcelona, Manchester United (or Newton Heath as they were known then) or AC Milan, you picture black and white photographs, huge heavy balls and teams just playing for the love of the game. There are some clubs that buck this trend, such as Paris Saint Germain; formed in 1970, but generally when you think of European football clubs, it is of decades if not a century of history.
This is similar for most Swedish clubs. Stockholm’s three biggest sides – Hammarby, Djurgården and AIK – were all formed before 1920, with Djurgården and AIK formed three weeks apart in 1891. The two biggest clubs in Sweden – IFK Gothenburg and Malmo – continue this trend. They were formed in 1904 and 1910 respectively. Swedish fans tend to be very proud of their club’s traditions, and with a top league formed in 1924, it is a country that has longstanding football traditions.
However, in recent years a team from the northern reaches of the country has been making a real splash. Led by English manager Graham Potter and outspoken chairperson Daniel Kinberg, Östersunds FK, often shortened to ÖFK, have risen through the Swedish divisions. They experienced the greatest night in their history on the 24th August after making it to the group stages of the Europa League, knocking out Galatasaray and PAOK on the way. It is a fantastic achievement for any Swedish team, but it is particularly notable considering Östersund were only formed in 1996. They are, therefore, younger than the vast majority of the players on their team and over twice as young as their manager. Their rise has been near meteoric, especially since Potter took over in 2011, and has sent shockwaves through Swedish football.
They have managed to go against the grain, with Swedish teams often struggling against their European counterparts, especially ones of the size of Galatasaray. IFK Norrkoping, Swedish title winners in 2015, fell to Lithuanian side FK Trakai while Malmo lost in Champions League qualification to FK Vardar of Macedonia. For Östersund to buck that trend is something quite special, especially for a team formed several years after the Berlin Wall came down.
However, another trend that they seem to have bucked is one that is not exclusive to Swedish football. It is one that seems to be sweeping football in general: namely the polarisation of opinion. Narratives in football, especially amongst fans, are becoming more black and white, clearer cut and far less nuanced. A player is either fantastic or garbage; a manager is either a fraud with a cheque book or the new Messiah: it is increasingly hard to find a middle ground. Östersunds’ incredible progress has managed to elicit a range of responses, with many fans torn between being happy at seeing a Swedish club knock out a genuine football giant, and being suspicious and unhappy at the way they made their way to this point. Swedish football lovers enjoy the fact that Östersunds’ manager has interesting methods and that a club from the north is doing well. However, they wonder about how they’ve managed to scurry up the leagues so quickly, as well as having some serious doubts about ÖFK’s chairperson and some of his dealings.
To really explore how they have managed to become a club that is simultaneously admired and disliked, it is important to understand more about Östersund as a place as well as the circumstances in which they were formed.
As with many countries, Sweden has a noticeable north/south divide. This divide is heightened by the fact that the majority of the population and the big cities are located in the south. The geographical midpoint of Sweden, while disputed, is generally agreed to be Flataklocken. If you take a list at all of the cities in Sweden, the first twelve (including Stockholm, Malmo and Gothenburg) are all located south of that point. Umea is the first northern city on that list, with a population of just under 80,000 while Östersund is located at number 24. When people think of Sweden they generally tend to think of its major cities – Stockholm, Malmo and Gothenburg – and then the wild expanses that push into the North Pole. It is very rare to hear people talk about cities like Östersund, Umea and Sundsvall.
This has led to a fierce sense of local pride developing within Östersund and the county it is located in, Jämtland. When I visited to see my team, IK Sirius, play ÖFK I barely saw a single Swedish flag. However, there were Jämtland flags all over the county’s capital. It is a place then, with fierce regional pride – and with well over a third of its residents living in or around Östersund, the city is very important to the region. There is even a slightly tongue in cheek independence movement, as well as a local festival which is designed to, “show the rest of Sweden that although this region is sparsely populated, its people has the zest, courage and knowledge to create a festival of international size and standard.”
This was exactly the mindset when in 1996, three local teams came together to, as the Östersund FK website puts it, “cooperate,” in order to create a new club that, they hoped, would show the rest of Sweden that Östersund also had the zest, courage and knowledge to create a football team that could end up reaching a high standard. As with the festival, the team was as much created to show what Östersund and – by extension – Jämtland could do. This, I think, is quite admirable – to aim to give your region and its people something special and a place to love as well as something to proud of.
However, its foundation is one of the main issues many fans have with Östersunds FK. The clubs who cooperated with them were IFK Östersund, Ope IF and Östersund/Torvalla FF. The fans then had three clubs, before ÖFK were formed, who they could get behind. While by no means giants of the Swedish game, these clubs had a great deal of tradition with both Ope IF and IFK Östersund playing in Sweden’s second tier at points in their history. It seemed jarring to people outside of Östersund that three perfectly good clubs were going to band together to create a super club. There was enough resistance that it was decided there would not be a full merger. Rather IFK Östersund and Ope IF would work parallel to the newly formed club who took Östersund/Torvalla FF’s league place in the third tier of Swedish football.
After a degree of uproar at their formation, the commotion died down for a while as ÖFK begin to grow and establish itself within Swedish football. There were few seismic events in the club’s early days. They remained in the third tier until 2010. The only real moment of note was in 2006 when the club severed its ties with both IFK Östersund and Ope IF, who are both currently sitting in the fifth tier of Swedish football. The cooperation clearly did not work well for them, something which grates with many Swedish football fans. However, their early history was relatively steady within Sweden’s regional divisions and included them moving into a new purpose-built stadium, Jämtkraft Arena, in 2007.
In 2010 though, they had a terrible season and were plunged into the fourth tier of Swedish football. The project clearly was not working and needed new impetus. The man to do this was Daniel Kindberg. In December of that year, a few months before the club were about to begin their first stint in the fourth tier, Kindberg took over as chairman. He had been at the club as its sporting director and helped to forge a partnership with Swansea City that saw the Swans play the inaugural fixture at the Jämtkraft Arena. However, during ÖFK’s dreadful 2010 season, Kindberg left his role over the summer writing in an open letter than he felt he no longer had the power to turn the club around.
Kindberg left the board in the summer of 2010 and by December he was the new chairman in a quite amazing turn of events. The players had come to his defence with some even suggesting they would not continue unless he stayed on which led to the resignation of the club’s chairman, Rolf Lohse. Not long after Kindberg put his name forward to be the club’s new chairman, on the condition that the board all left so that he could appoint his own board. And just like that, from being the disgraced sporting director Kindberg returned triumphant. He had emerged the winner of what Offside magazine calls in their superb article about Kindberg “a power struggle at the top”. This was, of course, highly controversial and in Offside’s article Ralf Lohse states that he had not been to a game at Jämtkraft Arena since, which suggested that perhaps that his departure from the club was not entirely amicable.
Thus, began Östersunds’ second era, the one that has led them on the path to the Allsvenskan and to beating Galatasaray. As Lohse says, “Kindberg has built the club on his own.” This period, and his conduct during it in particular, is what has really split Swedish fans. Some see in Östersunds’ rise a fairy-tale, with international newspapers like The Times calling it ‘astonishing.’ They have been enamoured by the club’s story both on and off the pitch, with English newspapers particularly drawn to Kindberg’s appointment of Solihull born manager Graham Potter.
Articles appeared not only in The Times and The Guardian but even the Daily Mail praising the clubs approach to culturally enriching their players. All three British newspapers highlighted the fact the club, at both Potter and Kindberg’s behest, has encouraged the players to work with local refugees as well as creating book clubs and requiring them to complete a cultural project every term. The Daily Mail remarks that it was Kindberg who specifically set this task. In the 2015 season, in which they were promoted to the top division, the players performed Swan Lake.
Östersund then were a lovely story, a new team from a small city in a fiercely proud region who help their community and, as Potter puts it, make their players “more rounded people.” The Times piece is full of praise for Daniel Kindberg as are many of the Swedish newspapers. Expressen talk about his history of being in the military – calling him, “not your ordinary chairman,” while Aftonbladet wrote an article about how his methods were helping Östersund to conquer Swedish football. The media love his soundbites too. He is fantastic for copy – after being promoted in 2015 he stated they were aiming to win the Allsvenskan, they weren’t going up just to be tourists. In 2016, after finishing a very respectable 8th out of 16 teams he called it, “fucking embarrassing,” and said Östersund will win the league sooner rather than later. An interesting, brash and innovative chairman; what’s not to like?
Well, one Swedish journalist who has not succumbed to the Östersund story is Linda Hedenljung, an astoundingly tenacious and single-minded journalist from Östersund who works for the local paper, Östersund Posten. Her work for the newspaper on Kindberg saw her nominated for a Guldspaden award given to Swedish journalists. Her enquiries focused on Kindberg and his various business dealings. There had been some question marks over where the club was getting its money from. In an interview in The Times, Kindberg says that people suggested his side were seen as, “the poor, strange team from the forest.”
That description jars with accounts given by a former player in Offside’s Kindberg profile. This player notes that despite being a team in the third tier they still flew to all of their games while having fairly well paid foreign players. He gives the example of another northern club, GIF Sundsvall, who have been in the Allsvenskan for most of this century, stating that they would never dream of flying to every game. At some points during their time in the third tier, Östersunds’ average attendance was as low as 525 and never got close to 2,000; yet they could fly to every match. Offside’s source noted that “it makes you wonder how they got the money.” Offside also quote a director of a Superettan (Sweden’s second tier) club in charge of negotiating. He noted that he made two very good offers to players who he calls “high Superettan level,” only to be gazumped by Östersund – a team who were playing a division lower, and, at that point, had never played in the top two tiers of Swedish football.
It could be argued that this is just a jealous sporting director and a dissatisfied former player – however, the Swedish tax agency seemed to share these concerns. Offside note that the Swedish Tax Agency, Skatteverket, have criticised Östersunds’ accounting on a number of occasions with one tax agent stating, “there is too much in the grey zone.” The pressure on Kindberg was compounded when he became chairman of Östersundshem – a housing agency which provides a good chunk of the housing in the area. He became chairman in 2014 and sponsored ÖFK, giving them 350,000kr (around £32,000). Not long after this, the rent went up for 5,000 of Östersundshem’s tenants. Kindberg argued that it was a strong investment and a purely business decision, but it didn’t look great and ramped up pressure on him.
At this stage, however, these issues were just question marks. Nothing was proven and even if Kindberg had decided to sponsor the club then put up rents because of it, it was perhaps not morally right but it was not illegal. However, Hedenljung, later in 2014, dug deeper and managed to find something which as Offside put it, “made all previous question marks, which Kindberg many times managed to turn into exclamations, forgotten.”
Hedenljung looked into some of Kindberg’s dealings as chairman of Östersundshem and found that at one point the company had spent 127 million SEK on properties which Hedenljung’s paper proved was objectively a much higher sum than the properties were worth. Kindberg’s company had also bought the land without obtaining an independent evaluation. On top of this, Kindberg sold properties worth around 21 million SEK for just 7 million SEK to friends and then became a board member of one of those friend’s companies. In her interview with Offside, Hedenljung notes that the Swedish competition authority became involved amid suggestions that Kindberg had broken the Swedish procurement act. You can find the original OP article about it here.
Hedenljung and OP had broken the story and it was their hard work that had put pressure on Kindberg. Offside put it to her that Kindberg claims he has been cleared by the Swedish competition authority but she noted that, “He would like to make it appear that he was released in the investigation. But in fact, the Competition Authority says in its statement that what he did was not okay.”
Her interview with Offside occurred in 2016 and since then things have moved on with the Competition Authority’s investigation. Kindberg and Östersundshem have been taken to court with both Hem and Hyra (home and rent) as well as SVT (Sweden) noting that the Swedish competition authority are seeking contractual damages of 5 million SEK from Östersundshem.
Offside put all of these claims to Kindberg who denies them and argued that in all of his roles he has done nothing wrong and that any claims of a lack of transparency and conflicts of interest were unfair and that everything he had done was, “very natural.” They also asked him about the fact that ÖFK’s accounts have constantly been criticised with one auditor calling them “too much in the grey zone.” Kindberg claims this was ‘before his time’. The interview finished with him defending his many different positions within the city, “There have been no strange things. I do not know anything about it at all. I do not think anyone reacted to it either.”
Kindberg is a very complicated figure and ÖFK are a very complicated club. In the aftermath of ÖFK’s fantastic win over PAOK, Swedish football fans on Twitter expressed the general feeling towards Östersund with Enkompisundrar tweeting, “I am impressed by Östersunds’ performance but think it’s possible to combine that with a hatred for their business.” Anna Pierre tweeted “I think there are parts of ÖFK that are great…but there are parts where we should be vigilant.”
Östersund then have managed to buck one of modern football’s great trends. As the old Manchester United adage goes, “hated, adored but never ignored”. Football has become a place where everything is either loved or despised – there is very little middle ground; but Östersund have managed to find a space there. Their manager and playing staff have done a superb job and their innovative methods have made an impact in Swedish football. However, at the same time, off the pitch issues are clouding their on-pitch success.
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