Stockholm Derby Syndrome
The air is thick with smoke from countless flares and other pyrotechnics, while a huge swarm of supporters surges forward, bouncing up and down and swinging from every possible vantage point. The police struggle to cope with the madness all around them as the noise rings out across the whole city, as beer rains down on the people not quick enough to get out of the way. You may think this is the reaction to winning a trophy, or at the very least a 90th minute winner, but it simply describes the scene as a thousand Djurgarden fans wait for the bus to take them to the game. They had gathered in a local park several hours ago, climbing trees and lampposts to set off flares and lead chants This is Sweden, and they do things differently here.
Pyro in the park
In total there will be 7,000 away supporters in attendance at the Stockholm derby, with Djurgarden taking on hated local rivals AIK in the battle for capital city supremacy. I am in the middle of them, a first hand witness to one of the most intense and underrated derbies in Europe. The football culture in Sweden is rarely mentioned in the same breath as being amongst the best in the world as you may hear about Germany, Argentina or Poland, but on this evidence it is difficult to see why. The buses finally arrive, and each one is instantly filled as soon as the doors open. A sign at the front reminds passengers that they should sit down safely with their seatbelts fastened, there is little chance of that happening. The vehicle shakes from side to side as the travelling supporters bounce to one of their favourite chants, loosely translated from Swedish as “He who doesn’t jump is AIK”. Being an AIK fan is the worst possible thing you can imagine if you are a Djugarden supporter, and as such it feels as though the suspension of the bus will be destroyed at any minute. With the buses being overcrowded and full of drunken Swedish people jumping up and down, they quickly become too warm. An easy solution to this problem is found, as the emergency exit on the roof of the bus is ripped open, fans taking it in turns to stick their heads out into the fresh air and hurl abuse at any home supporters who were unfortunate enough to be passing by at that time.
The destination is Friends Arena, perhaps the worst possible name for a stadium to host a clash between these two, because they have hated each other for their entire existence. Both clubs were formed in 1891, Djurgarden coming to life just three weeks after AIK were born. As with most European sides there is more to the club than just football, and the hatred is just as strong when they meet in ice hockey, handball and even athletics. Today it’s all about football, and AIK are the strong favourites to claim the victory. Financial problems have caused Djurgarden to sell many of their best players, and they are struggling in the middle of the league table as a result. Meanwhile, AIK are challenging for the title, just a couple of points behind leaders Malmo. What is more, they were victorious in the fixture earlier in the season, going 3 – 0 up inside 16 minutes at Djurgarden, eventually holding on to a 3 – 2 victory.
The DIF supporters I speak too are mostly pessimistic about their chances, accepting the reality that the financial stability of the club is currently a more pressing concern than results on the field. One tells me of the attitude which has been born during the current unsuccessful season “We go into games thinking that we are going to lose, so it is our job to ensure we are louder than the opposition fans and don’t lose twice”. It is a commendable attitude, and soon enough I will see for myself just how incredibly loud they can be.
We arrive at the stadium with around 30 minutes to go before kick off, and the carnage is instantaneous, as two groups of supporters sadly push things beyond rivalry into violence. Two smoke bombs are thrown from the section to the right of the away stand, causing a furious reaction from the away supporters. A group of around 30 people, all wearing balaclavas, storms over to the fences to exchange words with the home fans. Soon they are exchanging more than just words, as pyrotechnics, broken seats, coins and beers are hurled back and forth. The riot police struggle to maintain order, as the AIK supporters are able to push them backwards and get dangerously close to the away end. For a moment it looks as though all hell is about to break loose, but reinforcements arrive and get things under control. Still, the players hadn’t even set foot on the pitch yet and there had already been a demonstration of just how deep the feelings run in this one.
Fans clash in the stadium before kick off
Until police reinforcements restore a small amount of calm
Once the players did indeed take the field, all memories of these violent scenes were instantly banished. Both sides had put together tifo displays, with the middle of the away end transforming into a sea of blue, red and yellow. At both sides, masked ultras set off an impressive amount of pyro, with dozens of flares and smokebombs in the colours of their beloved DIF. It was at the other side of the stadium however where you could see more pyrotechnics than in America on the fourth of July. Just last week I wrote about the ‘Welcome to Hell‘ Feyenoord received in Istanbul, but the billowing black and yellow smoke from the ultras section of the home stand truly looked as if that is where we had arrived. The thick black smoke billowed into the sky, completely obscuring the stand from view for several minutes. The smoke began to drift across the entire pitch, until eventually it was impossible to even see the goal which was a few metres away.
With the pitch obscured so completely, the players headed back off the field to wait for the air to clear sufficiently for the game to begin. This did not stop the contest in the stands from getting underway, with both sets of hardcore supporters creating an immense noise. The AIK fans waved hundreds of black and yellow flags, as they linked arms and bounced up and down to the extend that the entire stand seemed to be shaking. Meanwhile, the amazing Djurgarden fans had begun their full range of songs, lead by a small group of 5 or 6 men on a platform with microphones. It appeared as though the usual capo (chant leader) was not present at the game, but it didn’t stop the invading DIF army from making an almighty noise. There was a significant British influence on the support, I had met a couple of Chelsea and Djurgarden supporters earlier in the day, while a Union Jack and a Stone Roses flag were amongst those that flew in the away end. However unlike Britain, the ticket had only cost £15, you could stand up and drink beer while watching the game, and there wasn’t an iPad or a steward on a power trip to be seen. The result, the best and loudest away end I have ever had the privilege to stand in.
With the smoke sufficiently clear to get things going, the game finally got started almost 20 minutes late. It took the noise up yet another notch, with both of the hardcore ends of the stadium doing their best to inspire the teams to victory. Djurgarden almost enjoyed the best possible start, winning a free kick in a dangerous area which was put just over the bar. Indeed, it was so close that the ball landed on top of the goal, causing a split second of mayhem where it appeared to have found the back of the net. Still, it was a promising start for the visitors, who had been dreading a demoralising defeat but now began to dream of a famous victory.
One thing was clear in this fixture, the supporters really did make a difference. Many English clubs designate the squad number 12 to the fans to represent the ’12th man’, but this kind of token gesture is not needed in Swedish football, here it’s the real deal. The Djurgarden fans would get the upper hand in the chanting, and their team would win a string of corners. Angered by this, the AIK supporters would raise the noise levels at their end of the ground, and suddenly it was the home team looking more likely the score. The people in attendance at this fixture take their role as supporters seriously, not sitting back and waiting to be entertained, but doing everything they can to help their team. If they aren’t playing well, they see it as a sign that they should do better, and a new song begins, louder and more intense than the one which comes before.
Despite the doom and gloom from the fans before the game, it is actually Djurgarden who should perhaps feel disappointed that the game is scoreless at half time. They have created a couple of excellent chances, but the lack of an accomplished striker has seen them all wasted. Meanwhile, AIK have enjoyed plenty of possession but not really forced the DIF keeper into a particularly difficult save in the opening 45 minutes. Indeed, the true highlights of the first half all took place on the terraces rather than on the pitch, with magnificent support being offered from both ends of the stadium from first whistle to last.
One of the most memorable moments from the AIK fans came in the 27th minute, as a tribute was paid to former goalkeeper Ivan Turina, a talented Croatian player who sadly died last year while the first choice stopper for AIK. His name was chanted for the entire minute, with the ultras section chanting ‘IVAN’, getting a reply of ‘TURINA’ from the supporters to their left.
This kind of chanting is popular in Sweden, with a number of Djurgarden songs also seeing the stand being divided into two to sing various parts of a song. It takes some coordination, but the result is truly spectacular. I have to admit I could only understand a limited number of these chants, but one of the most memorable translated to ‘FIGHT….DJURGARDEN….FIGHT….DJURGARDEN’, as the supporters urged their team to give everything they had to take home derby bragging rights.
Half time in most countries is a chance to check on the other scores and munch of an overpriced and barely cooked hot dog made out of an animal which went extinct in 1996. Not in Sweden however, as the Djurgarden capo made an announcement that some kind of action would take place to begin the second half. Members of the ultras began to walk around the stand giving out flares, but my non-existent knowledge of Swedish meant I was none the wiser as to what would actually be happening. These flares were passed out and arranged seemingly at random for several minutes, and I assumed that they were simply being given to friends or those who had requested it. Soon, all would become clear.
The players come back out for the second half, and the crackle and fizz that comes from an igniting flare is all around me. To both sides, all that could be seen is the red glow and crackling flames which have become so familiar during my adventures around Europe. This is what every away end at a local derby around the world should look like, with Stockholm providing the perfect example of how it should be done. It was only later that I realised just how impressive the display actually was, with the Djurgarden ultras arranging fo the flares to be ignited in a pattern which formed the letters DIF. Even with all the things I have witnessed at football matches, this was something completely unique and is likely to remain as one of the most impressive things I have ever seen inside a football ground for some time to come.
With the support being taken up another level, the action on the pitch was also increasing in excitement. AIK were now displaying the reason they had been favourites, taking control of the game and looking as though they would score the goal they so badly needed to keep up with Malmo in the title race. Their title rivals were losing 2 – 0 elsewhere, with these goals shown on the big screen in the stadium and causing the home fans to chant a little louder still.
Soon, they would really have something to cheer about. The DIF defence had looked disorganised at times, with the goalkeeper forced to rebuke his players on a couple of occasions for forcing him to make a string of fine saves. However with 55 minutes on the clock, there would be nothing he could do to prevent AIK from taking the lead. A great passing move tore the DIF defence to shreds, leaving Nabil Bahoui with the kind of chance you dream about getting in a local derby, and he made no mistake, finishing the move with a cool strike. The AIK supporters went completely wild, as you could clearly see dozens of them tumbling to the floor all across the ultras section at the opposite end of the stadium. The other two stands were also busy losing their mind, with another surge towards the away end from those supporters to our right.
What was really impressive however was the fact that the Djurgarden fans did not miss a moment of support. There was to be no abuse hurled at their team for failing to stop the goal, or shouts at the manager or president of the club to change things. Instead, they kept singing their songs, waving their flags and pumping their fists, urging the team to recover from the setback and get back on level terms. It was truly inspirational to see, and reminded me of the Lech Poznan fans in Poland and Partizan Belgrade fans in Serbia who simply saw conceding a goal as reason to sing even louder.
The first hour of the match had been a brilliant experience. The noise was deafening at times, and I could already tell that all the people who had told me I would love Swedish football culture had been correct. Despite how much I had loved the opening stages, nothing could prepare me for what was about to happen.
Djurgarden win a free kick, with the goal still mostly obscured by the multiple flares which had been set off following AIK taking the lead. The cross comes in, something happens and somehow, beautifully, the ball is in the back of the net. For a few seconds, nobody realises. Then comes a magical explosion of joy, there really is no feeling on earth which compares to being in a celebrating away end on a local derby. The goal has brought around complete carnage, with people falling down multiple rows of seats in a state of complete ecstasy. The man in the row behind me falls to the ground, landing on top of me. We fall into the row below, with several others joining this human waterfall of celebration. It is no surprise that the seats cannot handle this eruption of happiness, with many of them breaking across the entire away section. These were not being broken deliberately, the Friends Arena simply could not cope with the wild and continuous celebrations. When I would leave the stadium following the final whistle, it looked as if the stadium was due to be demolished the next day, such was the extent of the destruction this goal left in its wake. I have only ever experienced two goals which came close to this one, the winner for Borussia Dortmund in their magical comeback against Malaga, and the goal which gave Feyenoord the lead against Ajax in the Dutch classic earlier this year.
It felt as though the game should really have ended following this goal, because what could possibly live up to a moment so perfect? It’s no exaggeration to say that the celebrations lasted for half an hour, with the away section going completely wild for the remainder of the game. It has been a difficult season for DIF and it seems certain that the final table will not give them much to celebrate. But football to me is not about points, or even trophies. It’s about moments. The moments you can look back on in years to come and think, “I was there”. This was one of those moments. The ache in your back from falling through a reinforced plastic seat will fade, and the bruises and cuts on your shins will heal, but memories will last forever.
With a few minutes to go, it seems like AIK will win it. The ball falls loose in the box, with the goalkeeper helpless and seemingly stranded. Out of nowhere comes a Djurgarden defender, throwing himself at the ball and somehow making a perfect block when all hope seemed lost. I have no doubt that he would not have got this ball if the fans behind him had not been so incredible, the true definition of supporters.
In injury time, Djurgarden almost win it. A shot from outside the box goes just over the bar, inches away from a second goal that I think would have caused the stadium to collapse. I am writing this report 24 hours on from the final whistle, had this shot been slightly lower there would probably still be celebrating fans in the away end.
So in the end, there was no winner. But in reality, the winner is Sweden. It wins because it gets to see this fantastic fixture twice a season, with two of the best and loudest sets of supporters you can imagine. It wins because of the thriving fan culture, which defies the spectre of modern football and the out-of-town stadium to produce something truly glorious. Tickets are affordable, away allocations are generous, and big flags are pyrotechnics are allowed and controlled, rather than resulting in the ‘offenders’ being banned from football and even sent to prison. We can only hope that the Swedish model is the one which countries with a struggling football culture look to recreate, rather than the criminalisation of support we have seen in England ever since the birth of the money rich but supporter hating Premier League, before it’s too late.