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Footy in Sweden, 2005

  • Friday, December 30 2005 @ 04:20 pm ACDT
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Europe After existing for many years in the shadow of its neighbour and longer established rival, Denmark, Aussie Rules in Sweden, with leagues developing now in three regions, has staked its own claim on the footballing map. The 2005 season was one of significant development for footy in Sweden. In a country where the Aussie Rules landscape is divided into at least two largely distinct regions, both took significant steps forward. Before exploring the gains of 2005, a bit of background is in order.

Footy in Sweden started in 1994 with the establishment of the Helsingborg Saints in the Danish Australian Football League. Helsingborg is a six hour drive from the Swedish capital, Stockholm, but only one hour from the Danish capital of Copenhagen, where Aussie Rules was started in 1991. Before 2005, the highpoint of Swedish footy would have to be the Saints’ appearance in the 1996 DAFL Grand Final. They lost, but the achievement set the club up for the next few years. Unfortunately, they later fell away and by the end of 2002, were in serious danger of disbanding.

At that point, the DAFL restructured itself along geographical lines, and in the process the remnants of Helsingborg decided to have a go at establishing its own local league of three teams. The extent to which DAFL’s restructure has worked in Denmark is highly questionable, but ironically it is in southern Sweden (an area known as Skåne or in English, Scania) where the exercise has been most successful. The flourishing Scania division of DAFL, now three seasons old, coupled with the two year old Stockholm league, has seen the sport grow to the point where sending a team to Melbourne for the 2008 International Cup is now a distinct possibility.

Two events from 2005 can now challenge the Saints’ 1996 effort as Swedish footy’s high-point. First, the renamed South Sweden Saints (a representative team from the Scania league which competes in the DAFL Premier League), recovered from a slow start to the season to again make the DAFL Grand Final. Secondly, a national Swedish team traveled to Farum in Denmark and managed to play out an exciting draw with the more experienced Danes.

South Sweden started 2005 in the usual Saints’ fashion – with some heavy losses, particular one of nearly 30 goals to DAFL’s pace-setter who they would later have to beat once to reach the Grand Final and twice to win it. But the benefits of having a “feeder” local competition were evident as the Saints were always able to field a full side. This ensured they would be competitive if not victorious. Add to this the exceptional form of a couple of first year Swedes in Leo Nilsson and Ken Flydalen and the Saints started to surprise a few sides (Nilsson fell only one BOG performance short of an unprecedented Sitch Medal, DAFL’s Best and Fairest award, in his debut season). A couple of results fell their way towards the end of the season and they found themselves on the verge of the finals.

In the final round, South Sweden played North Copenhagen away. The Barracudas have been DAFL’s powerhouse of the 2000s, having played in every Grand Final since 1999, winning three of them. The Saints were the underdogs but in a result which may in the coming years be seen as a pivotal “changing of the guard” for DAFL, they pummeled the Danes by 102 points to sew up not only a finals place but second spot and the home ground advantage in the Preliminary Final, which they utilized the following week to down the Copenhagen Hawks by 77 points.

Despite their barnstorming finish to the season, most pundits were expecting a loss of the order of 15 goals to Farum in the Grand Final, but the Saints were more than competitive as the Cats were not safe until the 20-minute mark of the last quarter. It was a disappointing end to the season, but their form left no-one in doubt that footy in Scania was on the verge of a golden era.

In the middle of the summer, the Saints joined forces with the Stockholm Australian Football Federation to put a true national Swedish team on the field for the first time. Known as the Elks, the team was half ex-pat Australian and half Swedish – the organizers having agreed to this in order to make the match with the all-Danish Denmark team more competitive. They could hardly have got it more right.

The Danes were still expected to win but by quarter time that looked an impossibility as Sweden had used the strong wind effectively to establish a 45 point lead. Denmark worked their way back into the game and in a thrilling finish, managed to pinch a share of the spoils with an after-the-siren goal. This was a marvelous match, setting itself up as an annual fixture and plans are for the Sweden team to progressively reduce the number of Australians each year.

The local Scania league continued to establish itself with only one problem – one team becoming too successful. Malmö is the third biggest city in Sweden and so it has been no surprise that Port Malmö (who could probably hold their own in DAFL’s Premier League) claimed their third premiership in a row over the smaller town teams of Lund and Helsingborg West. What *was* a surprise was the Grand Final margin – a 175-point whalloping of Lund. There may be a silver lining to that cloud however, as the result appears to have convinced the Port Malmö club that they should divide, and plans are afoot for the 2006 season to be a four team affair with Port Malmö splitting up into the Malmö Central Blues and the GV Malmö Bombers – the latter being initially sponsored by the Goulburn Valley Football League.

700 kilometres north, the Stockholm Australian Football Federation completed a very successful second year. The senior competition again proved to be an enjoyable season and foundations were laid for the development of a junior competition in 2006. The SAFF Premier League maintained its three team, nine-a-side, nine-game format with the Stockholm regional squads developing team monikers: Northern Axemen, Central Royals, and Southern Sharks.

The premiership was a hotly contested affair, with games throughout the season being within a four goal margin and more often than not within a kick. Going into the summer break, the Royals were top with an unbeaten record with the Axemen being very unlucky to be at the foot of the table. After the break the mid-season draft enabled a revamped and improved Sharks team to storm to the top of the ladder and sew up the minor premiership. In a surprising second half of the season, the Royals dropped from top spot and missed a Grand Final birth, enabling the Axemen the opportunity to clinch back-to-back premierships.

The 2005 Grand Final, watched by capacity crowd (Editor: I'm assuming some Aussie irony?), saw the Sharks maintain their dominance over the Axemen. The game was closely contested with only two goals separating the teams at the last break. However missed chances proved costly for the Axemen and in the end the Sharks were hungrier and proved too strong.

In the 18-a-side version of the game, 2005 was a learning curve for the Stockholm Dynamite, a representative team from the three SAFF teams. With the snow barely off the ground the West London Wildcats toured Stockholm in early April. At the end of the first quarter the Mitres lead the Wildcats by two points. However they were unable to maintain the pressure and the experienced Wildcats took control. Although a disappointing final margin, many new players were blooded in a physical encounter that will only hold them in good stead in years to come.

In the E4 Cup, named after the road that must be traveled by the visiting team, South Sweden made the long trek to Stockholm. The Mitres went into the game with an expectation to avenge the two point loss in 2004. However the Saints proved too strong and controlled the game from the outset. Again there were many encouraging signs with the local players making up 40% of the Stockholm Team.

On the touring front, the Mitres again ventured to Denmark for the Sheep Station Cup. With a much more experienced team and a few heavy hitting ring-ins, the Mitres finished in fourth place only losing the playoff for third by a couple of points.

With the completion of the senior competition in September, the SAFF turned its focus to junior development. The SAFF hired a professionally accredited physical education teacher and primary school teacher to co-ordinate Australian Rules Clinics at a number of Swedish schools. The sessions were aimed at children in the ten to 16 years age group and are based primarily upon the Auskick program. September through to November was a test case to prove that with a professional program, Swedish schools would welcome the introduction of Australian Rules Football. This program was an overwhelming success. In all, four schools were involved over 38 hours of clinics and 350 children got the opportunity to kick the Sherrin.

2006 will see the SAFF increase its investment in junior development. Co-ordinating with local city councils and Swedish government departments, the SAFF is looking at holding a Junior Australian Rules Carnival on the first weekend of June, and teams from Denmark and England have already expressed an interest in attending. Although ambitious goals have been set, junior development has proved very successful and will be the lifeblood of Australian Football in the years to come.

Sweden is a big country and footy is slowly taking hold in yet a third region – in the second largest city of Gothenburg. Things have developed slowly since 2003, but in 2005 they finally got a team ready for some genuine games. As a curtain raiser match for the Scania League Grand Final, the Gothenburg Berserkers took on the Helsingborg West Raptors. Only four of the eleven Berserker players had played more than two games during their entire careers so it was kind of a surprise when the team from Gothenburg won by 55 points. The future looks bright and the Gothenburg Berserkers will definitely see more action in 2006, and may even be part of the Scania league.