Elks Storming towards International Cup
Sunday, April 27 2008 @ 04:43 pm ACST
Contributed by: Aaron Richard
On Saturday May 3rd, Karlstad is set to host the largest gathering of Australian Football participants ever in Sweden. As many as 10 clubs from all over the country will descend on Värmland to compete in the inaugural Swedish Lightning Tournament, the "VB Cup".
The 2008 VB Cup will be a one-day 9-a-side tournament between club sides from across Sweden, with an outside chance the Oslo Trolls from Norway may make their long-awaited debut.
The tournament will also be an important step in getting the best local talent in the country together for the Swedish Elks' International Cup preparations, with numbers in Sweden now around 300 regular players - two-thirds of which are locals.
"It’s exciting to represent your country in a sport," says Gothenburg’s Joel Språng who has played Aussie Rules since 2002, "I never thought I’d get to do that." Språng is just one of over 300 Swedish players who currently play Australian Football in Sweden.
Over the past few years clubs have formed in towns and cities all over Sweden. To date around 30 Swedes have pledged to take time off work this August to play for the national side. With little in the way of sponsorship they will have to pay for travel, accommodation and daily expenses, all out of their own pocket. It is just a measure of their dedication to the game.
"It’s a fantastic sport!" states national team captain Andreas Svensson "In Sweden we watch soccer where nothing really happens. But in Aussie Rules things are happening every single minute."
The history of Aussie Rules in Sweden goes back to 1993, to the port city of Helsingborg in Sweden’s south. It was here that Ingmar "Terry" Lundquist started the country’s first football club: the Helsingborg Saints. Lundquist moved to Melbourne with his parents at the age of 7 and it took little time for the young Swede to be infected with a typically Melbournian obsession with football. Every Saturday afternoon was spent watching Richmond. Every Saturday night was spent watching the replay. Every weekday was spent talking footy at school, and every other time in between was spent having a kick in the street.
At 24 Lundquist moved back to Sweden, and it wasn’t long before he started experiencing withdrawal symptoms from a lack of footy. "From the moment I moved back to Sweden I hoped Aussie Rules would become popular in Europe," says Lundquist, "Imagine the thrill I got when I was at the Australian embassy in Copenhagen and saw that they started a league there."
Seeing that it was indeed possible to play Aussie Rules in Europe Lundquist was inspired to start up a team in Sweden. Being only a 15-minute ferry trip from Denmark, Helsingborg was able to join the Danish Australian Football League, currently the largest league outside of the English-speaking world.
Until 2002 the Saints remained the only team in Sweden (apart from the short-lived Lund Bulldogs in 1995) and attracting players from all over the country. However since 2002 football clubs have gradually proliferated throughout the rest of Sweden.
Today the district of Skåne has a four-team league, as well as two teams still playing in the DAFL. Stockholm has a three-club league, and there are clubs in Gothenburg, Karlstad, Falun, Svärdsjö and Uppsala.
There are also plans to establish teams in Linköping and Kalmar. Last August the Svenska Australiska Fotbolls Förbundet was established becoming Sweden’s first national organisation for Australian Football - formally named AFL Sweden.
Preparing a national team last year to compete in this year’s International Cup was the next logical step. "I'm very excited about the National team and the direction it is going," Lundquist said today, "It seems we have good numbers of every region travelling to the International Cup, and if we bring a strong team I think we'll surprise a few sides."
Naturally starting up a football team isn’t an easy process. Joel Språng has gone through it twice: once in Gothenburg, and more recently in Karlstad. Språng was introduced to the game through his older brother Martin who in turn discovered the game after catching a quick glimpse on cable television.
In 2003 the Gothenburg Berserkers had their first training session with the Språng brothers amongst the first recruits. For a long time training consisted of barely enough people for a kick-to-kick. But despite such low turnouts they persisted and kept meeting up weekly.
"You have to be determined," says Språng, "You can never give up." Optimism and dogged determination are important qualities in any one wanting to start their own football team. Gradually the Gothenburg Berserkers grew and today they’re even attempting to start up a second team.
When Joel Språng moved to Karlstad in 2007 he was quick to meet up with like-minded individuals and helped establish the Karlstad Dragons. Tapping into the international student population at the local university, it wasn’t long before Karlstad were ready to play Språng’s old club the Berserkers.
"In Gothenburg it was nearly two years before we were ready to play our first game," Språng says, "But in Karlstad it only took 2 months."
Cameron Crooks has also undertaken the seemingly massive task of starting up an Aussie Rules football team in northern Sweden. Three years ago Crooks left Tullamarine for the mining town of Falun in Sweden’s north. "I thought I had no chance. Falun is just way too small," states Crooks on the thought of starting up a club, "but in many ways it's easier here than in the big cities. Everyone knows each other so word spreads a lot quicker."
Before long training sessions were attracting up to 25 people and within two months the newly established Falun Diggers played their first match against Stockholm. "I started with two people from work, and it just branched out from there," says Crooks, "friends, friends of friends, just sitting in the local pub talking to people." International Cup rules state that to play for a country one must have lived there between the ages of 10 and 16. This automatically disqualifies people like Crooks, but he will make the trip to Melbourne as one of Sweden’s coaches.
Having started a club the next challenge is trying to teach the game to absolute beginners. After all bouncing an oval ball while running doesn’t come naturally. As the only Australian playing in Falun, Cameron Crooks was also the only player with previous experience. Before he could even talk about tactics and positions, he had to start with basics such as kicking, handballing and of course bouncing.
"Everyone we’ve recruited has come to this club never having even heard of Aussie Rules football," says Crooks, "We’ve started with nothing but managed to build a reasonable team."
Roger Nilsson is one of the few Swedish footballers with experience playing in Australia. In 2004 he won a scholarship from the DAFL and spent a year in Melbourne playing for amateur side Powerhouse. The term "scholarship" makes it sound more glamorous that it was. It was essentially a return air trip to Melbourne and a letter of introduction to Powerhouse. Nilsson had to find his own accommodation and make his own way around without friends or family. To support himself he worked cash-in-hand at pubs and warehouses.
"It felt like I’d never even seen a footy before,” states Nilsson on the sharp contrast in playing standards. But Nilsson persisted and played regularly for Powerhouse reserves that season. He also managed to watch most of St.Kilda’s home games. "It was a great success and a great experience," states Nilsson, "I can’t wait to go back to Melbourne."
The existence of a Swedish Aussie Rules football team may bemuse many Australians but they are starting to get noticed. Last August Sweden won the EU Cup in Hamburg after beating Austria, France, the England Dragonslayers, Czech Republic and Germany in the final. In the past year they’ve also had an impressive win over regional rivals Finland, and narrowly lost to Denmark, whom they will meet again for a friendly international in a few weeks time.
"Skills wise we’re not going to get flogged," suggests Roger Nilsson, "But we’ll probably only have 30 players. We have to play a lot of games in only a few days which will take a lot out of us."
Geographical and financial constraints mean Sweden will not be able to bring its best team. There is no selection process. If one can afford to go then they can go. However in the short term it is just important that Sweden field a team and simply make their presence known to both the Australian football public and internationally.
"How well we do doesn’t really matter. The achievement will be just getting there," says Cameron Crooks, "If each club can recruit 4 new players as a result of the publicity from the International Cup, then it will be a huge success for the sport in Sweden."
The International Cup might not be producing the highest standard football in Melbourne this August, but if the Swedish team is anything to go by, it will include some of the most ardent and dedicated players of the game on this planet. Their commitment to the sport and determination to play the game just prove that you don’t have to grow up in Melbourne to be a football fanatic.
Many thanks to Nic Townsend from Göteborg Beserkers for much of this report.