pilgrimage to the allsvenskan

How Football Betting Led Me on a ​Pilgrimage to a Fierce Swedish Derby

At some point, most of us will have felt newfound affection for a club when their success wins us a bet. But has your passion ever grown so strong that you travelled to Sweden to watch them play a derby match?
03 January 2017, 3:03pm

It's an unavoidable fact that gambling has become intertwined with modern football. Bookies' names are emblazoned on shirts, advertising hoardings, and even leagues, while no half-time ad break is complete without Ray Winstone commanding you to "have a bang on that" as the latest odds flash up.

For better or worse these aspects have become part of the sport. But betting can lead to more unusual outcomes, too. Case in point: it recently took me on a pilgrimage to Sweden, where I watched a team with which I have no real connection play their city rivals in one of Scandinavia's biggest derbies.

For myself and many others, betting is part of the Saturday ritual, whether that means chucking a fiver on an acca before watching Stelling and co. announce the goals as they come in, or trying to get 4G at Home Park during half-time so you check the scores over a pint and a pie.

I've been a fan of foreign football since Channel 4's iconic Football Italia show. But, when it came to betting, I'd only ever put my money on English football and teams that I knew, trying to use my knowledge and a few hunches in order to win.

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Recently, however, I've started to look beyond England – there's a big world out there – and bet on overseas games. After becoming interested in analysing statistics in order to predict results, I joined with a couple of friends and deposited a small amount of money to set up a betting syndicate. Our goal was to make a profit by following a model of statistics-based gambling.

Websites such as Soccerway and Soccerstats have led to the widespread availability of match results, form information and statistics. These sites cover not only the major leagues, but competitions from a wide variety of levels across the globe. This means you can study form and stats from England's Premier League down to the Uzbek second tier, or the Division D'Honneur in Guadeloupe. Those with an interest in European football will be familiar with the Jupiler League, Holland's second flight, but not all will know it's a veritable goal fest, averaging almost 3.5 goals per game. Conversely, the Russian Premier League is always a safe bet when it comes to low-scoring games, currently averaging 1.89 goals per match. There was only one league for us, though.

During May of last year, as the majority of European leagues were winding down, there was one league that caught our attention: the Allsvenskan. With 82% of games having two or more goals, and 60% involving both teams scoring, it immediately became a firm favourite.

Malmo FF are the reigning Allsvenskan champions and the league's most successful side // PA Images

When a team wins you a bet, it's natural that you develop an affection for them. It's one of the rules of gambling, alongside not betting on your own team and the fact that you'll end up hating whichever team busts your acca (I'm still convinced that's one of the reasons everybody hates Leeds).

So, after a few coupon wins, I found myself following the results of Djurgården closely. I have no link to the city of Stockholm, nor the club, but they've been good to me. I began to root for them and, while the reasons were not romantic in the traditional sense, they became my team.

Like many others, the Swedish league is in a permanent state of flux: its brightest stars inevitably move to richer pastures, while faded greats are welcomed back to play out their final seasons. Players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Freddie Ljungberg burnt bright there as youngsters, but quickly departed for bigger things. At the other end of the spectrum, former Plymouth Argyle man Kari Arnason and Markus Rosenberg, a striker who went goalless for West Brom in 28 game, both turn our for Malmo. IFK Goteborg have former Celtic and Wigan man Thomas Rogne on their books, while Hammarby are captained by their talisman (and Football Manager legend) Kennedy Bakircioglu. Even my adopted club are in on the act: their goalkeeper is Andreas Isaksson, who left Manchester City when the oil money began to flow in.

Increasingly enamoured with the club, I decided that I needed to see Djurgården play in the flesh, to worship them at the temple of the Tele2 Arena. I pinpointed their home derby against city rivals AIK – better known as the 'Tvillingderbyt' or 'twin derby' – as the game to watch, recruiting one of my friends from the syndicate to tag along.

After touching down in Stockholm and dropping our bags at the hotel we headed to a pub to wait for a Swedish friend from university, who would act as our tour guide. Following a £12.84 pint of IPA we took a metro to Globen, where we were hit with noise and palpable tension in air thick with smoke.

Founded only three weeks apart, these two sides first met in 1899 and have since faced each other 167 times, with AIK winning 62 compared to Djurgården's 53. But it's more than just a local derby: this tie is seen as a battle between Stockholm's middle (Djurgården) and working (AIK) classes. In that respect, it bears resemblance to class-defined rivalries such as Internazionale vs. AC Milan, Ajax vs. Feyenoord, and River Plate vs. Boca Juniors.

As we queued for an extensive search, our Swedish friend translated a song that was being sung, which was largely about "stabbing the scum." We looked at each other apprehensively – nobody more so than the translator himself, who revealed that he was an AIK fan. Given the thorough security outside the stadium, I assumed that there wouldn't be any smoke bombs or flares inside. I was wrong.

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As we walked into the home terrace we were instantly struck by the noise, with the ultras already orchestrating the singing. The terrace was awash with Djurgården colours, something that seemed odd to an English fan more used to seeing small numbers wearing club shirts to games. I've always thought it strange when grown adults wear team colours, but seeing three quarters of the stadium in the yellow, red and blue of Djurgården was incredibly impressive.

Meanwhile, the volume was increasing, matched only by the level of hostility in the air. As the teams emerged the ultras began their tifo, the complex displays put on by fans (most famously used in recent years by Dortmund's 'Yellow Wall' and their man with binoculars before a Champions League semi-final in 2013).

As ropes raised the huge figure up, the fans around us began waving blue flags, before a series of smoke grenades were set off. In the pictures we saw after the match, what seemed like chaos on the terrace looked spectacular from afar. The smoke was so thick that kick-off was postponed. This didn't stop the ultras, who continued to bellow instructions and songs into their microphones, inciting the whole terrace to give their all. I sang with everything I had, despite not speaking the language, shouting words that sounded slightly like the Swedish I could hear.

Rather ominously, a number of fans around me began to pull on balaclavas and, within seconds, there were flares in front and behind us. The security outside the ground was clearly no match for the orchestrated operation of the ultras.

When the game finally got underway the atmosphere generated by the Djurgården fans was unlike anything I've seen in football, let alone the English game. Sadly, the team on the pitch couldn't deliver the same quality as their supporters and went 1-0 down to AIK after 15 minutes. The goal was scored by birthday boy Alexander Isak, who had just turned 17. The highly touted youngster has been dubbed the 'next Ibrahimovic', and he displayed the bold personality of the Manchester United star by celebrating directly in front of the home fans. Flags and plastic pint glasses were hurled at him, but caught in the net that separates fans from the pitch.

After another delayed start following yet more smoke bombs at half-time, the performance from Djurgården grew even worse. It wasn't the display that their brilliant fans deserved. Isak scored a second before Chinedu Obasi completed the rout in the 76th minute. Despite being three down – and, in all honesty, totally outclassed – the volume remained constant. To these fans it isn't really about football, it's about showing your passion for the team and representing where you're from.

When the extra time board was displayed we decided it was best to leave and head back into the centre of Stockholm. But, as we headed for the concourse, I was stopped by a man in an ultras t-shirt. He began angrily screaming in my face in Swedish, his hot breath mixing with flecks of spit as he shouted. When it became clear that I only spoke English, he explained that "you don't leave early". I'm 6ft 5 and don't get stopped in my tracks often, but looking at the other ultras around him I realised that it would be a very bad idea to try and continue through the doors. I found myself begrudgingly respecting the guy who fronted up to me. The passion and commitment to ensuring that the levels of support don't drop even in the dying moments of a certain defeat was impressive, even if it did make me uneasy. We turned and watched the rest of the game before then making our exit on the final whistle.

Though I'd travelled from England to see them play, if anything I'm now less inclined to class myself as a Djurgården fan. I've had a soft spot for them since they first appeared on my betting slip, but despite being in awe of the atmosphere I realised that the passionate support displayed by the ultras came from the connection that they have with the club. That link between person and place is something that can only be developed from being born or living in the area, and it's a bond that no amount of winning bets could change.

I still love the Allsvenskan, and I'll keep looking out for Djurgården's results. But, above all else, my pilgrimage to Sweden reminded me that there's no team quite like the one waiting for you at home.