Marching With the Black Army

The football isn’t top-drawer, but the resemblance to English football of the ‘80s makes Stockholm a syndrome worth catching at least once.

Sep 11 2015, 2:35pm

Originally published in Eight By Eight magazine

In the morning light, the Friends Arena in Solna, Stockholm, is empty and unassuming. On the pitch, groundskeepers discuss the quality of the turf (hated by everyone), and stewards make standard security checks. Tonight is the AIK-Djurgårdens IF derby. The supporter displays, already tucked neatly between the stands, are silent and anonymous. This rivalry is the most intense in the Allsvenskan, Sweden's top division, and tonight's game is at AIK's stadium. Both clubs were founded in 1891; they've met 220 times and have an even record on the score sheet.

I heard about the game from my cousin Olga and her husband, Michael, who runs a sports production company and was a founding member of AIK's tifo (choreographed displays of flags and images) group. Michael, Olga, and their 8-year-old daughter have season tickets and will be at the game. They assure me it's a great family spectacle, while in the same breath telling me it's "madness."

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Swedish society has always seemed just as put-together and aesthetically pleasing as any Ikea. Michael's office is in a large, cylindrical building with an open floor plan designed to encourage "random encounters." There is a sleep room across the hall. We sit in front of the HDTV and game system with Bjorn, Michael's co-worker (and a Djurgården supporter), and talk about how the madness of the derby can exist within such a polite culture. They speak analytically about the derby: what kind of displays to expect, the tifo choreography, the pyrotechnics. Not once do they mention what will happen on the field. "A lot of the games in the Allsvenskan aren't that good," Bjorn tells me. "It's shit," Michael says simply.

Later, in the stadium, Johan Segui, the chairman of AIK, walks Michael and me down the pitch. "No flares tonight, right?" he says. The young man in charge of AIK's tifo displays smiles. "Of course not," he says. Winks are traded. "Here's a dog sniffing for pyro," Johan says, gesturing to the stands. "He ain't gonna find it, and it'll be here anyway."

Due to the raucous supporter displays (and the fact that you can buy alcohol in the stadium), the derby has become a major draw for fans of European football. "We have people traveling here from England who want to see how football was back in the day," Johan says. "You go to the Premier League, they're all seated, it's 65% tourists. Here in Sweden we maybe don't have the best football, but the atmosphere is like it was in England in the '80s. You're going to see that tonight."

AIK (in black) was eliminated in the third round of Europa League qualifying by Atromitos. Photo by CHRISTINE OLSSON/EPA

In the 1970s, Swedish television began to broadcast in English, and supporter culture started to do what American groups have done over the past decade: model itself after the British firms. In the mid-'80s, groups emerged such as AIK's Black Army or Djurgården's Blue Saints. Eventually, men like Michael, inspired by the choreographed English and Italian displays, replicated them on their own terraces. As in England, Italy, and most European leagues, there's a debate over what is viewed by governing bodies as hooligan behavior and by others as an intrinsic part of the game. Johan, Michael, and Bjorn all admit some fans take things too far, but in the stadium the groups of casual visitors and ultras seem to be, if not indistinct, then at least in close proximity.

In 2011, in response to what Sweden's supporter clubs saw as overbearing pressure from the Swedish FA—bans on songs and pyrotechnics—and inflated media reports on the dangers, moral and physical, of football matches, all 24,000 supporters at the Stockholm derby spent the first 10 minutes of the match in total silence. The players didn't like it; the game suffered accordingly. The message was twofold: One, we can behave; and two, you need us. The second half of the same match saw flares, a delay, and a handful of arrests.

This is a recurring dichotomy at the Stockholm derby in particular: long moments of careful politeness punctuated by violence. It's as though the pressures of living in a near-perfect socialist utopia—I can't even find any gum on the steps leading up to the stadium—occasionally manifest in a viking-like need for mostly normal guys to beat the shit out of each other. Unlike in matches such as El Clásico, there's no glorified ideological reasoning to fall back upon. "It's not politics," says Michael. "We just don't like each other."

After Michael and I enjoy meatballs and lingonberry in an impeccably clean stadium-side restaurant and pub, we walk back to the stadium. Wives have begun dropping off their husbands. "Play nicely," one says, "and I'll be back to pick you up after the game." The queues outside the entryways are well-behaved and are made up of everyone from tattooed ultras to fathers and daughters to people like me, only hours off a transatlantic flight. The only sign of social decay is a truly horrific portable toilet—and the fact that the away supporters have been sequestered on special buses that will take them directly to the doors of the arena.

We're patted down by smiling security guards and ushered into the stadium. I ask Michael how the pyrotechnics make it through the checkpoints, and he tells me stories of smuggling flares inside flags, pants, even baby carriages. After purchasing pints of beer from polite attendants, we find a spot on the terrace.

As the platforms begin to fill, the pitch is obscured by flares and smoke bombs. The kickoff is delayed. When the whistle is finally blown, chaos reigns. Flares and smoke bombs explode, flags are unfurled, and the terrace becomes a writhing creature of smoke and flame. I have no idea how people know when to cheer, when to clap, when to stomp. The noise is overwhelming, and the ferocity of the AIK end is daunting—and that, of course, is the idea. Two contests take place at every derby: one on the pitch, one on the terraces. The Djurgården supporters, outnumbered on AIK's turf, are determined to do their part, and the far end of the stadium is a constant riot of perfectly coordinated smoke, color, and noise.

The football is indeed unimpressive, but I'm not certain how anyone could tell—for much of the game it's difficult to see where the ball is. And then, in the 54th minute, AIK somehow put the ball in the Djurgården net. Our end erupts in apocalyptic bellowing, stamping, screaming, and a new onslaught of pyrotechnics. Below me, ultras fall over each other. For several minutes it rains beer. The joy is short-lived, however: Six minutes later, an own goal puts Djurgården level, and the away end does its best to destroy the stadium. Several people, after hearing me speak English, ask if I'm enjoying myself. They seem both proud and pleased. It might be too drunken, too wild, to be called "cordial," but everyone is having a good time. Behind me are two Australians, in Stockholm for a one-night layover. They saw an advertisement for the derby and decided to come. "There's nothing like this anywhere," says one.

During halftime, I watch three stumbling-drunk AIK supporters run over a fellow supporter in a wheelchair, spilling his beer. There are apologies, the beer is replaced, and there is laughter all around. It's a stark contrast to the rage of the terraces. Another supporter tells me that "if someone behaves really badly, people will tell him. If there are children around, you don't want to hear swearing." I've seen worse at high-school soccer games in the U.S.

Still, there's an edge to the passion, and when the DIF supporters throw missiles at the AIK group across the corner of the away terraces, stewards intervene, the fans are removed or placated, and below me the terraces shudder with outrage. Michael frowns and shakes his head. On the opening day of the season, a seemingly uninvolved Djurgärden supporter died from head injuries received during violence before an away match at Helsingborg. The idea that DIF supporters would come to the Friends Arena and throw things is both insulting and dangerous.

A makeshift shrine dedicated to the fan's memory gathered scarves and jerseys from all over Sweden, and there are other instances of solidarity. In 2013, AIK's goalkeeper, Ivan Turina, died in his sleep. The 27th minute of every match (27 was Turina's number) is spent in stadium-wide applause, followed by an impressive cheer led by the ultras and answered in unison by all of AIK's fans.

Similarly, the halftime event at the derby is a ceremony for a girl's youth team, who run to the home terraces and receive the applause of the crowd; it's as though the appearance of children on the pitch is intended to soothe any roused viking blood. Earlier, Bjorn had told me that the communication between the Djurgården and Helsingborg supporter clubs leading up to the death was "rough—'We're gonna kill you' and all that. And that's what happened. After that a lot of people looked at themselves in the mirror." Once the girls have been given their trophies, the game resumes—and the Djurgården end is immediately consumed in a massive display of flares and colored smoke that spells out "DIF."

The match ends in a draw. For the AIK fans it feels like a loss. The next day, I speak to Sebastian Andersson at Djurgården's idyllic training ground, in the middle of a large forest park. He has been with the team for only two weeks, and yesterday he played forward in his first derby. He grew up watching the contest and says there's nothing quite like the atmosphere at the Tvillingderbyt. "I'm lucky I'm not the one who takes the corners," he says. "It's a hard attitude here." He also tells me he's pleased with the result. "AIK is a good team this year, and in their stadium one point is good." Will, a member of the club staff who's sitting in on the interview and himself a product of Djurgården's supporter groups, shakes his head. "The fans won't like that," he says.

A 2014 friendly between Djurgårdens IF and Union Berlin in Stockholm was stopped due to rioting. Photo by ERIK MARTENSSON/EPA

Ensuring that the "hard attitude" doesn't result in tragedy or even nuisance is a constant struggle for Johan. He thinks AIK have made progress by doing just what they were told not to do and expanding—creating, really—the dialogue with AIK's supporter clubs. "The police and media didn't want us to talk to the firms, because they wanted to kick them out," he says. "We said it was impossible to kick them out—they're members, we're a democracy, and it's very easy to point fingers—which is what they do in England, and it doesn't work." In the Allsvenskan, clubs are owned by the club members; Johan is an elected official and oversees the same dialogue. It's this attitude that makes Stockholm's derby special: The aim is integration, rather than extermination, and that's why families like Michael and Olga's can be found rubbing shoulders with ultras sporting neck tattoos.

Johan thinks the hooligans—the violent ones, the ones making trouble for others—are "idiots." But there is also the occasional impish display, as when a member of the Hell's Angels and the head of the Black Army turn the Djurgården sign on the locker room upside-down as we walk past. But the day after the derby, photos and online videos show him climbing into the stands next to the away terraces to keep the AIK supporters in check.

It's obvious that there's a symbiosis between the clubs, the hardcore supporters, and the casual fans. Johan is the living embodiment of that bridge. In the same way, there appears to be a symbiosis between the very Swedish desire to go home and be "normal, but not too normal," as Michael says, and the very Norse desire to crack the skulls of the enemy. For men like Johan, Michael, and Bjorn, the firms are an indispensable part of the culture—both as tradition and as economic underpinning. In 2014, player wages in the Allsvenskan were ranked 27th among top football leagues, just above the Algerian premier league, and no club can survive without ticket sales.

Johan, Michael, and Bjorn all tell me that hooliganism isn't really a feature of Swedish football—not anymore. All three admit that it once was. We never seem to agree upon a definition of hooliganism, and anyway, if a group of idiots want to let off some steam far from the general public, who's to say they're not allowed? People are free to make mistakes but are expected to deal with the consequences. As Johan points out, "Nobody and nothing is bigger than the club. We have the banner now, and we have to pass it on. What is it you want to pass on?"

This article originally appeared in issue 06 of Eight by Eight, a new quarterly magazine fusing long-form football writing with high-quality illustration, photography, and design. See what's inside the current issue, and follow Eight by Eight on Facebook and Twitter.