I will start by laying my allegiances out on the table at once – I’m a Fremantle Dockers supporter. There , I said it. The anonymity that this Scandinavian capital provides, allows me to express my West Australian sentiments without attracting a cry of disapproval, a scoff, a wise crack or down right abuse. Or does it? Until recently, I thought I had left the cradle of my sporting home, to settle down in a backyard of cross-country skiing, ice hockey and world cup football. ‘Civilized sports’. To my surprise, Australian Rules Football is being played and supported throughout this country and the surrounding regions, in ever increasing numbers. And its becoming contagious. I caught up with Damian Gatfield , founder of the newest team in the Stockholm competition, the Årsta Swans. But first, a brief history of the AFL in Sweden.
Australian Rules Football has been quietly spreading its way throughout Sweden since 1993, when Ingmar ‘Terry’ Lundquist founded the first club – Helsingborg Saints. After spending much of his young life in Melbourne, Lundquist travelled back to Sweden as a twenty four year old, determined to spread the football fever. From this first injection – its sky-rocketed. No one could have guessed that a game so unique, physical and governed by ‘Australian Rules’ of all things, could have caught on so fast. Having begun as a hobby for homesick Australians who were missing a piece of the land down under (and a kick of the footy on the weekend), the AFL in Sweden now has clubs in Stockholm, Malmö, Göteborg, Landskrona, Karlstad, Falun, and Uppsala. Not to mention the National Swedish Team (the Swedish Elks) who play in the International competition.
The Stockholm Australian Football Federation (SAFF) is made up of 5 teams: Bromma Vikings, Solna Axemen, Södermalm Blues, Årsta Swans and more recently, the Falun Diggers. Damian Gatfield founded the Årsta Swans in the beginning of 2009. We recently had a little chat about football in Sweden, and he gave me a inside view into the competition in Stockholm.
So Damo, why start a fourth team in the Stockholm league?
At the time, I was playing for another team in the league, and where we were having 25 -30 players showing up for a game, giving us a really limited playing time. Something had to change, so thats when we decided to enter a fourth team into the mix. We gathered a few reserves from other teams in the competition, and picked up those who wanted more game time. Since then we haven’t looked back.
Would you say that the competition is competitive here in Stockholm?
Its always more competitive off the field. That’s just the Australian way. People are always going to talk it up, and always going to sledge the opposition. On the field, it does get physical at times. I broke my ankle in the third last game of 2010. Its true, it was just a friendly tackle that went wrong, but theres no denying it does get competitive, like in any sport.
So do you have beginners joining the club?
Definitely. We have more beginners playing than the experienced. I’d never played football before I came to sweden, but I soon realised it was the best way to meet other Australians. And have some fun!
Who’s playing Aussie Rules Football here?
In the beginning it was the Australians who held the clubs together. Hundreds of them would come every year from the universities during the summer, and there would always be new players around. But of the players that started with the club in 2009, it’s the Swedes and overseas players that are still in the team. You do have to build your team around the non – Australians, because the aussies might have to leave at the drop of a hat.
Last year the Årsta Swans had about 20 registered players. Six were Australians. The rest were Swedish, Welsh, British, Irish, American and Canadian. On the field at any given time, there must be a minimum of four non- Australians. This rule is what keeps the competition even.
You must be battling very different conditions here; when and where do you play?
Here’s the short of it: During the coldest months we train indoors. The season runs from May – September. We play 9-a-side football, on a rugby pitch at Årstafältet. Playing on a rugby pitch, means we have to cut the corners using witches hats, so it becomes an oval-shaped field. We use the rugby posts as the 6 point posts and then put two posts on either side as the behind posts. Its not glamourous, but we are a dedicated bunch. We are in the process of acquiring a field at the Stockholm Universitet, so eventually we will have a ground to call our own.
Tell me a little about this fifth team to join the competition?
This year we were hoping to introduce a fifth team in Stockholm, the Falun Diggers. Founded by Cameron Crooks, Falun have been around for a while but have not yet had the chance to be involved in an on-going competition. Fortunately, we have just received the news that Falun will now be the 5th team in the competition, so a weekend road trip once a season is on the cards.
‘We are really keen to join the competition in Stockholm. The Diggers have been together for 3 years now, and the boys are ready to be a part of something bigger. This is a really good opportunity for us.’ Cameron Crooks, founder of Falun Diggers
What sort of culture would one find around the teams?
Its a very Aussie culture. Normally during the fourth quarter the BBQ is fired up, and the second the game is finished everyone’s over there getting a hamburger and a drink! Games usually finish around 8pm at night but its not unusual to be standing around till midnight, having a drink, eating a burger, and just having a laugh together! Its definitely about socializing and meeting expats and locals alike. When you come to a climate like sweden, the tendency for some people is to just sit at home. Playing footy is a really good stress relief, and who is more welcoming than a bunch of Australians!
Can anyone come and watch a game?
Its Free Entry and the games are always open to the public. To find out the fixtures head to our website or any of the other teams for the up coming season. The Liffey in Gamla Stan is the major sponsor of the SAF Federation in Sweden. We hold all our events there, and they host the AFL grand final as well. You should expect to see the International Rules game, broadcast there in the middle of the year.
‘The Liffey are very proud to sponsor the SAF federation in Stockholm, and we have a very good working relationship with the teams. It’s been a good partnership for both of us – long may it continue.’ Tony Griffin
So Damo, what does this year hold for you at the Årsta Swans footy club?
I’ve been president for the last two years, but I’m taking this season off due to my injured ankle. Not to worry though, I’m still on the board, and most importantly – still doing the BBQs!
Out of curiosity, how would my Fremantle Dockers jersey go down at the Årsta Swans footy club?
Everyone is welcome at the club! All ages, gender, nationality – and regardless that you support the Dockers;) We would love to see anyone who is missing footy culture, to come down on match day and support the team. Or, hang around to enjoy the after match BBQ and partake in some good old Aussie banter! Hey, even non-footy playing Queens-landers are welcome at Årsta; I was accepted with open arms:)
With Damian’s reassurances in mind, I must conclude: between this Dockers-loving reporter and a president who’s never played football; Sweden is probably the safest place for both of us.
Australian Rules Football is a unique and tough sport, and its amazing that it has found such popularity here. If it continues to be supported in Sweden, from within and abroad, it’s a considerable achievement for all those involved. For the pioneers and current players who get so much out of this sporting competition, its great to see their hard work pay off. There’s no doubt you have to be dedicated and committed to run a footy club in Sweden. However despite the challenges, there are many Swedish and International players who have taken this game into their hearts and lives. And as a West Australian living in Stockholm, this news makes me very proud indeed.
By: Lily Mackay
For more information about the AFL in sweden:
In Stockholm – Information on ladder and fixtures
The Clubs in Stockholm