Ian Haweky profiles a club that has relied on theatre, ballet, creative writing, and other artistic endeavours to propel them to Europa League status.
Ostersunds FK: Artistic creativity drives rise from Swedish fourth tier to Europa League group-toppers
On Friday evening, at the Jamtli Exhibition Centre in the Swedish town of Ostersund, a group of professional footballers will take part in a well-rehearsed selection of theatrical acts, themed around local Sami – Lapp – culture.
This is not a frivolous fancy-dress party, but an event with a ticket-buying audience of the sort the folk of Ostersund have come to expect.
It may well be that the actors by Friday have something significant to celebrate. On Thursday night Ostersunds FK, holders of the Swedish Cup, can earn themselves a place in the knockout round of the Europa League, guarantee it if they beat Zorya Luhansk of Ukraine.
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It is a decade since a club from Sweden progressed beyond the group phase of a major European club tournament, and for Ostersunds, the possibility represents an extraordinary rise.
Six years ago, they were clambering their way out of the fourth tier of the domestic game, a pinprick on the sporting map, based in a remote inland town of under 60,000, more than 400 kilometres north of Stockholm.
What Ostersund are doing on the pitch is the big story, but their novel activities off it are part of the tale. Innovation and imagination drives their ascent, says their manager, the Englishman Graham Potter, an enthusiast for the team-building benefits of artistic endeavours like Friday’s performance.
“It’s about taking players out of their comfort zone,” he said ahead of last month’s 2-2 draw with Athletic Bilbao which secured the unsung European debutants command of their group.
Ostersund’s players have under his watch taken part in ballets, creative writing and last month spent a day at a local bakery, learning to make bread.
Potter, a former full-back with Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion, and briefly of Premier League Southampton in the mid-1990s, also believes such activities help bind his players to a community unused to having a successful ambitious football club.
“Football actually takes up a few hours of a player’s day, and doing these other things involves them socially and culturally,” said Potter, who oversees in the chilly city – snow is forecast for Thursday – a group of players notable for their diverse backgrounds.
There are those scooped up from well down the league pyramid of English football, like Jamie Hopcutt and Curtis Edwards, who can barely have imagined when they were at Tadcaster Albion and Spennymoor Town, respectively, that moving to Sweden’s lower divisions in their early 20s would take them all the way to European ties at Galatasaray, who Ostersund beat in the preliminary round of the Europa League, or Bilbao, home of the competition’s 2012 finalists, or Berlin’s Olympic stadium, where they will complete their group phase fixtures against Hertha.
There are those with heritage from further afield. Captain Brwa Nouri plays for Iraq, defender Gabriel Somi for Syria and midfielder Fouad Bachirou for the Comoros. And for a couple of Ostersund players, the club’s meteoric rise, achieved on a modest budget, has been a launchpad to next summer’s World Cup. Midfielder Ken Sema won his first cap for Sweden earlier this year, striker Saman Ghoddos, born in Sweden to Iranian parents, is an Iran international.
Forward Alhaji Gero holds out a hope that his showings in Europe might nudge Nigeria, who called him up in 2014, to look at him again. Gero thumped in Ostersund’s second goal in the 2-0 win over Zorya in Ukraine that put them in command of the group on Matchday 1 and will embolden them for Thursday night’s return fixture.
Nouri scored the penalty that gave Ostersunds a 1-0 win at home against Hertha Berlin and Ghoddos netted his fourth of the European campaign in the draw at home to Athletic that Potter described “as the best performance I have seen at this club. It made me very proud when I think back to the darker days when I was first here”.
Potter, 42, moved to Ostersunds when crowds in the fourth division numbered a few hundred. They have grown tenfold since. “It has,” he says, “been a fantastic journey.”