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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

The strangest football derby in the world

The game between the Assyrians' two teams in Sweden is about more than just sport, writes Ulf Roosvald.
Assyrians immigrated to Sweden in the 1970s and the two football teams they formed compete in one of the strangest but most intensely fought derbies in the world.
Assyrians immigrated to Sweden in the 1970s and the two football teams they formed compete in one of the strangest but most intensely fought derbies in the world.

In front of a 8,400 crowd the two teams enter the field. It is the last day of May, the sun is beaming down as erupting confetti and flags make a spectacular backdrop a few minutes before kick-off. In two of the stands: white and red. In the other two: red and yellow. The teams line up in front of the main stand, waving to their supporters, clapping hands with each other.

The scene taking place at Sodertalje would not be very different from any other football derby played anywhere in the world this spring, if it wasn't for two things. Firstly, the teams preparing for this season's biggest game in the Superettan, Swedish football's second tier, are both largely made up of immigrants. Secondly, they represent the same immigrant group. The Sodertalje derby between Assyriska FF and Syrianska FC is arguably the strangest derby in football.

Robil Heidari, club spokesman at Assyriska, has moved to his regular place just beneath the main roof of the stand. He is tense. "We cannot lose this game," he says. "I don't want to wake up tomorrow if we lose this game." The players feel the same way. Midfielder Stefan Batan has played for Assyriska since he was a little boy. He knows that Assyriska really should win this match and maintain their hope of moving up to the Swedish top division.

Also he knows that if Assyriska lose, it will disrupt the power balance between the Assyriska and Syrianska supporters. When he looks around the Sodertalje football arena he knows that he has relatives among the white and red-clad supporters of his own team, Assyriska, as well as some die-hard Syrianska fans. It confuses him, as it confuses neutral on-lookers, not familiar with the Assyriska/Syrianska dispute. Sodertalje, a town of 70,000, a 30-minute drive from capital Stockholm, is a town with a special modern history. Until the 1960s, it was an ordinary, small Swedish industrial town, where people went to work, to church and to see the local ice hockey team play.

Then, economic upswing meant that the towns two major companies - truck manufacturer Scania and pharmaceutical company Astra - grew rapidly and needed workers in an amount that Sweden could not provide.

Workers came from Finland, Greece, Italy and Yugoslavia. In the 1970s the need for staff at the town's factories was still high, and this time the big wave of immigrants were Assyrians. The Assyrian people, with an origin as a Christian minority in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, are basically a people without land. Assyrians in Turkey lived in relative peace until Turkish nationalism started growing in the 19th century.

In the wake of the First World War, several hundred thousand Assyrians were killed by Turkish forces in what is referred to as the Assyrian genocide. In 1933, the Iraqi government killed thousands of Assyrians in massacres. Those Assyrians who sought refuge in Sweden came to Sodertalje after the 1971 military coup in Turkey. They formed their own cultural association, and in 1975 this Assyrian association also started a football team of their own, who played in the seventh tier of Swedish football

As more and more Assyrians moved to Sodertalje, the potential player pool for the football team got bigger. Assyriska quickly climbed up the lower steps of the football ladder, and soon found themselves playing in division four. The Assyrian people became comfortable in Swedish society. Carrying with them a strong merchant culture, they opened up retaurants, hair salons and jewellery shops, advanced to high positions at Astra and Scania, and even to the Swedish parliament.

In 2004, Ibrahim Baylan, who came to Sweden from Turkey in the 1980s, was appointed minister of education by the social democratic government. Today, some 20,000 Assyrians live in Sodertalje, which is sometimes called "the Assyrian capital". Here, the Assyrian TV channel has its headquarters, as well as the world's biggest Assyrian newspaper. Everything would have been fine if it was not for an internal name dispute over self-designation. Within the group, there is an ongoing issue on whether to call oneself "Assyrian" (connecting to the supposed ethnic heritage to the old Assyrian people of Mesopotamia) or Syriac (referring to the Syrian Orthodox church).

This debate is a reality for Assyrians/Syriacs all over the world, but the conflict is nowhere as strong and sensitive as in Sweden and Sodertalje. The immigrants came to Sweden as one group, but once here, they divided into two separate ones. Soon after the Assyrian (Assyriska) cultural association was formed in the 1970s, a Syriac (Syrianska) association also surfaced. When Assyriska formed a football team in 1975, Syrianska followed in 1977.

A little more than 30 years later, both teams have become elite football clubs and are playing each other in this prestigious derby. Assyriska is the bigger club with better standing. They are aiming to return to the Swedish top flight, where they surpisingly spent the 2005 season. Syrianska are newcomers in this league, but they have all season felt that they have as good a team as their rivals.

On the pitch, home ground for both teams, Syrianska thread passes between stifled Assyriska players. The game in the first half is going Syrianska's way and the Assyriska supporters - many of them old men dressed in suit and tie to honour the occasion - are looking worried. At least the crowd stays calm, satisfied with singing and drumming for their respective teams. In a way, the two football teams have maintained the split between Syriacs and Assyrians, acting as important symbols for a divided culture.

When the two teams met in the early 90s, fights between fans were severe and one game had to be abandoned. The Swedish Football Association then decided that the two teams should never be paired in the same league again, a decision which was not changed until a decade later. When Assyriska were promoted to the first division in Sweden in 2005 many people greeted the hard-working immigrant football club's achievement.

But there were also countless, less flattering, reports about the club: members of different families fighting in the boardroom, mafia-like blackmailing by club officials, threats against coaches, players being harrassed. The club were still run as a small cultural association, and the organisation in general was much too small. The club's old home ground didn't meet the demands of top-level football, which meant Assyriska had to play their home games in Stockholm. Player discipline was bad and Assyriska fell straight back to the second division.

Today, Assyriska FF are working hard to get back to the top flight of Swedish football, and they are also working hard at their image. "We have had our problems, Assyrians are good at creating conflicts, it seems," says Heidari. Heidari himself is an example of what AFF are looking for for the future; young, educated (he has a university degree and was working as an information technology consultant before joining the football club), and well integrated in Swedish society. "We want Assyrian technique on the pitch, and Swedish organisation off it," he says.

In the mid 90s, the club's board decided that the team should be open also for non-Assyrians, and after that the club quickly rose to the second tier. Today, the first-team squad is made up by 12 Swedes with Assyrian background, 10 ethnic Swedes, three Brazilians, three players from Gambia and one from Kosovo. "We are happy to be an inigrant-friendly club," Heidari says. "And we are happy to have come this far with many Assyrians in the team. But at the same time, if you consider our Assyrian players as Swedish, which is their official nationality, we are more Swedish than most top teams in this country."

In later years the two Assyrian/Syriac clubs have been known to produce some fine footballers for the top clubs in Sweden and the national team. Kennedy Bakircioglu, currently playing for Ajax Amsterdam, and Sharbel Touma at Borussia Mönchengladbach, Germany, being the most succesful. The club's ethnic policy is a difficult balancing act. Still, many members of Assyriska would want the team to be made up of Assyrians only, like an unofficial national team.

But if the team want success at the highest level, that is an impossibility. Also, to grow financially, the club need to increase income at the gates. And to lure the town's ethnic Swedes (who still seem to prefer their culturally inherited ice hockey team) to Assyriska games, a significant number of home g in the line-up is a must. Three days ahead of the derby game both clubs closed down the Internet forums on their respective websites, to avoid the fans from overheating with rage from comments from their rivals.

It worked well, the atmosphere at the arena was happy and party-like, which has not always been the case in the past. Ten minutes into the second half, it is time for the red and yellow half of the arena to explode. Robert Massi, a Syrianska player since kindergarten, strikes a terrific long-range shot into the top corner of Assyriska's goal. The Syriacs go crazy, little brother has the lead over big brother. Robert Messi, who scored the winer in the last derby game as well, cannot believe his luck. Assyriska are never close to equalising.

"I saw immediately after hitting the ball that it was going to be a goal," he says afterwards. "I just ran to our fans and celebrated. Now we have a psychological advantage over Assyriska." After the game, and with half the season to go, the table shows that the two Sodertalje teams are separated only by goal difference, and just outside the promotion spots, with the Assyriska fourth and Syrianska fifth.

Assyriska midfielder Stefan Batan slowly leaves the pitch, thanking the fans for the support. He is frustrated after the game, where Assyriska never played as well as they can. He is also frustrated at the fact that the two teams are competing with each other, for the same signings and for the same sponsors. If he were to decide, the two clubs should merge into one. "I know that it will be difficult, but my dream is that Assyriska and Syrianska one day will join forces and become one football club," he says. "There are heavy financiers internationally, who want to stay neutral as long as there are two Assyrian/Syriac clubs in this town. But I can guarantee that they would support one common club.

"Then we could really be a threat in Sweden, and we could provide a good alternative for Assyrian players who are now abroad. That is my dream." sports@thenational.ae