by Ben Gilby
In this two part feature, Impetus editor Ben Gilby tells the story of women’s football club from one of the tiniest towns imaginable, and how they became Swedish and European heavyweights. The opening piece sets the scene on the town and what the team achieved.
When it comes to women’s football teams punching above their apparent weight, arguably none have done it more successfully than Älvsjö AIK FF Dam.
Based in a small suburban town with a population of just 1,530 people, Älvsjö (pronounced Elves-Her) is situated 8.5 miles south-west of Stockholm and, other than its incredible women’s football team, it is famous for being the location of Stockholmsmässan (The Stockholm International Fair), northern Europe’s biggest trade fair facility, which hosted the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest, the first to be held in Sweden due to ABBA’s famous win the previous year thanks to their song ‘Waterloo’.
Despite these heady achievements, and the presence of a large railway station on the main commuter line network which links central Stockholm with the historic university city of Uppsala almost fifty miles away, Älvsjö remains a very quiet, peaceful and unassuming little town. The modern central square is surrounded by small, local shops, a fountain and a café which serves as a venue to promote the Swedish lifestyle choice of fika. Fika is a state of mind which encapsulates the Swedish way of living whereby work/life balance is at the centre of everything the country’s inhabitants do. Even the busiest office stops and makes time for fika – the part of day where plenty of time is devoted to coffee and a bite to eat (usually cake or kanelbullar – Swedish style Cinnamon Buns) and a chat with friends or colleagues. Except in Älvsjö it’s not just coffee and kanelbullar that the tiny local population made sure they fit in, it’s getting out, playing football and honing their skill with such dedication that they became the nation’s top team.
For five seasons in a row – from 1995-1999 (football in Sweden is played generally between March and October in one calendar year to avoid playing during the harsh winters), Älvsjö AIK FF Dam, based at the Älvsjö Idrottsparken (Älvsjö athletics ground) took the Swedish Damallvenskan top flight by storm and won the title each year in this period. That a side based in a tiny location with barely 1,500 inhabitants were dominating big city teams in a nation who have always been one of the strongest in the world of women’s football was just incredible.
As the twenty-first century began, those at Älvsjö AIK FF Dam began to realise, as many small clubs with less than perfect facilities do, the situation was not going to be sustainable. Across in Stockholm, the women’s side of one of Sweden’s top men’s teams, Djurgården IF (DIF) wanted to further the progress of their own female team. The 1980s had seen Djurgården promoted to the Damallsvenskan for the first time only to be relegated in 1992. It took them four years to regain their place in the top division. With DIF still not quite established as a long term member of the highest league, and UEFA about to launch its first pan European club competition for the top women’s club sides, it was decided that Stockholm needed a strong presence in the women’s game. In a move that was seen to be in the best long term interests of both teams, Älvsjö AIK FF and Djurgården IF merged, with the two clubs owning 49% and 51% of the joined entity respectively.
The merger was a huge success on the pitch with Djurgården/Älvsjö, consisting from players taken from the squads of both the original standalone clubs, winning the Damallsvenskan in 2003 and 2004, the Swedish Cup in 2004 and 2005 and finishing as Damallsvenskan runners-up in both 2006 and 2007. Success in UEFA’s Women’s Cup (the forerunner of the UEFA Women’s Champions League) was also achieved in 2005. After coming through a group stage Djurgården/Älvsjö saw off fellow Swedish side Umeå in the quarter-Finals before a famous aggregate win over Arsenal Ladies in the semis. The final, played over two legs against the German outfit Turbine Potsdam ended in disappointment, but the achievement of a team who had such humble beginnings reaching a major European final was phenomenal.
However, the footballing story of the tiny town of Älvsjö has not ended since merging with Djurgården. In the second part of this feature, we will examine the re-establishment of a single senior women’s football team at the Älvsjö Idrottsparken, and how, once more they are beating teams from far bigger settlements and enjoying success as a consequence.
Ben Gilby is the editor of Impetus. He has over fifteen years experience in voluntary media officer roles within the sports of Football and Rugby Union, has appeared on BBC local radio several times and published the book ‘The Game: Tales From A Season Travelling Around The Rugby Union Grounds of South-East England’.