AIK Women – Breeding Ground For Success

by Ben Gilby

AIK (pronounced “Orr-Ear-Kor”) are based in Solna, a city around seven miles outside of Stockholm. Their men’s side were formed back in 1891 and play home matches at the National Stadium (firstly the Rasunda, now Friends Arena). The women’s side, AIK Fotboll Dam presently play in the Elitettan, the second tier of the women’s game in Sweden. The top of the division this season has been exceptionally strong with up to six teams chasing promotion to the top tier of the Swedish women’s game, Damallsvenskan.

Impetus editor Ben Gilby spoke exclusively to AIK Fotboll Dam’s head coach, Robert Svanström about his club and players, plus the historic and contemporary state of the women’s game in Sweden, one of the world’s strongest nations in the sport.

Svanström firstly outlined the status of the wider club: “AIK is one of the biggest clubs in Sweden if you measure it by supporters and also in success in different sports. The men’s team get regular crowds of almost 20,000, which, in Swedish club football, only two other sides come anywhere close. The club is probably most known for football but has also has success in Ice Hockey, Floorball, Bandy, Wresting and some more sports. That’s not unusual in Sweden that clubs has several sports under the same name. The club was founded in 1891 and has been successful in football over the years winning the Swedish men championship twelve times (first time 1900 and the latest in 2018). The AIK Women team played their first game in 1970 and having fourth position in the top tier Damallsvenskan in 2008 as their best result.”

Above: AIK Fotboll badge on their distinctive black shirts with yellow trim. Photo: Ben Gilby

In terms of their overall relationship with the men’s AIK side, Svanström explained: “We are two teams in the same club and of course we are getting support from the men’s club. It’s important for the club to represent on the women side and we are having enough financial support to play in the division we are right now, but of course we could need more to play in the highest division. In terms of playing matches at the men’s stadium, we had a game at the Friends Arena (54,329 capacity) in May against Uppsala, but that was only possible because the men’s team played the same day. I guess it’s too expensive and there are too many events at the arena to have our games more often then maybe once a year. It was fun to be there for one day but at the same time we don’t have any needs to have it as our home ground. (AIK Dam play at the 4,000 capacity Skytteholms Idrottsplats) The last couple of years has seen AIK having problems to establish in themselves in the Damallsvenskan. We have been relegated three times since 2010. AIK has an identity and history of developing young players and when we are promoted to Damallsvenskan it’s has maybe been a little bit too early for them. The young players have been good enough to promote from Elitettan but maybe not ready for Damallsvenskan. When AIK were relegated in 2012 and 2015, the players moved on to other clubs and AIK needed to start over again with new players.”

The promotion race at the top of the Elitettan has been incredibly tight this season, with Umeå IK, IK Uppsala, IFK Kalmar and AIK’s local rivals Hammarby IF all battling it out with Robert Svanström’s charges for the two places in the Damallsvenskan. Whilst the top sides are doing exceptionally well, Svanström admits there is a divide in the division: “It’s a big difference between the teams at the top and the bottom. Elitettan is a semi pro-league where the players are paid but having other income at the same time. The league is perfect for young ambitious players to prepare them for Damallsvenskan.”

AIK’s heartbreaking 2-1 loss at Hammarby on Saturday in front of an impressive second tier crowd of over 2,400 has all but ended the Solna based side’s hopes of promotion this season – but Svanström has seen plenty this season to make him pleased with the progress of his team: “I would say it’s two things we are most pleased with. First, we are pleased to manage to develop the team’s style of playing. It’s the first year for our coaching team and the players have been really fast to learn to play football in the way we want to play. If you look at our games I think you would see a well organised team that plays an offensive and skilful football. The second thing I’d like to mention is the individual development in a lot of our players. A lot of our players didn’t have any experience from elite senior football before this year and they have really learned fast how to play on this level. Also a lot of our older players have performed better this year than they did earlier. Going forward, Svanström believes that if his side are”able to perform on our top level more often”, they can go one better and achieve promotion in 2020.

The future looks incredibly promising for AIK, as part of their very strong player pathway development plan from girls to senior football: “It’s a part of our vision to have a majority of the roster from our own academy. For the moment ten of twenty players are from our own academy. Having them representing the national youth team is some kind of a recognition that we are doing things right. Players in national teams this year are Emma Engström in the Sweden U23 side, Wilma Ljung Klingwall, Elsa Törnblom, Clara Härdling, Johanna Lindell, (Sophia Redentrand har also been called up but not playing games) in the national U19s and Rosa Kafaji, Serina Backmark in the Swedish U17s side,” Svanström proudly reveals.

These players and more coming through the system make AIK’s head coach confident his team can make themselves an established Damallsvenskan side once promotion is achieved: “I am absolutely sure that it’s possible. If we can have time to develop the players we already have in the club we can make them to players in Damallsvenskan. It’s important that we make it attractive for the players to choose to stay at our club. For that we need money but also a good organisation where the players feel that they can develop.”

Whilst Sweden was historically one of the strongest countries and leagues in the world of Women’s football, the nation now finds itself behind nations such as England in the status of its domestic league. Svanström identifies that Sweden’s early strength in the women’s game was due to the fact that, “for decades it has been non-controversial for young girls in Sweden to play football and other sports as young kids. I guess that has to do with the society in Sweden and that we have been pretty early compared to other countries in equality between genders. It has also been very important with pioneers in the Swedish women football in the 70’s to 00’s, from Öxabäck IF to Umeå IK and also players like Pia Sundhage, Malin Moström and Hanna Ljungberg. They were breaking new ground and were great role models for younger players. Nowadays we see Swedish women football losing its position as one of the leading nations in the world. Damallsvenskan is no longer the best league in the world with the development of the women football in England and Spain for example. Even if it’s still natural for girls to start playing football as kids, it’s not that given that women players should have the same opportunity as the men in the highest level.” Despite the change in status of the Damallsvenskan, Sweden’s third place finish in the recent Women’s World Cup, plus clubs like AIK bringing through large numbers of talented players, the potential is still there for a bright future both at AIK and Sweden internationally.

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Ben Gilby is the editor of Impetus and has over fifteen years experience in voluntary media officer roles within the sports of Football and Rugby Union, has appeared on BBC Radio Cornwall and BBC Radio Norfolk sports shows several times and published the book ‘The Game: Tales From A Season Travelling Around The Rugby Union Grounds of South-East England’.

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