Djurgårdens IF: Building From The Academy Upwards

Impetus editor Ben Gilby spoke to Djurgårdens IF’s Linda Wijkström (board member and previously Head of Women’s Football) and Jean Balawo (Sports Director and Head of Girl’s Academy) about how the Stockholm based side, once one of the top sides in Europe are now aiming to consistently push higher up the Damallsvenskan table once more.

Above: Djurgården IF 2021 team photo. Photo: Djurgården IF

“As early as 1924, a women’s section was created within the Djurgården club, but it then contained various sports”, reveals Linda Wijkström.

“In 1967, the first match was played against Öxabäck. It was in the 60s that women’s football began to develop. Scandinavian countries during this period lead the way for women’s football. For example, you can mention The FA in England had a ban on women’s football until 1971.

“In the 70s and 80s, our team played in the second division, but from 1984 we played in the highest league. In 1989 we had our first player selected in the national team. The club has had a catchment area with northern Greater Stockholm. In the 90s, women’s football became its own association under Djurgårdens IF.”

The club had its greater period after merging with another Stockholm side, Älvsjö (see https://impetus885775742.wordpress.com/2020/11/26/exceptional-alvsjo-revisited-a-year-on/). Wijkström highlights how that joining of two clubs came together.

Above: Linda Wijkström, Djurgården board member and previously Head of Women’s Football . Photo: Svensk Fotball

“A goal was set to win the Swedish Championship gold in 2005. The merged team was from the start a group that had previously been bitter enemies but everything went better than we had hoped for.

“To a large extent, it was the players’ merit. The background of the merger was that at that time there was no room for four teams from the Stockholm region in the highest national league. There was neither the financial nor player base. We also wanted to show that we could create a strong elite team from Stockholm. Six of the players also took a place in the Swedish national team which in the same year, 2003, took World Cup silver after losing to Germany in the final.

“The planned championship gold came in the first year after a match with Umeå IK, which at that time was the leading club in Swedish club football. We had revenues of SEK 1.8 million compared with Umeå’s SEK 7.9 million. Winning a gold with those revenues is not possible today and hardly then, but with a fantastic squad of players, leaders and supporters it was possible. (Comparative economy 2003, the total revenue in the highest league was SEK 26,663,000, 2020 SEK 129,000,000) Victoria Svensson was named Sweden’s best player and was also selected by one of the best players during the World Cup.

“Back then, the highest league in Sweden was ranked as one of the two best leagues in Europe, which meant that the league had good international and national players. During the early 2000s, Djurgården had well-known players from Germany and the USA, among others.

We wanted to play the majority of our matches at the historic Stockholms Stadion which was built for the 1912 Olympic Games. Unfortunately, the city did not prioritize that during the golden years, we had to change around for four different arenas around Stockholm.

Above: Ariane Hingst, one of Djurgården’s big name players from the past. Photo: The Women’s Game.

“The memory of when the queues at the stadium curled up long when Umeå came to visit and the gold was to be salvaged is strong and that interest in women’s football grew so strong after the World Cup. The following year, 2004, was even better. We took the Swedish Championship gold and the Swedish Cup and advanced in the UEFA Women’s Cup (now the UEFA Women’s Champions League) We had four players in the Olympics. We had an average attendance of 1,200 and the highest crowd was against Umeå with over 8,000 people in the stands.

“In Swedish women’s club football, there is a lot of talk about the time before and after 2003. Another focus came on women’s club football after the silver in the World Cup. Djurgården /Älvsjö was one of three clubs in the Damallsvenskan that had, for example, a club manager. The level of the league was amateur but the ambition was to eventually build to a semi-professional level. All players had other jobs on the side and / or studied, which was included in the planning for matches, both internationally and nationally. Our trip in the Women’s Cup was of course something extra.

“Umeå IK had taken the title in previous years and of course we wanted to reach the same heights. Sweden and Germany were the two leading nations in women’s football and despite the fact that we were rivals on the pitch against Turbine Potsdam, we had good contact when it came to development issues. It also led to the years after we recruited the big stars Ariane Hingst and Nadine Angerer to the club from Turbine.

“Djurgården / Älvsjö became involved in both national and international football during these years. Former gold coach Thomas Dennerby became the national team captain for the Swedish national team and took the World Cup bronze in 2011 (today the national team coach in India) Victoria Sandell (formerly Svensson) became sports manager in Djurgården Damfotboll and is today assistant national team captain starting in 2021, chairman Per Darnell took place in the federal board and we can a long list of players and leaders who have continued in football in various ways. It was an important time for Djurgården’s success and the development of club football.”

We then turned to the present day and first examined how coronavirus has impacted on the club.

Above: Jean Balawo, Djurgården IF’s Sports Director and Head of Girl’s Academy. Photo: Djurgården IF

“It has really made us think,” said Jean Balawo,  “and forced the teams in Damallsvenskan to develop in a positive way – how you think and reflect even more and often regarding events, as well as travel. It has also made us review our existing facilities to ensure the highest quality from a health perspective. Of course, we must not forget that there can also be negative bits with the pandemic, but I have chosen to focus on us as a team and club in aspect to what we have learned during the pandemic.”

In terms of the last few years, Jean admitted that the club have not been as successful, but sees good signs for the future.

“Yes, it is true that we have had less successful seasons but the trend is slowly rising. We have changed direction in a number of ways. In my role as Sports Director, not being a managerial role anymore, allows me to see the club in a different way. We have focused on building the academy so that in the long run the players will be able to come from below and in that way reduce the number of completed imports. On the pitch, we play with greater self-confidence and you see development day by day.”

With the Damallsvenskan now back after a break of over a month for the Olympics, Jean outlined his aims for the rest of the season:

“Of course, it is a tough what we have ahead of us, however, we are prepared for what is to come. The team has gotten better and better the further into the season we’ve come. There has also been some new players who arrived late that we have had to integrate gradually. The goal is and has always been to stabilize our operations, around which we see a strong development. We will take one match at a time and always give everything regardless.”

Whilst the Damallsvenskan is no longer ranked as one of the very top leagues in Europe, Jean is clear that it is still full of quality football.

Above: Djurgården celebrate Sara Olai’s winning goal against KIF Örebro earlier in the season. Photo: Bildbyrån

“The Damallsvenskan as a brand is strong and the quality of the league is considered very high and will be for many more years to come. Swedish clubs can proudly rejoice that the players who leave Sweden are usually well-trained football players with awesome characters.

“Apart from two matches this year which had big score lines, the Damallsvenskan has had a lot of even matches with many one goal wins, it is a sign that the league is fairly even sports wise.”

We closed our discussion looking at the future generation of Djurgården players as Jean highlighted the player pathway from girls’ to senior football:

“We currently have an academy from the ages of 10-19 with employed coaches who are dedicated and motivated. We have our senior women’s team captain Sheila van den Bulk as the assistant coach in FA19 to help with the transition from junior to senior.

“We have also introduced something that we call an apprenticeship agreement where the club encourages A-team coaches to look at the F19 business with different eyes.”

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