When someone says “Swedish football” you probably think “Zlatan Ibrahimović”. Maybe you recognise some other names from the Premier League (Freddie Ljungberg, Olof Mellberg), Serie A (Robin Quaison, Albin Ekdal) or La Liga (John Guidetti, Henrik Larsson). Our national team has never been a very successful one, with bronze in the ’94 World Cup and silver in ’58 (when the competition was held in Sweden) listed as our most prominent achievements. Yet football in Sweden is one of the most beloved sports in the country. Even though the Swedes have always been fond of the Premier League (the love for English football goes way back), Serie A and La Liga, there is no league in the world which is more loved than Allsvenskan – Sweden’s own premier division.
For an outsider, the love for Allsvenskan may be difficult to fathom. I wouldn’t expect anyone who has not been to a game to understand it. But altough the league might be far behind in quality (on the pitch, at least) and in money, in one aspect Allsvenskan is at the top end in Europe. Whilst we see and hear police and authorities clamping down on supporter culture across Europe, one of the most exciting (according to me – THE most exciting) projects of the footballing world is currently taking place, right in the heart of Swedish football: ENABLE.
When you bring together large groups of people, incidents are likely to occur. If you add the rivalry and passion surrounding football those incidents become more likely. So football clubs all over the world struggle with the question: how do you retain passion and atmosphere without it spilling over to become destructive and violent? ENABLE brings together international stakeholders and experts in football safety and security in an attempt to answer that question.
In Italy, they try to solve the problem by clamping down on Ultras, increasing security measures and making it increasingly more difficult to travel to away games. At the Stadio Olimpico, barriers to the Curva have prompted both Roma and Lazio supporters to boycott their games. In England, the Premier League and its increased ticket prices have forced many of the old supporters to stop following their team. The stadiums, especially those of the big teams, are now filled with tourists. Standing sections have been abandoned. Despite attempts from fan groups to lobby for reduced ticket prices and safe standing, it does not seem as though much will change in the near future.
And if you’re one of the supporters that travel to away games, nationally and in Europe, you might have experienced being ushered around like sheep or being detained for hours ”for your own safety” to prevent attacks by rival supporters. I’ve been going to football games for many years, both in Sweden and in the UK, and have travelled to World Cups and Euros. Most of the time there is no problem at all. Most of the time, it’s simply a fantastic experience (well, maybe not the actual game) with some of your best friends. But sometimes it is not. Sometimes you end up in situations that are dangerous, threatening or violent.
When such incidents occur, often clubs or FAs are pressured to create heavy-handed security responses which are ultimately counter-productive. “When you treat supporters like hooligans they become hooligans,” said Professor Clifford Stott of the UK’s Keele University when I spoke to him at the ENABLE conference. In addition to being one of the world’s leading experts in crowd psychology and police strategies, Dr Stott is one of the co-founders of ENABLE, helping to design a more nuanced response to such incidents.
It is not easy to summarise a project this complex, but basically ENABLE is providing a neutral platform for stakeholders to communicate with each other. Project members are present before, during and after games to observe how police and clubs’ security officers are preparing for the games, planning their strategies, and most importantly implementing them on game day. The day after the fixture, they all gather in a workshop where extensive discussion was undertaken. The discussions focus on creating a clear and objective view of the event as it related to safety and security issues. By looking, in detail, at certain incidents around the fixture, conclusions may be drawn about how best to deal with similar situations in the future.
Consider that football supporters have (fairly, some might argue) a pretty poor reputation out in the ”real” world. Each and every one of you has likely had to defend your passion for the sport. You’ve had to explain that not everyone that follows football is a ’hooligan’. But when people don’t understand supporter culture, there’s often an air of ‘they have only themselves to blame’ when reports about police brutality towards supporters emerge. If you describe supporters being detained for hours in cramped spaces or the arbitrary way in they are suspended or, worse, prosecuted, these people often think (and maybe even say) ‘they deserve what they get’.
Meanwhile, almost all fans have had some sort of interaction with police officers at matches, whether simply seeing them at a distance, having a conversation, or actually ending up in a confrontation with them. The police are there to stop those situations from emerging or escalating, but often fans come to see them as harsh or brutal, even as the ones who make the confrontations worse.
No wonder the relationship between police, supporters, clubs, stadium owners, politicians and others is often strained at best or, at worst, completely broken. Just to get them into the same room can prove a challenge.
Dr Stott, who assisted during the 2004 and 2012 Euros and has trained police officers all over the world in crowd management, shared with me his belief that the way these stakeholders have come together is truly unique, and so is their engagement and commitment to the project. The police in particular have shown an impressive level of openness and transparency. It’s no wonder then that Filip Lundberg, a co-founder and project manager, stated, ”ENABLE is the immune system to protect best practice [to football security and safety] from reactive and populistic actions.”
There is no denying that football supporters can get violent – even in Sweden. In 2014 a Djurgården supporter (with no connection to hooligan groups) was attacked on his way to his club’s away game against Helsingborg. This incident highlighted Sweden’s safety and security issues and lead to the formation of ENABLE. In an interview with Swedish podcast Klackspark (a football podcast focused on Swedish football culture) Dr Stott himself clarifies:
We understand obviously that in this kind of situations where there can be a high level of violence at times, that the police use the force that is necessary. People need to get arrested, people do criminal things. But at the same time we recognise through our research that many of those situations could be avoided if the police were prepared, and better able, to build positive relationships with fan groups and negotiate solutions that can help them create conditions where violence doesn’t happen, so that they don’t have to react to it.
It is also essential to realize that a football fixture is not an isolated event. The history between the two clubs, the antagonism between the supporters, a sense of entitlement, territorial thinking … all must be considered. Just because something kicks off in connection to one game doesn’t mean that is where it started. In order for the police to truly assess the risk connected to a fixture, they need to understand history, geography and supporter identity. ENABLE provides a platform for explanation, observation and prevention which helps police to form best practices around crowd policing and formulate strategies to prevent, or at least de-escalate, potentially dangerous situations.
Whilst supporter culture may be slowly dying around much of Europe, it is thriving in Sweden. Attendance is growing and during the 2016 season (yes, because we have proper winters here we must play spring-autumn rather than autumn-spring as in the rest of Europe) it is showing no sign of dropping off. Many of the Swedish clubs have an active Ultras culture, who take inspiration from all over Europe and create fantastic tifo displays ahead of important games. Recently more and more people outside of Sweden have started to pay attention to the atmosphere in the Swedish league, leading to an increase in ”football tourists”. What goes on on the pitch might leave a lot to wish for, but the atmosphere in the stands is often magical for the biggest and most important games. In fact, the Stockholm derby between AIK and Djurgården is often listed as one of the top ten hottest derbies in Europe. Allsvenskan is the perfect place for ENABLE to take root.
I, for one, am excited about ENABLE. To see a project like this being developed is exciting, especially in comparison to what is going on in other parts of Europe. I am a firm believer that harsh punishment only leads to more violence and increased polarisation between the different groups. Rather than stamping out supporter culture, bad and good, the focus is on enabling and encouraging the positive. We still don’t know exactly where this is all going, or how many (if any) of the suggested changes will be implemented, but to see Swedish football move in this direction, rather than that of Italy or England, makes me proud. And hopefully it will help Allsvenskan continue being one of the top leagues in Europe – at least when it comes to supporter culture.