BERLIN (AP) More famous for snow sports like cross-country skiing and biathlon, the “Winter City” of Ostersund is making quite a name for itself on the soccer field.
The club from the northern Swedish city has progressed so quickly that even reaching the last 32 of the Europa League isn’t enough for everyone.
“I’m a little bit low and down because we wanted to win the group and we didn’t do that,” Ostersunds FK chairman Daniel Kindberg told The Associated Press after his team was held to a 1-1 draw at Hertha Berlin. “I expected us to win the group and I expected us to be among the first seeds in the draw, but unfortunately we are not.”
Expectations like that were unthinkable only a few years ago.
Ostersund was formed in 1996 following the amalgamation of three local clubs. After more than a decade in the third division, the team was relegated in 2010, when Kindberg quit amid bickering at the boardroom level. He went back after the players threatened to quit, too.
When Kindberg returned, he sought backing from local companies and appointed Graham Potter, a former defender from England, as coach. Potter led the team to promotion in his first season, and then again to the second division in his next. The team reached Sweden’s top division in 2015.
“Graham is very important as a coach, manager, friend, brother. He has fantastic leadership. He’s one of a kind, one of the absolute most promising managers in Europe, no doubt about it,” Kindred said. “I said that five years ago that he was Scandinavia’s best manager and now he’s been selected two years in a row, the best manager in Sweden. So I think I know what I’m talking about.”
This season, Ostersund is playing in the Europa League for the first time. The team qualified for Europe’s second-tier club competition by winning the Swedish Cup.
The team’s success has continued, finishing second in Group J and earning a spot in the next round. With a group of unknowns and players rejected by other clubs, Ostersund became the first Swedish team since Helsingborg in 2007 to reach the knockout stages of the Europa League or UEFA Cup.
Kindberg, a former army man, acknowledged it’s been a “good” year, but added he was disappointed with the team’s fifth-place finish in the Swedish league.
“We’re going for the championship,” Kindberg said at a team party following Thursday’s draw at Hertha, adding he is looking to make it a treble by also winning another Swedish Cup and the Europa League.
Part of the team’s success has to do with its off-the-field activities.
While Potter takes care of the soccer, Kindred said the club has “five key individuals” who look after other aspects, including the social side and the cultural productions.
The team has staged art exhibitions, written books, helped refugees, made sure local women get home safely at night, and last year players performed Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” ballet on stage. Two weeks ago, they produced a show celebrating the Sami people, the native reindeer herders from across Lapland.
“It was fantastic, absolutely fantastic,” said Kindred, explaining the reason behind the stage productions. “It’s a training method in decision-making and courage. That’s what it really is.”
Some players, however, took some convincing when the methods were first introduced.
“I said, `It’s OK, it’s fine. We respect you fully, but you have to play somewhere else.’ So that’s it. They didn’t object anymore,” Kindred said. “Everybody thinks football is about passing the ball, tactics. That’s a small part of football. The big part is the mental game, and the war to win the hearts and minds of people. That’s what football’s about.”
The social work undertaken by the club is just as important as the cultural or sporting side. Kindred said it’s part of Ostersund’s holistic approach.
“To take a stand for rightful things, for poor people, for people in danger, for human rights, it’s very important for us, because everyone wants to do good,” he said. “We started this path six years ago. We decided at that time it was important for us, for our identity. Our war against evil and bad things in society. We show that on the pitch, and we try and show it off the pitch. We try to do our best every day.”
The work off the field is even bringing in new fans.
Birgitta Karlsson said she was never interested in soccer until this year, but she travelled 23 hours by train and boat to see the team play in Berlin.
“There’s something really special with them,” Karlsson said. “They are good ambassadors for young people, for old people, for friendship, for being kind to each other, for children.”
Of the 15,686 spectators at the Olympic Stadium on Thursday, about a quarter provided noisy support for Ostersund. After the game, the visiting players lined up in front of them and led a “Viking clap,” staying long afterward to continue the party.
“We are at the beginning of a journey that we hope will change the world and we hope will change things,” Kindberg said. “We have no limits at all. Every year, the Euro league is to be won. Every year, the Champions League is to be won. We need to be champions because that’s what we are.
“It’s easy. Football is the easiest game on Earth. It is people who complicate it. We try to be simple.”