Feature: Sweden’s Älvsjö AIK FF Dam

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 fikaFika 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.

Photo: Älvsjö AIK FF Dam.

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, 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, Älvsjö AIK FF Dam 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 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. The club have a senior side in addition to their huge girls’ section. After several years playing in the third tier Division One South Svealand, the 2019 season saw the return of success.

Going into the final day of the season, Älvsjö AIK FF Dam just needed to defeat third-placed Telge United FF to secure promotion to the second tier of the women’s game in Sweden, the Elitettan. However, it didn’t quite go as planned. A 2-2 draw allowed Älta IF leapfrog them to finish top of the table and gain the one automatic promotion place to the Elitettan. Yet Älvsjö had a second chance – as the Elitettan is a national division and the third tier is regional, the second-placed sides in the various third-tier leagues play-off for the remaining promotion spot to the second tier.

So, over two legs, Älvsjö faced off against Alingsås FC United. A 0-0 draw in the first leg away from home installed Älvsjö as favourites for the promotion. Again, it didn’t quite go as planned with Alingsås FC United claiming a 2-0 win to take the remaining promotion spot.

Yet, still the story was not over. In a case of third time lucky, Älvsjö AIK FF Dam discovered that Älta IF would not be taking their place in the Elitettan, and as runners-up to them for promotion in the league, Älvsjö were given the last spot in the second tier of Swedish football for the 2020 season.

The club would now be facing off against the women’s teams of giant neighbouring sides AIK Solna and Hammarby. As you would expect, the step up from regional level football to the national second tier of the women’s game in Sweden is huge and there is a big gulf between the top sides in the Elitettan and the rest. For a club such as Älvsjö AIK FF Dam, regardless of their glorious past, it was a huge gap to attempt to bridge.

The aim for this season was survival in the Elitettan and then eventually try and consolidate their second-tier status in a bid to try and consistently play at the higher levels of Swedish women’s football once more. The season started promisingly with a 3-1 win at home to Sunnanå SK. Further wins over Lidköpings FK (3-2), Sandvikens IF (2-1), Enskede IK (3-2) and the return game with Sunnanå SK (2-0). Whilst there have been the occasional heavy losses, there have also been glorious efforts in defeat. The mighty AIK Solna, who ended up winning 24 of their 26 matches and won the Elitettan with three games to spare were really challenged by Älvsjö AIK FF Dam and only just emerged with a 4-2 win. Linda Niemenen and Zabrina Koont’s goals emphasised just what a great spirit Älvsjö have.

Linda Niemenen. Photo: Älvsjö AIK FF Dam.

In the end, everything came down to the final three games of the season, and Älvsjö AIK FF Dam knew that they would need a minimum of three points from these matches to retain their Elitettan status. What made this target particularly challenging was that two of the games would be against big Stockholm side and promotion challengers Hammarby – who had only lost two games all season. The run-in began with Älvsjö hosting Hammarby. Two goals in the opening seventeen minutes from Ana Rodrigues put the Stockholm side in control – but Älvsjö showed great character again to steady the ship and began to impose themselves on the game. In the final minute, Felicia Saving grabbed the third. It was a defeat, but again, Älvsjö had given their all.

The following week was a huge showdown for Älvsjö when they travelled to fellow strugglers Kvarnsvedens IK. Whoever lost the game would end up in the relegation zone ahead of the final game of the season. With Älvsjö AIK FF Dam knowing they would have to travel to second-placed Hammarby for their last match, that was a thought laced with the ultimate danger. That prospect, combined with the incredible spirit this team, the ultimate of underdogs in the Elitettan had shown all season long, was enough to seal the ultimate victory. Magda Le Therien’s goal just before the hour mark sent Älvsjö into raptures. They had earned a vital victory.

Therefore, they went into their final game at Hammarby, who were celebrating promotion to the top tier Damallsvenskan as runners-up AIK. Älvsjö knew that they were still not mathematically safe. A defeat for them and wins for either Kvarnsvedens IK or Sandvikens IK would cause Älvsjö AIK Dam to be relegated.

Like the game two weeks previously at Älvsjö Idrottsparken, Hammarby started on fire. This time, they built a 3-0 lead within twenty-one minutes with two goals from Emma Jansson and one from Emilia Larsson.

CharacteristicallyÄlvsjö dug in and were rewarded for their fighting qualities when, just before the break, Linda Nieminen got a goal back.

Cruelly, just after the interval, Emilia Larsson restored Hammarby’s three-goal advantage and in stoppage time at the end of the game Frida Thornqvist made it 5-1. Still, Älvsjö would not lie down and Klara Ovefelt got an all-important second – as relegation could still, potentially be decided by goal difference.

With the final score being 5-2 to Hammarby, whilst the home team celebrated their place in the top tier of Swedish women’s football, there was a nervous wait for Älvsjö to see if results elsewhere would go in their favour. In the end, Sandvikens IK’s 2-0 defeat at home to Morön BK and Kvarnsvedens IK’s 3-1 loss to IFK Kalmar meant that Älvsjö AIK FF Dam were assured that they were safe from relegation and would be in the Elitettan once more for the 2021 season.

It might not be the same heights as their incredible successes in the late 1990s, but Älvsjö AIK FF Dam earning and then retaining their place in the second tier of Swedish women’s football for a club from such a small town is nothing short of phenomenal.

Quite simply, Älvsjö AIK FF Dam are a wonderful story that just keeps continuing to show new achievements.

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