Umeå IK have won the 2008 Damallsvenskan title for the fourth successive season, confirming their dominance of Swedish women’s soccer. Not a small feat as Damallsvenskan often is considered the top women’s league worldwide.
Umeå IK’s Hanna Ljungberg is one of the top scorers in Damallsvenskan, and her 2002 record of 39 goals in one season — of 22 games — still holds. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/Scanpix
Umeå’s success is no surprise given Marta Vieira da Silva — better known simply as Marta — perhaps the best female soccer player in the world. The multinational squad at Umeå also includes Marta’s fellow Brazilian international Elaine Moura, Ramona Bachmann from Switzerland and Mami Yamaguchi, who in 2008 became the first Japanese player to sign for a Damallsvenskan club.
Sweden’s head start
Small wonder, then, that Damallsvenskan is seen as the top women’s league worldwide. But why Sweden? In 2000, Jonny Hjelm and Eva Olofsson from the University of Umeå produced a study, “A breakthrough: women’s football in Sweden,” focusing on the development of women’s soccer in Sweden from 1965 to 1980. They suggest that while the impetus may have come from a strong movement towards women’s liberation, women’s soccer “spontaneously developed from below when hundreds, and after a few years, thousands of women began playing the game.”
That trend has not changed. Over 60,000 female players aged 15 and upwards currently hold a player’s license in Sweden, up by 50 percent since 1996. In addition, there are over 23,000 registered female soccer players aged 12-14 according to the Swedish Football Association.
More than 1,500 teams partake annually in the Gothia Cup youth soccer tournament in Sweden. Malmö FF's youth team celebrates a 2007 gold medal. Photo: Niklas Larsson/Scanpix
American player Denise Reddy joined Umeå IK in 1994 before moving south to Malmö DFF in 1996. She stayed in Sweden until 2005, appearing in 336 games, leading Malmö to the 2003 UEFA Champions League semi-finals.
Currently assistant coach at Chicago Red Stars in the USA, Reddy says: “Sweden became a popular choice for top players partly because it got a head start over other countries in opening its doors to internationals at an early stage.
“When I was in Sweden I developed my game to another level. I improved almost every part of my game, partly because in Sweden you have time set aside every day to train individually.”
Playing the income game
Although some of the top teams boast average attendances in the thousands — Linköping average about 2,000 at home this season, and Umeå 1,700 — most have to make do on crowds well below 1,000.
Peter Johansson, head of sport at AIK women’s side in Stockholm, admits that it’s not easy to afford full-time professional players. “The main income does not come from the audience – it’s not possible,” he says. “Especially in the big cities, we are trying to compete for attention with so many different sports and clubs.
“Merchandise, marketing, advertising and, of course, sponsorship, all play a part. There are some central marketing deals with the league for billboards at matches and a deal with TV channel TV4 who screen 12-15 games every year.”
Lisa de Vanna maneuvers the ball away from Alexandra Nilsson at a recent game between Sunnanå and AIK. Sweden's top league Damallsvenskan attracts both international and domestic talent. Photo: Robert Granström/Scanpix
Furthermore, most clubs only employ a handful of full-time players. “And this is not a way to get rich,” Johansson says. “The players maybe get an apartment and, for most, a quite small salary.”
New challenges for toughest league
Lisa de Vanna certainly has no regrets about coming to AIK as a professional this year. “I’d been told Sweden was the place to be,” she says. “Then at the World Cup, Peter saw me play and negotiated to bring me and my team-mate Katie Gill over.
“As a full-time soccer player I train whenever I can, including extra training in the morning. I train pretty much every day and I definitely see the results of that.”
De Vanna also has no doubts about the standard of the Swedish game. “Sweden is the most advanced football league in the world, the toughest,” she says.
“Sweden is best because the league has such a high standard. It isn’t just one or two teams who crush everyone else. When I go into a game I want it to be a hard game, not an easy one — I want to be tested.”
Damallsvenskan is about to face a new challenge of its own. In 2009 the Women’s Professional Soccer league will begin in the USA, replacing the Women’s United Soccer Association that folded in 2003. It’s very early days and regarding players moving to the US de Vanna says she has “no idea” about what will happen. Rumors abound that the new, as yet un-named Los Angeles side is determined to lure Marta.
If there is an exodus, though, it’s unlikely to impact on the long-term health of Swedish women’s soccer. The grass-roots game is strong and international players will still keep a keen eye on Sweden as a haven for earning a living from the game.
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Paul Eade is a freelance writer based in Stockholm. He’s still thawing out just from watching Djurgården play Bälinge in a Damallsvenskan match in a torrential rainstorm last weekend.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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