27 - The number that unites Sweden

Posted by Michael Yokhin

AIK Stockholm goalkeeper Ivan Turina died in his sleep in May 2103.GettyImagesAIK Stockholm goalkeeper Ivan Turina died in his sleep in May 2103.

Ivan Turina died on May 2, 2013. The 32-year-old Croatian goalkeeper of AIK Stockholm passed away unexpectedly in his sleep, leaving the whole country in a state of shock. The tragedy, apparently caused by heart problems, affected all the fans in Sweden, not just those of AIK.

Turina's cheerful and friendly attitude won him tremendous support wherever he went and he was one of the most popular figures in the league. Everyone responded to the desperate news accordingly. More than four months have passed since, but the Allsvenskan is still very much mourning the huge loss.

The immediate reaction to Turina's death was overwhelming, but the decision was taken to continue the league as scheduled. The very next day, when Malmo hosted Norrkoping, the game stopped for a minute of applause after 27 minutes. Twenty seven was the number on Turina's shirt, and it has become symbolic throughout AIK's current season. AIK themselves played for the first time without their beloved keeper on May 6 against bitter rivals IFK Gothenburg and it developed into one of the most unusual and dramatic games in Swedish football.

The atmosphere at the aptly named Friends Arena was mesmerizing. The fans raised a huge portrait of the late star behind the goal of the northern stands. It read: "Forever our hero". The words 'rest in peace' were written in both Swedish and Croatian too. The AIK players took the field in yellow jerseys with number 27 on their back and only removed them before the kickoff. This was clearly the most emotional game of their careers.

AIK's season had started disappointingly, taking just one win in six games before May. Opponents Gothenburg led the table, still unbeaten. They would have been considered favourites in regular circumstances, but not this time. After a moving ceremony full of tears, with thousands of flowers thrown behind the goal, AIK unleashed constant attacks and were rewarded with a penalty on 16 minutes, after Henok Goitom was fouled in the area. The striker himself went to the spot, but his shot was brilliantly saved by John Alvbage.

That was only the start of the drama. From the resulting corner, a Gothenburg defender inexplicably handled the ball and AIK were presented with a second penalty. This time veteran centre-back Daniel Majstrovic took the responsibility, but his shot hit the post. To miss two penalty kicks in a minute is extremely rare. To do so on such an emotional day is infinitely more difficult to swallow.

To make things even worse for AIK, they conceded a penalty themselves just a few minutes later and Gothenburg duly converted their chance. 1-0 down and evidently suffering from poor luck, there was a significant danger of everything falling apart for AIK, but then came the 27th minute.

The game was stopped, the image of Turina looked down on the stadium from the big screen and all 24,211 fans in the stands started chanting his name repeatedly. Visiting supporters joined in and did their part just as vehemently as the hosts.

Given the huge rivalry between AIK and Gothenburg fans, which can easily be compared to that between Manchester United and Liverpool fans, that was extraordinary to say the least. This was a moment of tragic beauty, that could influence Swedish football for many years to come. You might recall Antonio Puerta's death in 2007, which helped soften the hatred between Sevilla and Real Betis fans.

When the referee resumed the match, there was absolutely no stopping AIK; their luck had also changed. Kennedy Igboananike, the Nigerian striker who somewhat controversially moved to AIK after being frozen out at city rivals Djurgarden, scored a brilliant equaliser after 31 minutes, and went on to celebrate with his trademark somersault. Costa Rican star Celso Borges put the hosts in front from an absolutely impossible angle at the start of the second half and Martin Kayungo-Mutumba ensured the points 10 minutes from time. Nobody could take that evening from them.

Nor could it be taken on the next day. In a stunning coincidence, AIK's womens team recorded a 1-0 win over Kalmar -- scoring from a penalty kick taken 27 minutes and 27 seconds from the start. The girl in goal, Jenny de Age, usually plays with number 20 on her back, but that day she sported the Turina shirt number 27 and kept a clean sheet for the first time in 2013.

On May 13 another tribute to Turina was staged in a charity game between AIK and the team of his youth, Dinamo Zagreb. Even the 48-year-old assistant coach Nebojsa Novakovic, a former striker who once scored a memorable goal against Barcelona, took to the field. Quite naturally, there were two halves of 27 minutes, with all the income donated to the Croat's family. His widow Senka was left pregnant and gave birth to Ivan's third child last month. The pair also have baby twins.

Also spare a thought for Kenny Stamatopoulos, the 33-year-old Canadian keeper, who was a reserve at almost every club throughout his career, but suddenly had to take the centre stage in the most tragic of circumstances. Not everyone is capable of that; the name of Florian Fromlowitz springs to mind.

A very talented young prodigy, Fromlowitz was forced to take his place between the posts at Hannover following Robert Enke's suicide. The mental pressure was too much and his promising career never developed as expected. Fromlowitz is now a reserve at second division Dynamo Dresden. Stamatopoulos, though, was up to the task and has only conceded 15 goals in the 17 games since the disaster. His part in AIK's success is immense

Ever since the tragedy, Turina has been an ever-present inspiration behind AIK's surge. In the beginning of May, they were in 11th place. From then on, no team in the Allsvenskan secured more points than them, and now, despite a very significant loss at Malmo last month, they should be considered serious contenders for the title triumph. They might only be fourth in the table, but are just three points from the top. The race is wide open with seven weeks remaining.

A crucial return fixture at Gothenburg, who are two points ahead of them, looms on Monday. It surely can't be more emotional than the previous one, but the memories will be there. Turina's name will again be chanted, and the 27th minute will be heartbreaking and heartening at the same time, as it is at every AIK game.

AIK's goal is clear: win the title for Turina. Ideally, they would love to take the lead on week 27, three games before the end, and remain there. "We want to be champions for Ivan and his family", Goitom says. That is a tough task, but AIK love coming from behind to win.

That's what they did four years ago, in a typically nail-biting ending to the Allsvenskan season, and at Gothenburg too. The blue-and-whites played better football that season, and were favourites despite trailing AIK by a single point before their head-to-head clash on the last day. The hosts duly took the lead, but the guests struck twice after the break to steal it.

AIK, then coached by the current Gothenburg boss Mikael Stahre, scored just 36 goals in 2009, as opposed to the 53 of Gothenburg, but they were crowned champions. That's nothing compared to the outrageous statistics of 1998, when AIK won the Allsvenskan despite having the WORST attack in the whole league. Incredibly, with 25 goals in 26 games, they were the only team in Sweden to average less than a goal per game, yet still took the title.

Given such a history, one can probably say that the current AIK outfit score too many goals to finish first. They were not positive champions in the past, this time, though, their success will be much better received by the nation. AIK are by no means the most popular club in Sweden, and opposing fans tend to despise them wholeheartedly. Until May 2, that is. In his death, Turina managed to unite football supporters all over the country. That is part of his legacy.

"I will miss his unique way of giving us bear hugs," AIK coach Andreas Alm said in the beginning of May. But now, Turina hugs all of Sweden.


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