Monday, June 29, 2009
Changing the stereotype of Nordic football
One of the most striking things about the Under-21 European Championships has been the number of players with roots in different countries.
From Fabrice Muamba, who fled the war in the Congo to become England's anchorman, through Askhan Dejagah, whose Iranian heritage caused difficulties in his international career with the German U21s when he dropped out of a game against Israel for fear of the implications for his family and right to visit Iran, to Emir Bajrami, who dealt admirably with Serbian taunts over his Kosovan background to help Sweden to an impressive 3-1 victory in their final group game: Refugees and immigrants have begun to look like a crucial part of successful European national sides.
The most striking change has been in the composition of the Nordic national teams, and the shift in power balance between them. Nordic countries are often said to be affected by Jante's Law, best summed up by the advice that people get along best if they follow this basic rule: don't think you're anyone special or that you're better than us.
To be compatible with Jante's Law, footballers should be modest, self-effacing, and uncomplaining, characteristics that are sometimes in shorter supply among immigrant footballers than among their compatriots. Jante's Law is frequently characterised as an envious thing, an objection to success, but it can have upsides too.
These upsides are clearly evident in football. A strong belief in the collective, the strength of the team and the group has seen Norway, Sweden and Denmark achieve relative success at international tournaments in the past three decades.
The stereotypical Nordic footballer is strong, reliable, passes simply and rarely makes a mistake, and the teams that have been successful - most notably Egil Olsen's Norway, Tommy Svensson's Sweden, and Richard Moller Nielsen's Denmark - have had a lot of stereotypically Nordic footballers.
The challenge of integrating first, second and third generation immigrants into the footballing infrastructure of these countries has been handled with the most aplomb in Sweden, where Zlatan Ibrahimovic has become the country's first real football superstar. It's difficult to over-emphasise the Zlatan effect, given the ubiquity of his celebrity in Sweden, and his success has had a lot to do with Sweden's reconciliation of Jante's Law with a large, self-confident contingent of footballers of immigrant stock.
If Ibrahimovic does recognise the existence of Jante's Law, he has surely resolved to violate it in every way he possibly can. He is arrogant and brilliant in equal measure, and although his consistency is still a question mark for some, he is well aware that Sweden has never had a player, or a star, quite like him before.
Back in Sweden for his summer holiday this month, he dropped by his summer camp for young footballers, and told the Swedish newspaper Expressen just what it is he can teach kids about football.
''They can learn a little bit extra that they maybe don't learn at their clubs,'' the Malmö-born forward explained. ''My own style of play, and what I stand for.''
''What Zlatan stands for'' is a many sided coin. As mentioned, he is Sweden's first footballing superstar, and as such he is often invoked as an example of the success of immigration and the richness it has brought to Swedish society.
He has added a self confidence that is not found in many Swedes, and that is common to many of the immigrant players. ''He can do things we have never seen Swedish players do before,'' as Sweden coach Lars Lagerbäck said in 2005, but more than that - he has the confidence to try them.
When the Finnish TV commentator described Finland's Kosovo-born midfielder Perparim Hetemaj as having ''more confidence than half of the Finnish population'', he was only half joking, and the addition of a relatively assertive streak in the Finnish side has helped them to achieve more than any previous Finland under-21 team just by qualifying for the tournament.
The younger generation of Finnish players, immigrant and native, have not yet failed in so many weird and wonderful ways while wearing the Finland jersey that this kind of confidence has found a receptive audience.
This works both ways, too - immigrants can learn something from Jante's Law to help them reach their potential. A steadiness that is sometimes necessary in major tournaments. When the Swedes played Serbia in their final U21 group game, their own star Emir Bajrami was pitted against Milan Smiljani, the Serbian captain who was born in the Swedish town of Kalmar.
The Serbian team were aggressive towards Bajrami, and it was amazing to watch a player so calm in the face of hard tackling and repeated verbal provocation. Time after time he'd be scythed down, sworn at, and would simply turn around and walk back to the Swedish bench for a drink of water and a chat with his joint coach Jorgen Lennartsson while his team mates prepared for the restart.
Bajrami explained afterwards that he'd expected ''them to be on me from the start, because Kosovo and Serbia have fought many wars''. This is not a typically Swedish problem, the country not having fought a war in 200 years, but Söderberg and Lennartsson dealt with the challenge admirably.
The Swedish management had made a concerted effort to protect Bajrami from the targeting, and when there was a scuffle in the tunnel at half time, Sweden's other joint coach Tommy Söderberg rushed to protect Bajrami before UEFA officials broke up the melée. Söderberg is a tremendously jolly man, most of the time, so both Swedish tabloids devoted a double page spread to the fracas the following day.
The incident showed that footballers with an immigrant background are treated as integral to the Swedish side, and yet the management are aware of and help to deal with the extra issues that come with a player with a dual heritage. Jante's Law has something to teach the newer Swedes, and so Bajrami's phlegmatic and rational response was rewarded by strong support from his coaches.
Denmark's attempts to bring through players of immigrant stock have not gone quite as smoothly as Sweden's. There is yet to be a Danish football star with an immigrant background, possibly because of the country's restrictive immigration regime and hostile political atmosphere towards immigrants.
In Denmark - a country with ''one of the most exclusive and restrictive immigration regimes in Europe'', according to researcher Eva Ostergaard, and a large vote for populist far right parties in most elections - immigrant players such as Brondby's 19 year old Mustafa Hassan face a choice of representing their previous nation (Iraq, in Hassan's case), or playing for Denmark.
Hassan is an exciting prospect, a quicksilver striker tipped to become a big star in the next few years. Having arrived in Denmark aged 13 and gone through the Danish school system, he has had a shorter qualification period for citizenship than the nine years demanded of most immigrants, and got his passport in December 2008. He has described playing for the Danish national team as his ''biggest dream'', and an exemption to the five-year residency rule has been granted to allow that to happen. If he fails to receive a call-up, however, Iraq are waiting in the wings.
After the tremendous success of the Swedish team, and the plethora of refugees and immigrants on display during this summer's U21tournament in Sweden, maybe the Danes might look to make their immigrant players more welcome in their football teams. Jante's Law can only go so far in international football.