Â The Swedish football teams Assyriska and Syrianska, first formed in the early 1970s by Christian exiles from the Middle East, have grown a fervent cult following in their hometown and around the world.
A small town just outside Stockholm is home to one of Europe’s most extraordinaryÂ footballing rivalries: two teams formed by immigrants that are now on the cusp of Sweden’s top flight.
Soedertaelje, with a population of 83,000, is better known for producing Swedish tennis legend Bjorn Borg and a highly successful ice hockey team than for any football stars.
But now two local football teams are starting to challenge each other for sporting domination. This is nothing out of the ordinary perhaps, except for the fact that the same group of refugees formed both teams just over 30 years ago.
A slow ascent
Assyriska and Syrianska were set up as social clubs in the early 1970s by Christian exiles from the Middle East, known as Assyrians or Syriacs.
Soedertaelje has continued to attract refugees from the region over the years, and most recently drew thousands of Iraqis fleeing the American-led invasion of Iraq.
The clubs started as weekend pick up games between groups of factory employees, and turned professional later that decade.
But it wasn’t until the early 1990s, when they dropped their policy of picking only Assyrian/Syriac players, that their ascent through the Swedish league really began.
Assyriska and Syrianska now play in the Superettan, Sweden’s second tier, and are both chasing promotion.
Tensions run high between the two teams and in the lead-up to the most recent derby game, Internet fan forums were shut down to prevent a handful of hardcore supporters from stirring up trouble.
Syrianska took the upper hand against their archrivals in May with a 1-0 win. Assyriska’s supporters will have to wait until September 27 to get their chance for revenge.
“It’s really hard to lose this derby,” said Robil Heidari, Assyriska’s director of marketing.
While Heidari recognises the meaning of the match to the people of Soedertaelje, he is also keen to talk up the club’s vision for the future: The goal is to bring Assyriska back to the Allsvenska (the leagueâ€™s top flight) by 2010, five years after their first and unsuccessful foray into the top flight that saw them relegated downwards after just one season.
For Syrianska president Andreas Temik, the game against their cross-town rivals is always a red-letter day in the club’s calendar.
“It’s very important that we win,” Temik said. “I would be lying if I said we prepared for these games like we prepare for all the other games.â€
“It’s like Russia and the USA and their space race, we drive each other to compete,” said Syrianska fan Danny Boursom.
The rivalry has its roots within a fractious dispute that runs through this community about what to call themselves.
One group say they should be known as Assyrians, a reference to the ancient Assyrian empire that once spanned parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria over 2,500 years ago. Those that call themselves Assyrian usually support Assyriska.
Another part of the community describes itself as Syriac, a means of emphasising their ties to the Syrian Orthodox church, and they usually follow Syrianska.
Invaded by both the Persians and Arabs, this group of people have been without a homeland for over 2,000 years. That is why both clubs have become important focal points for the Assyrian/Syriac community here in Sweden and abroad.
“It is like our national team,” explains 20-year-old Syrianska midfielder Rabi Elia.
Both Assyriska and Syrianska estimate they draw average crowds of between 3,000 and 4,000 people, but they also count on hundreds of thousands of fans across the globe.
For both teams, building up their fan base outside of Sweden is essential to draw in extra revenue — the Swedish Football Association has very strict rules on club finances that state every league member must make sure their books are balanced at the end of the season.
Clubs that continually fail to get their finances in order can face relegation to a lower league.
That is why neither Assyriska nor Syrianska, like many other Swedish sides, can spend their way to success in the same way as their English or Spanish counterparts do.
Yet despite the Swedish league’s water-tight rules on finance, neither club would be prepared to sell up to a rich Russian oligarch or a wealthy Arab sheikh if it meant they had enough money to achieve their dreams.
Nail Yoken, the president of Assyriska FF, said that even an offer of “trillions of billions of euros” would be rejected.
Syrianska’s president Andreas Temik is equally dismissive of using foreign money.
“Never,” Temik rasped in a cloud of cigarette smoke. “We would never sell the club. It belongs to the people.”