What makes Arsenal's opponents Östersund special?
Since eliminating Galatasaray in the second qualifying round, Östersund have caused shock after shock in the UEFA Europa League, with their Anglophile squad now rewarded with a round of 32 meeting with Arsenal. UEFA.com checks out the Swedish phenomenon.
UEFA club competition honours
• Swedish Cup 1 (2017)
• Remarkably, Östersund are still just 20 years old. They only reached the Swedish top flight in 2015, having been formed through a collaboration of local sides (Ope, IFK Östersund, Östersund/Torvalla and Frösö) eager to create a marquee club in the chilly ‘Vinterstaden’ (winter city). Ostersund itself is better known for skiiers than footballers, although that may be changing. “Now young boys and girls are joining soccer schools and you see kids running around in our tops,” said proud ÖFK coach Graham Potter.
• They have good friends abroad. One-time director of football – and now chairman – Daniel Kindberg built strong ties with Swansea City thanks to his friendship with then-manager Roberto Martínez; moreover, before the civil war in Libya, Östersund were working on close footballing ties with the north African country, though €50m of funding never materialised. “What you’ve never had, you never miss,” said Potter.
• Englishman Potter has worked magic at ÖFK. A journeyman player who spent most of his career in England’s lower leagues, Potter came to Östersund in December 2010 and successfully steered them from fourth tier to top flight, their crowds rising from a few hundred to several thousand at the 8,500-capacity Jämtkraft Arena. However, he was not encouraged by the attitude to his team in the town, recalling: “My wife went to the local nursery and she was asked: ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘My husband’s got a job.’ ‘Great, what is it?’ ‘Football coach.’ ‘Who for?’ ‘Östersund.’ ‘I’d go home if I were you.'”
• Potter and Kindberg have unconventional coaching ideas – including broadening players’ minds by having them work together on cultural projects such as writing books, staging an art exhibition, acting and even putting on a production of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake. “We’ve done a theatre play, we’ve done painting, we’ve done dancing, we’ve done singing – I’ve been part of every one and it doesn’t get any easier!” said English midfielder Jamie Hopcutt, who joined the club in 2012. “It definitely takes you out of your comfort zone but it has helped us come together as a team.”
• Östersund scaled new heights in 2017 when they won their first Swedish Cup, beating Nörrkoping 4-1 in the final. Eighth in the league in 2016, the Allsvenskan’s most northerly side kept up the good work this year despite the distraction of European football, finishing fifth in the national standings.
• They produced the first big upset of the 2017/18 European campaign. Having overcome Galatasaray 2-0 in Sweden – Hopcutt’s stoppage-time second goal instilling huge belief – ÖFK completed the job with a 1-1 second-leg draw in Istanbul. Skipper Brwa Nouri’s 60th-minute penalty rendered academic an Ahmet Çalık reply. Kindberg said: “The Turkish supporters – who had been very hostile at the beginning – applauded us off the pitch.”
• The Swedes created even more ripples by making it through the UEFA Europa League group stage, ending up level with Athletic Bilbao on 11 points in Group J. Success alerted the British press to his whereabouts, but Potter is in no hurry to return to England yet, saying: “I’ve worked really hard to get to this point. My family have made sacrifices, moving away from home. I still think there’s a lot to do in Ostersund. We’d like to win the league and try to compete in the Champions League.”
• Östersund have benefited from diversity; their squad includes internationals from Iraq, Syria and the Comoros, with Nigerian forward Salisu Abdullhi Gero telling UEFA.com: “I think the culture here makes us even stronger as a family. We have some absolutely great guys in the team, and we are just one family because we always share jokes and do everything together, on and off the pitch. It makes us believe and do the same thing.”
• They apparently have more than one Arsenal fan in their ranks, though only defender Ronald Mukiibi has shown his colours so far. Ahead of the round of 32 draw, he said the Gunners had “been my team since I was little”, adding that he was eager to meet Arsène Wenger to “ask him about his starting XIs”. The 26-year-old was overwhelmed after the draw: “It’s insane. To face the team I’ve supported all my life. Who would have thought?” He added: “I hoped to play for Arsenal at Emirates, but now I get to play against Arsenal at the same ground. Life takes mysterious turns.”