I recently became a subscriber to a rather good Swedish publication called Offside. It has in depth articles on Swedish and world football, and I don’t think it really has an equivalent in English. I didn’t actually mean to be a subscriber, I filled in the form one night when drunk, but never paid the subs. Then last month my first copy came through the letter box and, feeling the creeping Nordic honesty that is slowly infecting my perfidious, Albionic outlook, I went to the bank and paid for a year’s supply.

It takes me a while to read in Swedish, so it’s good that there are only 7 issues a year. I just finished reading one article about Astrit Ajdarevic and I thought I’d share it with you, as it’s a good story and is at least tangentially related to Finland. I’ll come to that part later.

Ajdarevic is a Swedish 17 year old who helped Liverpool to win the FA Youth Cup last season. He is by all accounts quite a player – the front page header is ‘the next Zlatan’ – and has made an impression at the Liverpool Academy. He lives in the nice suburbs north of the city but would like to live a bit closer to town, as he is now ‘completely out in the bush’ (ie Formby). I can only assume he hasn’t spent much time in Bootle, Kensington, Anfield or Kirby outside the Academy fence. If he had, he’d be very happy with the horses he can see from his bedroom window.

His father is a Kosovo Albanian footballer called Agim, who came to Sweden on holiday in 1992 and stayed because a war broke out in Yugoslavia while he was away. He was playing for Subotica, a town that now has a substantial population of Serbian refugees and has always had a haughty, Catholic, Hungarian-speaking minority. He didn’t much fancy going back as he’d already felt discrimination while on trial at Partizan and Red Star because of his ethnic origin. If the country was at war, he reasoned this was pretty darn likely to get worse, and he wouldn’t mind staying in Sweden.

In Sweden he had trials with various clubs, and Örgryte wanted to sign him. Unfortunately his old team wanted an astronomical transfer fee and the deal fell through. He did odd jobs and played sunday league while waiting for his chance. After a while Falkenberg FF had beaten down the asking price and offered him a contract.

The family all moved to Falkenberg and Agim began banging in goals in the Swedish lower divisions. Having a father who played football for a living was obviously great for Astrit, who began training when he was four (playing with the six year olds and wiping the floor with them) and began his meteoric rise.

This is where his story gets interesting. You see, in Sweden they don’t believe in promoting people too quickly. At Falkenberg Astrit was the youngster, and when he began training with the senior team he had to pick up bibs and cones, carry water for the older guys and generally act the dogsbody. He was fine with this, he had to prove himself before he could be a player. But Astrit felt that he wasn’t getting a chance. He would come on in Superettan (Swedish second tier) games and dominate, but would still be on the bench for the next one.

This was frustrating for him, and eventually he and his father decided that they would have to do something about it. Liverpool had been showing interest and so they went to Kirby and chatted with Steve Heighway, eventually signing up and becoming a Scouse celebrity.

This caused consternation back home. The FFF chairman thought he wasn’t ready, and wasn’t afraid to say so. Swedish players don’t do that – not many have succeeded after moving abroad at that stage. Interestingly, Astrit cites Johan Elmander as an example. He had gone to Feyenoord at 16 and then come back ‘with his tail between his legs’, but was stronger for the experience and is now seeing the rewards. Basically, Astrit doesn’t see it as a risk – it’s an opportunity. Failure won’t destroy him as Swedish coaches sometimes fear, he believes he is strong enough to take it and the chance of playing for Liverpool is too good to miss.

He doesn’t like the Swedish system, and he regards his age group’s national team as better than the two immediately above them. He’s pissed off that he won’t be promoted because of this, and makes the point that ‘Rooney would never have got a chance at 17 in Sweden’.

Now there are two aspects to this conflict. One is the Nordic, co-operative model of football which in Finland is known as ‘kaikki pelaa’, everyone plays. It holds that you have to give equal treatment to everyone and playing time should be evenly distributed, along with coaching time. Don’t concentrate on the stars, make everyone feel part of the group.

This is a valuable and useful philosophy, but there are a growing number of coaches who claim that it doesn’t produce enough elite players. They believe that players in this system don’t have the same desire and competitive edge that those in other, more elite-oriented countries possess.

The other aspect is that Astrit is an immigrant. On of the more heart wrenching parts of the article is where Agim explains what the mayor of Falkenberg said to congratulate Astrit on his success in the Youth Cup – she called him a ‘son of Falkenberg’. Agim wells up at that. He explains that he himself will always feel a Kosovo Albanian, but he is so proud that his children are accepted as Swedish and regards that as his biggest achievement.

That’s as maybe, but Astrit and Agim have a very unSwedish way of looking at things. When Astrit’s teacher’s express concern about him going to Liverpool at 16, Agim tells his son ‘don’t worry. You have football as your profession now, and you can leave home at 16 just like I did.’

Obviously, immigrants are more amenable to this kind of upheaval. They have already moved once (albeit when he was 2 years old in Astrit’s case) so pursuing opportunities comes more naturally to them. So how will Finnish football look if the country accepts more immigrants? I am, obviously, more amenable to immigration. I am an immigrant myself. It adds to the country and immigrants do the jobs other people don’t want to. And some of the good prospects in Finnish football are immigrants, probably a higher percentage than exists in the general population.

Astrid Thors was talking last week about increasing ‘work-based’ immigration, which I think is completely wrong headed. People (like the Ajderevices) move for many reasons, and you cannot perform an economic cost benefit analysis on every individual that arrives. For instance, I came here because of my girlfriend. I stayed because I got a job, but this job could just as easily have been done in the UK or the USA. The company that employs me needed a native English speaker, otherwise they couldn’t have done the work. If the work had gone abroad, Finns would have lost their jobs and the government would have lost tax revenue, but if you have foreigners here they add value in unexpected ways, and sometimes cost in unexpected ways. Finland is a little too hung up on this question, in my opinion. If they relax we might have more Hetemajes and Kuqis, which is the only really important thing to consider here.

12 Responses

  1. Interesting piece, this one. I’ve often wondered what’s the logic behind that ‘too young to go play abroad’ idea. New perspectives are good for you, what doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger and all that should be especially true in sports.

    Also, migrants in general indeed have more can-do attitude than the mainstream population. They have had to leave and leaving is never easy, but as well they often come from cultures that emphasise things like self-reliance and self-help to much a larger extent than ours does. I’ve said it before but I had to say it again, as it really is something that many Finns just fail to comprehend – a classic case of cultural complacency and ‘I think this way everyone thinks my way’ flow of thought.

    Incidentally and lastly, you probably guessed this but here goes…

    If equal treatment and giving no-no to talent picking don’t work in football, why would they work better in…mmmh…schooling? If elite teams are good, what suddenly makes elite classrooms bad?

  2. Well, the point about schooling is that kids spend years developing and have spurts at different times. So they could start secondary schooling at 11 without much interest in an academic subject, but then become curious and start to become a bit of a scientist, for instance.

    It’s difficult to have the immediacy and fluidity you have in sport. If you’re on the bench, you know you’re not good enough and have to do something about it – go to a different team, train harder or whatever. You can’t really do that with 11-16 year olds, and I’m not sure you should try really.

    So therefore, in the English system at least, comprehensive education is the best solution – it gives everyone a basic grounding, allows for late developers and lets people advance at 16 to the level they can reach or the trade they want to learn. Labelling people at 11 is not very progressive, and it has negative effects.

  3. But if PISA results tell anything, English schools suck big time, don’t they?

    Anyway, I was referring more to the debate on how much talent picking (e.g. special curricula, separate class rooms for fast learners) there should be within comprehensive education. It’s something that is discussed pretty often in Finland, and as a debate it curiusly reminds me of the one about ‘kaikki pelaa’.

    Kids do have spurts in different times, but it’s also true that there are many bright pupils who grow frustrated when they’re forced to study together with slower learners and do exercises they find far too easy. If their special needs aren’t recognised and paid attention to early enough, they may never live up their talent – failing to climb up the social ladder and sometimes dropping out altogether. That’s bad for those kids themselves, and bad for the rest of society.

    IMHO, both debates are dealing more or less with the same dilemma.

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  5. Well, the English system is not uniformly comprehensive. Some counties, like Kent, have selection at 11. Some counties have some selective schools and then some ‘comprehensive’ schools as well (which cater for those that failed the test). In the People’s Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire it’s all comprehensive, and I’d be genuinely interested in what our scores are like.

    If we’re talking about stretching kids within a comprehensive system I completely agree, that’s necessary and some subjects should be taught in that way. That’s more or less how my secondary (11-16) schooling went. You can still have everyone in the same school, doing some subjects together and generally mixing, though. It’s the idea that mixing people of different social classes is somehow ‘social engineering’ that is so poisonous in Britain. I’ve no problems with kids learning at different speeds, but I don’t see the football analogy – if you’re unable to trap a ball, the Liverpool Academy has no obbligation to have a ‘two left feet’ course to teach you. Schools do, in my opinion, and between 11-16 I see no reason why the same school can’t cater to almost all ability levels.

  6. And thank you Vera, that’s a very interesting contribution to the debate.

  7. In the People’s Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire it’s all comprehensive, and I’d be genuinely interested in what our scores are like.

    As bad as elsewhere in England, most probably. There are plenty of countries where primary schools are comprehensive but deliver bad results nevertheless, as well as there are countries where the system is pretty stratified but the results are satisfactory. So it’s much more complex than that.

    Comunque, I just wanted to point out the slight contradiction between your uncompromisingly egalitarian take on most issues and your ‘kaikki pelaa’ distaste. This was my turn!

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  8. “Comunque, I just wanted to point out the slight contradiction between your uncompromisingly egalitarian take on most issues and your ‘kaikki pelaa’ distaste. This was my turn!”

    Point taken.

  9. Ah, this is the magazine that we get big chunks of translated on OTF, right? It always sounds great. SO many languages to learn, so little time…

    fwiw I think that selection by subject at 11 is a disastrous idea, few people know what they will be good at so young. Even at 16 it’s a shame, that one has to give up things which only later might flourish as either ability or preference. But sports *are* a bit different (I speak as an irredeemably malcoordinated type).

  10. Yep, it’s the one ganja translates. I’m about to begin the controversial Kuper piece, as I’d like to try it in Swedish before actually understanding what a cunt he’s being. That’s usually the kind of nuance I miss when reading in Swedish.

  11. Perhaps it is my lack of context, but is it really ‘kaikki pelaa’ that the kid is complaining about?

    It sounds as if he was 16 or so when he left for Liverpool and had already spent a couple of years at professional clubs in Sweden, at which he was subjected to the kind of ritualistic dues paying (cleaning boots, picking up cones) and frustrating coaching decisions that tend to occur whatever educational philosophy is in place.

    It’s been 25 years since I was in Finland, but I would be surprised if elite Finnish clubs applied the ‘kaikki pelaa’ principle to kids of that age. Do they?

    If there is an educational analogy to his situation, it would seem to be more Spangles’ reference to the limiting nature of A-Level choices or even the fact that the best universities generally won’t accept 16 year olds.

    On a completely unrelated matter, how long have you been reading Swedish? Did you start before you got to Finland?

  12. I lived in Sweden for half a year 4 years ago, ursus. The language is much easier for English speakers to pick up than Finnish so I got the hang of it without much effort.

    I don’t think they force kaikki pelaa on 16 year olds, no. But they are slow to promote players, and when those players have the option of moving to big European clubs they don’t like hanging around too long to wait for their chance.

    Swedish clubs don’t much like this but they are adapting, slowly. Hammarby run an elite team for their 12 year olds, and I think other big city clubs start similarly early. In Finland it’s not quite like that. TamU don’t have a youth team of any description, for instance. The geographical principle is much stronger than in England- Finns would be horrified at the 90 minute rule, I imagine – and kids tend to play for their local club.

    One other thing that I could speculate on, although I’m not entirely sure about, is the extent of public funding for sport, the idea that sport is a social good and that clubs are the instruments through which policy is executed.

    Aapo is better equipped to comment on that, although I would point to Finland’s astonishingly high level of physical exercise as a concrete benefit of the proactive promotion of sport for all. Compared to Britain’s approach (ie leave it to the clubs, give money to olympians) Finland’s is better by miles.

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