Tonight busloads of Hammarby supporters are heading south from Stockholm to Malmö, to meet the current Swedish champions and recent Champions League competitors. Peterjon Cresswell speaks to travelling Bajen Fans, whose newly promoted populist club is looking to recapture the glory days of the 2001 title win.
Hammarby are a case apart. No other club in Sweden has such a deeply ingrained fan culture as ‘Bajen’.
‘It’s in our heritage,’ says Bajen Fan member Sandra Gaye. ‘And this year we will strengthen our position as the number one fans in Scandinavia.’
After five long years in the lower flight Superettan, the Green-and-Whites gained automatic promotion back to the Allsvenskan on the last day of last season, in November 2014. Five months later, and the Tele2 Arena has been transformed into a fiery sea of green, behind a banner reading, ‘Bajen Bäst I Stan!’ – ‘Bajen Best In Town!’.
At the other end of the stadium for this first top-flight derby since 2009, were Djurgaarden, the seven-time Swedish champions who have ground-shared this new-build, 30,000-capacity venue with Hammarby since 2013.
‘Games against AIK don’t feel like a city rivalry as such,’ explains Sandra. ‘They’re based in Solna. That’s a different town. And matches with Djurgaarden are much bigger now that we share the same stadium.’
Trailing at half-time, Bajen roared back to grab two goals in five minutes and set the place alight on the hour. That was last Monday. This Monday, it’s champions Malmö…
Could this be 2001 all over again? ‘The party went on for weeks afterwards,’ laughs fellow fan Ludvig Davidsson, looking back on the most historic moment in Hammarby’s 100-year history. Tipped for relegation at the start of the season and led by a manager, Sören Cratz, who was threatened with the sack halfway through it, Hammarby confounded the experts and the board of directors by taking their first, and so far, only title – a deliciously satisfying one point ahead of Djurgaarden.
Tens of thousands gathered in and around Medborgplatsen, main square of Södermalm, the southern district of Stockholm where Hammarby have their working-class roots. It’s here that you’ll find Nackas Hörna, ‘Nacka’s Corner’, a reference to both this small patch of ground on Katarina Bangata, and the most memorable feat in the career of the local hero whose statue stands on it. Lennart ‘Nacka’ Skoglund, a wizard of the dribble, nutmeg and back-heel, and die-hard Hammarby man, famously scored from a corner in the first match of his return to his beloved club after a long spell in Serie A.
Discovered at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, an ever-present for Sweden’s run to the final at home in 1958, Nacka later blew all his lire in the bars of his native Södermalm, and ended up a penniless drunk. Katarina Bangata was the street he grew up on – Greta Garbo has her own statue at nearby Blekingegatan.
‘It’s really the older generation of fans who link back to working-class Södermalm,’ says Ludvig. ‘Many of the factories closed and new IT industries set up. And Bajen fans come from all over.’
And come in numbers. For 2014, the average gate for top-flight Djurgaarden was 13,000. Lower-flight Hammarby attracted an across-the-board 20,000-plus.
Today’s Södermalm attracts a more bohemian kind of resident – and its properties are sought after. Another wrench with the past came when Hammarby moved out of the Söderstadion halfway through the 2013 season. Fans still meet at the Kvarnen beerhall, whose century-old history, from working-class tavern to a place where alternative bands could jam, also reflects the changing dynamic of Södermalm itself.
‘I grew up with the fan culture of the 1970s,’ remembers Ludvig. ‘That’s when all the songs came in.’
The era of Ronnie Hellström and the first forays into Europe gave way to second-flight football by the late 1980s. ‘Even then there was a solid core of fans who turned out, week after week,’ says Ludvig. ‘We felt like we were always underdogs. In a way, there’s a certain kind of spirit when you’re fighting relegation.’
Much like before 2001, little is expected from 2015. ‘Realistically, many Hammarby fans are looking to gain a stable position in the Allsvenskan and go on from there,’ says Sandra. ‘Maybe aim for the higher positions next year…’
‘The key to last year was the change of management and coach,’ says Ludvig. It was one-time Swedish Manager of the Year Nanne Bergstrand who led Hammarby – along with totemic captain Kennedy Bakarcioglü, who scored the last goal at the Söderstadion.
‘We’ll all be going to Malmö tonight,’ says Ludvig. ‘And I’m sure we’ll all be feeling like we’re the underdogs.’