Assyriska FF from the 1970’s (picture found at Assyriska FF’s homepage).
Assyriska FF from the 1970’s (picture found at Assyriska FF’s homepage).

A New Assyrian Empire, far away from home

Maintaining identity through football far from home

Geir Ove Halvorsen
Geir Ove Halvorsen Valle Hovin VGS, Oslo. FMH developer

On the 14th of February 1974, a new football club was established in the city of Södertälje, Sweden. The event went quite unnoticed at the time and the club spent its childhood years in the lower leagues. But with a name that can bring connotations to one of the first empires in World history and later success on the football pitch, the club became known to an audience stretching far and wide from Södertälje.

The club was named Assyriska FF, not your typical Swedish football club name in the seventies. But then again Assyriska FF was not, and never has been, a typical Swedish club and the club’s founding fathers were not your typical Swedes. The name was no coincidence. The club was not only named after the historical Assyrian empire but also after the nationality of the men who founded the club. But how could a group of Assyrians end up in a Swedish industrial city in the 1970s?

Northbound

On the 9th of March 1967 a plane carrying 108 people took off from the airport in Beirut, Lebanon. The destination was Sweden. Onboard were paperless Assyrian refugees. Being the descendants of the ancient Assyrian empire those 108 Assyrians on the plane to Sweden had a long and complicated history. A history that was even more complicated by the fact that the Assyrians were a Christian minority in an area that was predominantly Muslim. Originally from the area known as Mesopotamia, the area of Tur Abdin in today’s eastern parts of Turkey became the ethnic group’s heartland. However, in the late days of the Ottoman Empire and after the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the Assyrians faced repression. During World War I there was a genocide during which 300.000 Assyrians were killed, in what the Assyrians have called Sayfo, meaning “the year of the sword” in English. This led to a mass exodus of Assyrians to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, where they also faced repression and prosecution, but to a lesser degree than what they had faced in Turkey. 

After arriving in Sweden, the 108 Assyrians who had boarded the plane in Beirut, were spread across the country in what was the first organized non-European immigration to Sweden. Three families were placed in the city of Södertälje, near Stockholm. Soon more were to follow due to the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. If war, poor social conditions, and prosecution were the push factors behind the Assyrian emigration, the chance of getting a job in Södertälje was one of the pull factors. The need for workers was great in the industrial town of Södertälje, with the Scania truck plant being the largest employer. In fact, immigration was not a new phenomenon to the people in Södertälje. Ever since the 1950s, Finnish immigrant workers have been coming to find jobs in the city. Today there are 30 000 Assyrians living in Södertälje and 150 000 in Sweden. 

Back to football

From its humble beginnings in 1974, when Assyriska FF lost all twenty-two games and ended up with a goal difference of 11-110 in their inaugural season, the club began on a journey through the Swedish league system which lasted for years. In 1992 the club reached the Swedish second division. 11 years later the club reached the Swedish Cup final after beating, among others, IFK Gothenburg on their way to the final. Although the club lost the final to IF Elfsborg, Assyriska FF wrote history. It was the first club established by immigrants to reach to Swedish Cup final. Two years later, in 2005, the club wrote a new chapter in their history books as they reached the Allsvenskan, the Swedish top division. The stay in the top division lasted for only one season and was followed by more relegation battles. Today the team resides in the Swedish fourth division.  

A national team for a people without a country

Even though the club enjoyed success on the pitch during the first decade of the millennium, it is fair to say that the biggest impact of Assyriska FF is to set an example for other clubs with immigrant backgrounds in Sweden. Later Assyriska’s rival from Södertälje, Syrianska FC, and Dalkurd, a Kurdish team from the city of Borlänge, reached the Allsvenskan. Football has been one of the most important and successful arenas for integration in Sweden. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kosovare Anssllani are two of the most prominent examples of this. They are also good examples of how footballers with an immigration background can serve as role models. When it comes to integration, Assyrians are among the most well-integrated immigrant groups in Sweden, where people with Assyrian backgrounds have shown prominence in trade, academics, politics, and football. In a speech which was held on the Swedish national day in Södertälje in 2005, Sweden’s prime minister, Göran Persson, summed up the transformation of the Swedish society from the birth of Assyriska to the time the club reached Allsvenskan: 

Sweden has gone through massive changes. Sometimes Sweden feels harder, sometimes colder. But Sweden also feels full of opportunities and a lot more exotic now compared to the Sweden I grew up in. Our country is enrichened by a diversity of cultures, and that makes Sweden more successful.

In the same speech, Persson saluted Assyriska’s progress and wished them good luck in Allsvenskan. 

The wider picture

But not everybody saluted Assyriska’s progress. Especially in Turkey, there were voices who claimed that Assyriska mixed sports and politics, after Assyriska marked the 90th anniversary of the Assyrian genocide, Sayfo, before a match. Assyriska has played a major role in making the Swedish government recognize the genocide. In 2015 players from Assyriska and their rival Syrianska FC showed a banner saying: “When will the government recognize the genocide Sayfo 1915?” Syrianska FC was established by Syriac refugees, who have a similar history as the Assyrians and were also victims of the horrors in 1915. The Swedish Parliament decided to recognize the genocide of Assyrians and Syriacs in 2010, but the Swedish government has not followed up on the recognition. And with the country’s NATO membership depending on Turkey’s approval, the hope for a recognition of the genocide looks gloomy at the moment.

To the Assyrian diaspora, the club serves as a national team for a stateless nation. There are similarities with a club like Athletic Bilbao, which also serves as a symbol for a nation without its own state, or the Sámi national team. But there are also some differences. Unlike Athletic Bilbao, Assyriska is open to non-Assyrian players. And unlike the Sámi national team, Assyriska has had an opportunity on the football pitch to highlight their political cause. The club’s opening match in Allsvenskan was televised to Assyrians in over 80 countries, and Assyrians from all over the world have visited the team’s home games. Assyrians from every corner of the world have travelled to Södertälje to watch the team play. One could say that Södertälje and Assyriska’s home ground, Södertälje Fotbollsarena, has become a new home for a people who have not had a place to call home for centuries. 

Thinking Points

Educators working with young people on history and/or civic education could look at this story and work on questions of identity and the role or the past as a symbol in the present.

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Assyriska FF from the 1970’s (picture found at Assyriska FF’s homepage).
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