Sweden flagIt’s around noon in the centre of Södertälje. The small town, half an hour by car from Stockholm, is on its lunch break. This means business time at the Kebab Palace, where Mr. Durmaz is working behind the counter and hands over sandwiches filled with Kebab meat and Falafel to the customers.

I ask him whether he is interested in football. “Well, sure I am.” And which team does he support? “My son David is playing as a defender at Syrianska, so I’d say I’m with them…”

Conversations like this give you a first hint as to why Syrianska FC, one of the two professional clubs of Södertälje, often is called ‘Kebab FC’ or even ‘Svartskallar FC’ (Blackheads’ FC). Asked if he minds people calling his club such names, David Challma, a fan who has a blog on Syrianska, shakes his head. “I don’t think that most people do it out of racism. It’s just a way of teasing us at the games.”

He can even find a grain of truth in the teasing. “I mean it’s true, we do serve Kebab at the stadium. We are proud of adding a certain spice to Swedish football.” David is a Swedish-born Aramaean, a people of Christian beliefs from the Middle East.

The first Aramaeans who came to Södertälje were immigrants from Lebanon in the late 1960s. Their official appellation from the state of Sweden then was “Assyrians”. While one part of the immigrants didn’t mind and kept the name, others protested and demanded to be called “Syrians”.

Although not all of those who call themselves Syrian have their roots in the state of Syria, the name stuck. In today’s Sweden both ‘brandings’ are part of the official parlance. Over the last 30 years, Södertälje has become a centre of Aramaean culture. Today more than 20,000 of the 80,000 inhabitants of Södertälje are of Syrian/Assyrian decent. The assumption for Sweden as a whole is that well over 120,000 Middle Eastern Christians are living there.

Syrians and Assyrians alike are a people without their own nation. They are living in a diaspora. And they are scattered all over the world. They left their home region mostly because of the well-known instabilities, but repression or even persecution in their countries of origin (Turkey, Lebanon, Syria or Iraq) also played a part. Syrians and Assyrians share a common history and culture, even speaking the same native language, and there is no noticeable religious divide between the groups.

The reasons for the different ‘branding’ as Aramaeans (Syiraner in Swedish) and Assyrians are as complex as they are numerous. The question has been discussed with much controversy over many years. But young people especially don’t seem to care too much anymore, and shrug their shoulders when asked. Although there has been in the past, nowadays there is no noticeable hostility between the camps.

Still the cleavage is deep enough to provide suitable background for a football rivalry. Just as it has led to the founding of different cultural clubs, interest groups, TV-stations, it also produces different football teams. Naturally, in Södertälje there are two of them: Syrianska FC and Assyriska FF.

Both were founded during the 1970s and started off in the lowest division as all-Syrian/Assyrian teams. Since then both have advanced through the Swedish league system and abandoned their rule of shutting out Swedes. Currently the teams are captained by Johann Arneng (Syrianska) and Göran Marklund (Assyriska), two textbook-blond Swedish guys.

While a huge contingent of players still have an Aramaean background, they are now playing alongside Brazilians, Nigerians, Serbs, and other ethnicities in their respective squads. The globalization of professional football has left its mark on Södertälje.

“Traditionally the Assyrians were much better organized than we were”, admits David, “but recently we caught up a lot. And in football, well, we even surpassed them.”

Since the opening of the Swedish football season in April, Syrianska are competing in the top flight, Allsvenskan.

Assyriska (for a long time the more successful and popular club) are playing in the second division. “But I have my fingers crossed for them. I hope that they will join us next year in Allsvenskan.” Something Isak Betsimon is also hoping for.

“In the past the atmosphere between us and Syrianska was a bit more hostile”, admits Isak, “but nowadays we share a stadium and recognize our common interests. There’s still a rivalry, but it’s limited to what happens on the pitch.”

Like David, Isak writes about his club. He is the writer of English match reports on Assyriska’s webpage. And he does it for free.

Like most of the people working with both clubs, Isak works voluntarily at Assyriska. Outside the actual team and coaching staff hardly anyone involved with the clubs of Södertälje receives any money. Even in Sweden, where football isn’t the huge money machine it is in many other European countries, this is the exception rather than the rule.

“We are like a big family”, explains Isak, “if you can contribute something, you just do it.”

English match reports on the teams are of real importance, given that both clubs’ fan bases are strewn over many countries on all continents. Most of these fans never have been to Sweden and even fewer of them speak Swedish. Although there are Aramaean football clubs in other countries, the teams of Södertälje have been the most successful by far. Over time they have gained great popularity in the worldwide Aramaean community, so much so that both are often referred to as the “national teams” of a people without a nation.

The first weeks of the season have seen contrasting fortunes for Syrianska and Assyriska. In their first attempt at competing in Allsvenskan, Syrianska struggled to gain points. But on matchday nine the club celebrated its first win in the top flight with a convincing 3-0 over IFK Norrköping.

The club has now escaped the relegation zone and hopes are high that the team will be able to stabilize further.

Assyriska, on the other hand, began the campaign looking unbeatable. Although they have lost their unbeaten record, the club is still among the favourites for promotion. At this point the chance of a Syrian-Assyrian local derby in Sweden’s top-flight next year doesn’t seem too remote.

By Christian Vey

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona