Fear grips Swedish soccer as virus delays start of season

Saturday was supposed to mark the beginning of a new Swedish soccer season, fuelled by the prospect of big broadcasting revenues from a new domestic TV deal and expectations of another tight title race to match last year’s dramatic finale.

Then, in two months’ time, Sweden’s national team was supposed to be playing in the European Championship, with confidence high two years after a run to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time since 1994.

Instead, the rapidly spreading coronavirus has forced a two-month delay to the Allsvenskan campaign – the “early June” start date will now be viewed as optimistic by many – the cancellation of the Euros, and led to some Swedish clubs fearing they might soon go out of business.

A bleak picture is being painted by members of Sweden’s top league, the starkest coming this week from Helsingborg.

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“The truth is,” the southern club’s president, Krister Azelius, said, “that the effects of the coronavirus have hit us so hard that we have to question our future existence.”

While a big debate has recently broken out in England about the extent to which players should be giving up some of their wages during the pandemic, many of their Swedish counterparts on much lower salaries have already been put on leave and/or received pay cuts.

A suspension of the league beyond June doesn’t really bear thinking about.

“It’s a worry – this is not just a ‘press pause’ situation,” Kevin Walker, a midfielder for defending champion Djurgarden, told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

“The clubs were looking at pretty good times ahead, where we are getting in more money and we could attract better players. Swedish football was on the rise … hopefully as soon as this storm passes, we can get going again.”

Walker said Djurgarden was actually in good shape to withstand the initial brunt of this crisis, because of last year’s title triumph and having sold captain Marcus Danielson to Chinese club Dalian for a reported fee of more than 50 million kronor ($4.8 million) in February.

Indeed, the biggest blow to the Stockholm-based club might come in a sporting sense. Djurgarden, domestic champion for the first time since 2005 after beating Malmo and Hammarby to the title in a thrilling final round in November, was supposed to be competing in the Champions League qualifying rounds this summer for the chance to reach the glamorous and lucrative group stage, thereby earning a minimum 165 million kronor ($16.2 million) plus a share of TV money. Now there’s uncertainty when those matches will take place.

For Djurgarden’s rivals, the pain is very much financial.

Elfsborg’s players and coaches have had to take pay cuts. AIK, IFK Gothenburg, Ostersund, Orebro, Hacken, Kalmar and IFK Norrkoping have implemented short-term leave while Malmo has laid off staff.

All this at a time when Swedish clubs should really be feeling the rewards of the first year of a six-year TV deal with Discovery-owned Eurosport, reportedly worth 540 million kronor ($52 million) per year – supposedly doubling the amount clubs were bringing in from the last broadcast deal.

Now, the clubs are getting advance payment of this sponsorship money just to survive during what Swedish Elite Football – the body that oversees the top divisions – has described as an “extraordinary and difficult situation.”

Azelius has calculated that even if the season begins in June, Helsingborg will still have lost 17 million kronor ($1.6 million) of equity and therefore have gone back into the red. Having that debt, in turn, leaves the club in danger of losing its elite license to play in Allsvenskan.

“Many clubs are on their knees,” said Sweden captain Andreas Granqvist, a defender for Helsingborg, “waiting for news from various quarters about what help they can get.”

Sweden might be in a better position to restart than other countries in Europe, even if that means playing in empty stadiums to begin with. The government’s restrictions during the pandemic currently aren’t as tight as elsewhere on the continent and beyond, so much so that clubs can now hold training matches – provided the number of people attending does not exceed 50.

Walker said he and his teammates have been back in training since Monday, making sure they are “well-prepared for when the season does kick back in.”

A June start will necessitate the season running into December for the first time, by which time many parts of Sweden – like Ostersund, the northernmost team in Allsvenskan – are usually under snow. The fact that many teams have synthetic pitches because of the country’s climate could be a savior in that regard, while Djurgarden’s Tele2 Arena has a sliding roof and can therefore stage games “indoors.”

Until then, players, clubs and fans can only wait, keeping their fingers crossed that play does resume on schedule.

“When this clears up,” said Walker, trying to stay positive, “there will be a massive demand to go to see sports live, to go out and get back our normal routines.

“You just see the emptiness without sports. It’s unbelievable.”

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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