The rise and fall of Umeå IK, Europe’s first giant of women’s football

The rise and fall of Umeå IK, Europe’s first giant of women’s football

IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM. But then an actual snowstorm covered the Swedish town of Umeå with a massive amount of snow during the night. It was the day before the last game of the season and the players of the two-time domestic cup champions, Umeå IK, had to start their training session by removing the snow from the pitch themselves using scrapers from their shower.

“Sometimes you cant prevail over the forces of nature,” the head groundsman for the stadium, told the local paper Västerbottens Kuriren/Folkbladet afterwards. There was a time when the northern climate used to be one of the factors behind Umeå IK‘s – commonly referred as UIK – remarkable success.

Umeå is located an eight hour drive north of the Swedish capital Stockholm. Since natural grass wasnt always an option, UIK was one of the first teams in Sweden to play on an alternative pitch. In the early days it used to be an unwelcome surprise for visiting teams. But nowadays it‘s so common in Sweden that the men’s champions Malmö FF even filed a motion to ban those kinds of pitches in Sweden.

On the rare occasion that artificial pitch at the Gammliavallen ground wasn’t in the right condition, the team used to play at Sandåkerns IP – a stadium infamous for its sandy grass where every tackle resulted in a scathing scar for those involved.

Umeå is otherwise a peculiar little town from a sporting perspective. It‘s the biggest town in Northland – one of three regions of Sweden. From that perspective, it’s easy to claim that the town should have at least one professional men’s team. However, in 1967 a team from nearby Holmsund played in Sweden’s highest division, the Allsvenskan.

IFK Holmsund, probably most famous for having Vinnie Jones in their team 19 years later, only stayed in the division for one season. In 1996 Umeå finally had their first team in the top-flight when Umeå FC reached the league. But despite a respectable showing, Umeå FC were relegated at the end of the season.

With that exception, men’s football in Umeå has largely underwhelmed. The biggest star from the region – Milan legend Gunnar Nordahl – never played for a team in Umeå. He stayed with his beloved Hörnefors IF, outside of Umeå, before finally heading south. Today the ice hockey team, IF Björklöven, Swedish champions in 1987, draws the bulk of the sporting attention in the town. But there was a time when the football scene used to look very different.

Umeå IK was so much more than just a team from a cold place up in the north. It was a team that ruled Europe. In 1985 the women’s team started in the Swedish fourth division and won it the next year. At the time, women‘s football was nowhere near as professional as today.

Before the 1991 season, club manager Roland Arnqvist wanted a change that and he immediately set about contracting the players to the club to usher in an era of professionalism. As a result, they would get 35 Swedish kronor (approximately three pounds) for each game. Under the innovative coach, Arnqvist UIK started training more frequently compared to other teams. He had a vision of making UIK the best team in Europe and began to understand what it would take to get there. UIK started doing things differently- and it led to incredible success.

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In 1995 they reached the top tier of women’s football in Sweden for the first time. Four years later the club finished second, before finally becoming Sweden’s best women’s team in 2000. Arnqvist had by then quit as coach to work as the sporting director instead. His vision and mentality were now reflected on the pitch under new coach Richard Holmlund.

Between 2000 and 2008 UIK won seven Swedish league titles. During the 2006 season, they won Allsvenskan with a 21 point margin and didn’t losing a single game. Remarkably, the team relied almost exclusively on local talent, from Frida Östberg in defence to the midfield dynamo Malin Moström and the goalscoring machine Hanna Ljungberg up front. All of them were born in Northland. When Sweden lost the World Cup final in 2003 to Germany, five of the players in the starting line-up played for Umeå IK. 

In the years that followed, they also started recruiting top players from abroad, most famously the Brazilian superstar Marta who arrived at the age of 18 and later went on became the best player in the world three times while playing at the club. Players like Brazil international Elaine Moura, Swiss wonderkid Ramona Bachmann, Finland’s all-time leading goalscorer, Laura Österberg Kalmari, and Chinese star Ma Xiaoxu all arrived in Umeå.

The players became role models and heroes. Young footballers in Sweden grew up wanted to be like Hanna Ljungberg and the other stars of UIK. They were the talk of the town and every game draw huge attention. Even the away games were something special. The highest attendance for a game in the league was when UIK visited Linköping 2008 in front of 9,413 people. Everyone wanted to see the team from the north playing their beautiful football.

During this era, Umeå IK also won two titles in the Womens Cup, today known as the Womens Champions League. They lost the historic first final to a Frankfurt side led by legendary Birgit Prinz, but they got their revenge later on. A semi-final victory over Frankfurt saw UIK reach the final for the second season in a row. That year they had learnt from their mistakes. 

From the 2002-03 season, the Womens Cup started playing their finals over two games. In Umeå, a crowd of 7,000 saw UIK beat Danish side Fortuna Hjørring 4-1. For the second game, in Denmark, UIK won 3-0, thus securing the title. And the success continued. Strengthened by Marta for the upcoming season, UIK thrashed Frankfurt in the final, 3-0 at home and 5-0 away. Umeå IK had fulfilled Arnqvists dream and ruled Europe.

It was the ultimate glory days in Umeå. UIK had the best players, played the most beautiful football and had the biggest crowds. What could possibly go wrong?

In 2007-08, UIK, for the second season in a row, lost the Women‘s Cup final, this time against their German rivals Frankfurt, who as a result surpassed Umeå IK as the team with the most European titles. During that season, Roland Arnqvist also left the club after 25 years involved.

The next season started with another leading figure, Marta, leaving the club. Later on two other important player, Lisa Dahlkvist and Ramona Bachmann, left too. From a sporting perspective, those were losses that weakened the team. Meanwhile, the struggling economy, for various reasons, started to become a factor which would impact UIK. One thing led to another and in 2011 Umeå IK was forced to restructure the organisation of the club, which resulted in the formation of a more independent club structure, not as closely connected to the main club as before.

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UIK avoided bankruptcy and the change meant that the club added “FF” to their name. After that Umeå IK FF finished seventh, fifth, sixth and eight with a squad that for every season lost a little of its magic touch. Then came the 2016 season.

The struggles started even before their first game. Some of the best players had injuries, which led to few points in the league. During the summer, where the Swedish league takes a break, the feeling was still positive. Key players would soon be returning after injury and the team had finally won their first two games of the season. But then came reports about a new crisis in the club.

UIK had reached a situation when they needed 1.8 million Swedish kronor to survive. Sadly, it was not the first time UIK were in a situation like that. A few weeks later, out of the blue, head coach Maria Bergkvist – a former UIK star – her assistant Joakim Blomqvist – the brother of former Manchester United treble winner Jesper – and goalkeeping coach Johan Norberg were fired.

A few hours later a group of eight players from Umeå IK wrote an open letter claiming their support for the coaching trio. Also they expressed a lack of motivation to continue for the rest of the season. A few hours after the first letter, the coaches wrote a statement strongly criticising the fact that they had only found out about their sacking on the news.

The club then went 21 days without having a head coach before Daniel Doverlind finally took charge for the rest of the season. Under the new coach UIK hadnt won a single game by the time the final fixture rolled around. It brings us back to the morning after the storm. 

After finally removing some of the snow and finishing the season’s final training session, UIK travelled to Kristianstad in southern Sweden for a must-win game to remain in the top-flight. But instead of snow, they found a pitch full of mud, having been torn apart by a men’s game shortly before.

On the sticky mud, Kristianstad took an early lead. UIK scored an equaliser but couldn’t find a winner. Twelve years after beating Frankfurt in the Women‘s Cup final and becoming the best team in Europe, UIK were no longer in Sweden’s highest division. It was the end. The cold, bitter and muddy end.

No one really knows what will happen next. The worst of the financial troubles are over, but it still looks gloomy. Just a few players have a contract for the next season and Lina Hurtig, once labelled the new Hanna Ljungberg, has already left the club. Nigerian international Rita Chikwelu and the outstanding Swedish duo, Hanna Folkesson and Hanna Glas, have left as well. There is a genuine fear in Umeå that it could take while before UIK reach are back again.

From a more positive perspective, UIK‘s relegation could become new fresh start the club needs. The local high school, which cooperates with UIK, still attracts top talent from the whole of Sweden. UIK actually started the season just passed with young players from Malmö, close to the Danish border, to Kiruna, located above the Arctic Circle. The players carefully selected for the school will initially be given a chance in UIK’s still successful youth teams and, if they are good enough, will later play with the first team. It’s not a wild guess that the UIK team that starts the next season will be very young.

Now a perpetually long winter waits. Umeå is long covered with snow and for almost the entire day it‘s dark outside. It’s easy to forget that it’s only 12 years since the brilliant Umeå IK lit up the city by being the best team in Europe.

By Karl Sundström. Follow @sundstrom_karl

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