Remembering the ill-fated but tantalising Royal League, the Scandinavian Champions League

Remembering the ill-fated but tantalising Royal League, the Scandinavian Champions League

“If we don’t find a way forward and negotiate a new TV deal it doesn’t look good for the Royal League”. Those were the words of Brøndby chairman Per Bjerregaard after his club won the third and final instalment of Scandinavia’s short-lived regional Champions League-style club tournament, a Nordic festival of football, the Royal League.

Described by some as a failed experiment, the Royal League ran for three seasons starting in 2004/05 with the four best teams from Denmark, Norway and Sweden all taking part, with qualification based on the previous season’s domestic league positions. Split into three groups, the first tournament saw the top two teams from each of those progress to a second group phase before the two group winners met in the final. For the second and third seasons, the second group phase was replaced by a knockout format, with the two best third-placed sides also joining the first and second-placed teams.

Aside from the main UEFA competitions, there have been many weird and wonderful tournaments involving teams from more than one country, albeit usually short-lived and often undervalued. These included such delights as the Texaco Cup, involving teams from England, Scotland and Ireland, the self-explanatory Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Italian Cups, and the Setanta Cup, involving teams from both sides of the Irish border.

There have also been many more ideas for potential competitions that never came to fruition, including an Atlantic League involving teams from places such as Scotland, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, a combined English-Scottish League Cup, and a European Super League, which, as yet, has never progressed into anything serious and hopefully never will.

The mere idea of such competitions has always fascinated me – even if I haven’t on every occasion been in favour – and when the Royal League was created, I remember reading about it with intrigue. The competition didn’t get much media attention in Britain and it became something I mostly read about briefly in print.

Flicking through old magazines recently, I found myself reading various articles about the competition, how it proceeded over the three seasons, and a short piece on its initial demise. Searching online gave me more information and I felt compelled to write its story, which, barring the odd article in World Soccer, has mostly gone untold outside of Scandinavia.

Some might argue that the Royal League did well to last three years. I may have slightly sentimental memories of following from afar, but in reality, right from the beginning it struggled to gain credibility. Not everyone was convinced by the competition: “I would never give priority to the Royal League. The domestic league and any UEFA Cup matches are the most important,” said Hans Backe, the Swedish coach of Denmark’s FC København.

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AaB coach Søren Kusk was more worried about the extra games, referring to keeping his players fit and free from injury: “There is no doubt that more matches will result in more damage.”

The tournament struggled to generate enough revenue, with eight sponsors sought after. There were also problems trying to secure suitable TV deals in each of the three markets. This meant that in the months leading up to it, there were suggestions that the competition would never take place.

The idea of playing matches over the winter also worried some, with Norway and Sweden both running their domestic leagues over the summer to avoid the harsh conditions of Nordic winters, which are not suited to playing football. “I shake my head at the impossible Royal League. No club wants a Scandinavian football league in the middle of winter,” wrote Mats Olsson a sports correspondent for Sweden’s Expressen newspaper.

It was not all doom and gloom for the Royal League, however, and some were enthusiastic about the prospect of a new Nordic tournament, with Frank Grønlund, the sporting director at Lillestrøm in Norway, envious that his team had not qualified for the first edition: “The Royal League looks very exciting,” he declared.

How the Royal League actually came about is up for some conjecture, though Rosenborg and their then sporting director, Rune Bratseth, were keen on a Nordic club competition, and heavily involved in the initial talks regarding its creation. Various other businessmen, club directors, league executives and ex-players also took part.

With the initial problems regarding sponsorship and television rights eventually resolved in time, the first edition of the Royal League kicked off in November 2004, with all 12 teams involved on the opening day. Brann’s first game came just days after winning the Norwegian Cup, while the Swedish teams, including Brann’s first opponents Halmstads, started the competition just weeks after their domestic league had finished.

Unlike the other two countries, Denmark’s domestic league is not a summer one, meaning they weren’t even halfway through their season yet and were represented by teams selected based on last season’s league positions. Highlights from those opening fixtures included Brøndby’s 3–2 home win over Tromsø and Rosenborg’s 4–4 home draw with Djurgårdens of Sweden.

In Group A it was the Norwegians who came out on top, with a Vålerenga-Rosenborg one-two after all the fixtures were completed. The pair met on 20 November, and then again in February, with Vålerenga coming out on top both times. Despite those two defeats, though, Rosenborg still finished three points ahead of third-placed Esbjerg from Denmark. 

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After forfeiting their final two games as punishment for fielding an ineligible player, fellow Tromsø comfortably finished bottom of a Group B table that saw København and IFK Göteborg of Sweden qualify for phase two. The other Norwegian side in the competition, Brann, finished second behind Sweden’s Malmö in Group C. 

Group B had seen arch-rivals København and Brøndby drawn against each other, and both games – a 1-1 draw and 2-0 København victory – were undoubtedly two of the main highlights in the inaugural group stage. “Norwegians in charge,” reported World Soccer, reflecting the dominance of the nation’s sides in the opening stages. However, in the second phase, it was Sweden and Denmark who came out on top.

København finished top of Group One ahead of Malmö and Rosenborg, whilst in Group Two, Göteborg didn’t lose a single match and finished comfortably ahead of their two Norwegian opponents, Vålerenga and Brann, who finished second and third respectively.

There was to be a £400,000 prize fund for the winners of the inaugural final, which took place in Gothenburg’s Ullevi Stadium in May 2005. FC København defeated local side IFK on penalties – 12-11 after no extra-time was played – following a 1-1 draw in front of 10,216 spectators. Both goals had come in the first half, with rest of the match a complete stalemate.

This first edition of the tournament was plagued by poor attendances, and although the tournament’s highest match attendance was a more than respectable 21,763 for one of the two Copenhagen derbies, only 272 turned up to watch Brann against Denmark’s Odense, and Odense against Halmstads fared even worse, with only 86 people present.

Attendances didn’t fare any better for the second edition of the competition, with a low of 63 for one game. With the new format, two of the three third-placed teams in the opening groups would qualify for a second stage knockout format. Danish side Midtjylland opened Group One with a thumping 4-0 of Vålerenga and finished top with three wins and three draws. Hammarby finished second while Vålerenga in third also qualified for the next round as one of the two best third-placed teams.

In Group Two, Brøndby only managed a draw in their final match knowing they’d have qualified instead of Vålerenga with a win. Instead, they were going home having finished behind Lillestrøm – who’d actually qualified for the tournament this year – and city rivals FC København, who for the second year had the better of them by again taking four points from the two derbies. The other third-placed team to qualify were IFK Göteborg in Group Three. Djurgårdens and Norway’s Lyn finished first and second in the group.

Some magazines are meant to be kept

The two legs of the quarter-finals took place on 23 February and 9 March. Midtjylland beat Lyn 4-1 over two legs, Djurgårdens progressed with a 5-2 aggregate victory over Vålerenga, and, after a 0-0 draw in the first leg, Lillestrøm beat IFK Göteborg 2-0 at home in the second. The fourth and final tie saw København face Hammarby, and the first leg at the Parken Stadion saw the hosts win 2-0. A dramatic finale to the second leg saw two goals in the last three minutes give Hammarby a 2-0 win, though they still lost on penalties.

The semi-final first legs took place the following week, with second legs a week later, København easily progressed to a second final with a 7-1 aggregate win over Midtjylland. Their opposition in the final would be Lillestrøm, who defeated Djurgårdens 5-1 over the two legs.

København’s Parken Stadion was the venue for the 2005/06 Royal League final. The home side won again and sealed that second successive trophy, but those in attendance had to wait until the 89th minute for what was the only goal of the game, scored by Razak Pimpong. Pimpong, however, was sent off courtesy of a second yellow card for taking off his shirt in celebration.

The 2005/06 finale wasn’t the most thrilling of matches and the attendance of 13,617 was well below domestic averages at the ground. This was further proof that the competition was struggling to gain interest from fans in the region.

When the Royal League entered into its third season, no one knew that this would be the final tournament, though it didn’t take long for the cracks to appear. There was only a limited improvement in attendances for the third year of the competition, and as the tournament progressed, it became apparent that finding an all-important TV deal to bring in much-needed revenue was proving rather difficult.

The group stages in 2006/07 saw the three of the four Danish teams progress to the knockout rounds. Odense topped Group One, followed by Brann, while third-placed Helsingborgs of Sweden lost their final game, knowing they had already qualified. 

Group Two saw city rivals København and Brøndby, drawn together once more. The first meeting between the two saw a 1-0 Brøndby away win, whilst the reverse fixture was a 3-12 København victory. That win saw them qualify for the next round, with a third-place finish behind Lillestrøm and Brøndby.

In Group Three, AIK and Denmark’s Viborg FF faced off against each other in what was both teams’ final fixtur, knowing neither could qualify for the knockout rounds. Vålerenga topped the group and Elfsborg finished second.

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For this third season, all knockout games were played over one leg only. In the quarter-finals, Brøndby were drawn at home to Brann and won 3-0, while Odense beat Lillestrøm on penalties after a 2-2 draw that saw extra-time played for the first time. København won 2-1 away at Elfsborg to see all three remaining Danish clubs reach the semi-finals, where they were joined by Helsinborgs who won 2-1 away at Vålerenga.

In the semis, Brøndby came from behind to beat Odense 2-1 after extra-time, seting up an all-Danish final with city rivals København, who had beaten Helsingborgs 3-1 that same day.

The 2006/07 final took place at the Brøndby Stadion on 15 March and was a heated derby that had a fairly healthy crowd of 17,914. The only goal of the game came from the penalty spot on 38 minutes. Norwegian referee Tom Henning Øvrebø pointed to the spot when København’s Jesper Grønkjær pulled down Brøndby’s English centre-back Mark Howard. Swede Martin Ericsson took the penalty and found the net to send the home support into raptures, denying the visitors a treble of Royal League titles.

In the run-up to the final in 2007 there were rumours that the next year’s tournament could be postponed or that the competition might even be scrapped for good. Attendances were a little better for Brøndby’s glory, but it was financial issues that proved to be the competition’s downfall.

In the end, Per Bjerregaard’s prediction of a potentially bleak future sadly became reality. Several teams were unwilling to participate until a TV deal was secured, the main reason for following season’s competition being cancelled. It was suggested that all problems could eventually be resolved and many were confident of a tournament taking place in the 2008/09 season, with one headline in Danish newspaper BT exclaiming “Royal League Not Dead Yet”. There was even talk of accepting reduced TV exposure and a scaled down tournament if that was what it would take to keep it running in the long term.

In 2008, it was again suggested that the Royal League would resume later that year, however, it was now claimed it would return under a new name, the Royal Cup, and would also include clubs from Iceland and Finland. This, in the end, didn’t happen and although talk of resurrecting the tournament continued for the next couple of years, by 2011 things had gone very quiet. 

Perhaps some were glad to see the back of it and happy to sweep it under the carpet, realising it was never going to get the support needed to make it a successful yearly competition. Either way, the sad thing is that it disappeared almost without a trace and is rarely spoken of again. There’s a lot of outstanding football talent in Scandinavia and seeing it competing against each other remains a tantalising prospect.

By James Gowland @jimmylad86

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