Ove Kindvall: the Sweden and Feyenoord legend who gave up a career at the top at 28

Ove Kindvall: the Sweden and Feyenoord legend who gave up a career at the top at 28

On 6 May 1970, the European Cup final was heading for a stalemate. Celtic had been strong favourites to recapture the crown they had first won back in 1967, when Jock Stein’s Lisbon Lions overcame Internazionale, but on the day, it had been Feyenoord that had dominated the game at the San Siro. 

Tommy Gemmill had put the Scots ahead, firing in after a free-kick was tapped short to him just on the half-hour mark. Although the shot was struck hard and low, goalkeeper Eddy Pieters Graafland was hardly helped by the strange positioning of Italian referee Concetto Lo Bello, who placed himself behind the wall erected by the Feyenoord defence, and directly in line with Gemmill’s shot.

It mattered little, though. A mere two minutes later, a cross into the Celtic boss saw a period of head tennis concluded when skipper Rinus Israël nodded firmly past Evan Williams to square the game. 

That’s how things stayed into half-time and throughout the second period, despite the Dutch striking a post. Into extra-time and, as both teams began to tire, chances came frequently, but the winning strike was proving elusive. Just three minutes remained when a Dutch free-kick was played towards the Scottish penalty area.

With striker Ove Kindvall closing in behind him, Celtic skipper Billy McNeill back-peddled frantically into the area to get into a position to head clear, but the flight of the ball deceived him. Stumbling, he reached up in an attempt to palm the ball clear. There was clear contact – certainly enough to warrant a penalty – but the referee, seeing the ball running on to Kindvall, paused before blowing. 

The Swedish striker wrote his name into the history books as he delicately clipped the ball over Williams and into the net. Feyenoord became the first Dutch club to win the European Cup, a mantle that was inherited by Ajax over the next three years as the Netherlands became the centre of footballing excellence.  

That goal in Milan was, without doubt, the highlight of the Swedish striker’s career, but there was much more to the story of Ove Kindvall; more than merely being a footballer. In these days, where money and acclaim is hurled at the stars of the game in obscene amounts, Kindvall had different priorities.

His is a story of a player who achieved success in his own country, becoming top scorer and helping his club to league championships in successive years, before shipping out to the Netherlands in pursuit of a professional career unavailable to him in Sweden. 

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After moving to De Kuip, he would become the first non-Dutch player to be top scorer in the Eredivisie. It’s a feat no other player could match until Romário achieved it in 1989. In fact, Kindvall would be the league’s leading marksman in three out of the four years he spent with Feyenoord. He would also play for his country in two World Cups – in 1970 and 1974 – the latter when he was back in his homeland and would score 16 goals in 43 international matches. 

With the Rotterdam outfit, he would win two Eredivisie titles and the KNVB Cup, as well as being the key man on that glorious night in Milan. He would score 129 league goals in just 144 games for de Club aan de Maas across his time with Feyenoord. 

Then, aged just 28 and at the peak of his powers, he decided to move back to the more tranquil waters of Swedish amateur football, with the health and wellbeing of his family having a much higher priority than football, and took a job working in sales for Swedish paper company. To many at the time, it seemed a strange decision, but for someone with a clear perspective of the most important things in life, it was much less so.

Kindvall was born on 16 May 1943 in the Swedish harbour town of Norrköping, situated on the mouth of the Motala ström river some 160km or so from Stockholm. Football was an implicit part of the Kindvall family life. Ove’s father played for the local club, IFK Norrköping, and his son was a regular attendee at matches watching his him. It was of little surprise, then, that the young Ove sought to emulate his father.

As things transpired, the younger Kindvall would go much further than his father. The elder Kindvall had never progressed beyond the club’s second team but, while still in his teens, Ove broke into the first team and set himself on a journey that, over the next decade or so, would make him a hero in the Netherlands and guarantee him a spot in the pantheon of Sweden’s greatest-ever footballers. 

At the time, another Swedish striker, Harry Bild, was a regular for the first team. Born in Växjö, some 200km south of Norrköping, Bild had joined the club in the 1950s. For a short while, the young Kindvall and the more experienced Bild would play alongside each other in the forward line. In 1964, however, Bild would join a small but growing exodus of Swedish players seeking financial reward for their footballing skills by moving abroad and pursuing a professional career. 

He moved initially to FC Zurich in Switzerland, but was only with the Stadtclub for a short period, before his six goals in 17 league games and general performance level attracted the attention of Feyenoord, who took the forward to Rotterdam in 1965. Bild became the first non-Dutch player to join the club, and it’s likely that his success there encouraged the club to look for further Swedish talent when they took Kindvall to the De Kuip a year or so later.

The move and subsequent developments picked up on a trend that had begun when Ove Kindvall joined Bild in the Norrköping first team, with Kindvall’s career mirroring that of Bild but surpassing it in achievement. After a brief period playing together, Bild had left with an impressive record of 120 league goals in 170 games, equating to 0.68 goals per game. 

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Kindvall joined Bild in Rotterdam in 1966. Although his Norrköping teammate’s record had been impressive with the club, Kindvall’s was better. His 70 goals in 84 league games equated to 0.83 goals per game. 

In Rotterdam, again, Bild was the established first-team regular, with Kindvall the new boy on the block. A year later, the former would return to Sweden and part-time football after a couple of seasons in the Netherlands, scoring 39 goals in 52 league games. It’s an impressive record – but Kindvall would also be prolific in the Eredivisie, even more so in fact, both in terms of goals – 129 in 144 league games – and trophies, before once again walking in Bild’s footsteps when he returned to Sweden. 

Bild had just reached his 30s when he went home, still with much of his career to play out, and would play for Östers IF for a further six years. Kindvall would be 28 when he took the same path, and would play another nine years there.

In international terms, when Kindvall first wore the yellow jersey in 1966, Bild had been there for nine years, and their time together representing Sweden would only see their paths cross for a couple of years. Bild scored 13 goals for his country; Kindvall would pip him again, netting 16 times.

Perhaps it was his old teammate’s success abroad, and the rewards that other Swedish players were enjoying, that whetted Kindvall’s appetite to try his luck in one of Europe’s professional leagues. His strike rate with Norrköping inevitably piqued the interest of a number of clubs and, at 23, the time to move looked right. 

As well as approaches from the Netherlands, clubs in both Spain and Italy were interested in bringing the young forward in. Winning the Allsvenskan title in both 1962 and 1963 was an early indication of success, while being the league’s top scorer and awarded the Guldbollen as Sweden’s Player of the Year in the same season confirmed that he was a rare and valuable talent.

Ever the mature and measured individual, a move to Rotterdam carried the greatest appeal. As well as having his old teammate there as the bridge into a new environment, he also considered that adapting to the culture and lifestyle in the Netherlands would be a less difficult transition for he and his family than the more frantic scenarios that would have awaited him in Serie A or LaLiga.  

In his book De Feyenoorders, Dutch author and journalist Bert Nederlof quotes Kindvall as he related his thoughts at the time: “At southern European clubs I could earn much more, but then you have to figure out about six years of your life: training camps, military discipline, no freedom of movement to relax, to live. Football means a lot to me, but not everything. It must remain a pleasant activity and I expect that at Feyenoord too.”

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For all the supposed wisdom of choosing the Netherlands over southern Europe to ply his trade, any transition is difficult, and it was no different for footballers in the much less cosmopolitan world of the mid-60s. The language alone has the propensity to create a feeling of being an outsider, and although Kindvall was eager and quick to adapt, the early days were inevitably difficult. 

There was, however, at least the comforting presence of Harry Bild to help smooth things out a little, and Kindvall’s first season in Rotterdam saw him paired with his compatriot as Feyenoord deployed a 4-2-4 formation under Austrian manager Willy Kment. For all that, the first few months were a crash course in moving from a summer league in Sweden to a hard-nosed professional winter experience in Rotterdam. 

Kindvall recalled those difficult early days, as quoted by Anna Enquist in her book Hard Brood: “The football was so different from what I was used to, and I didn’t understand what they were saying.” Things were clearly not helped with Feyenoord being a top club, and time for a settling period was hardly to be tolerated. Kindvall said: “You have to find your way in such a team, know who those guys are, how they are. It was winter and it was so wet. We do not play in the winter, and it is not wet with us either. I don’t like playing football in the mud.” 

Kment had no time for sentimentality. Even in those days, coaches only survived on a diet of success, and any diminution of that, be it actual or merely potential, required action. Despite putting the two Swedes together in what he had reasonably assumed would be an established and successful partnership, things weren’t functioning as he had hoped or expected. 

It led to Kindvall being benched for parts of the season; hardly the experience he had envisaged. It was clearly a difficult time. From De Feyenoorders again, he says: “I was very concerned about that … for example, I am very sensitive to criticism.” He also felt that the club was looking on the situation as being his fault. “In that period, there was even talk of a ‘bad buy’. Moreover, I didn’t know a word of Dutch yet, I felt very lonely.”

At such times, in any profession, there’s a choice between sink or swim. Kindvall chose the latter, as he explained: “In retrospect, that period may have been good for me. From a paid amateur I became an adult football professional in those first six months.”

Again, Kindvall’s maturity is to the fore. Even in these early difficult days, he was finding the back of the net with a reassuring regularity, scoring no less than 22 goals in the 23 games he featured in. It was hardly the return of a “bad buy” by any reasonable calculation. Given the more physical nature of the professional game, however, it may have been that Kindvall’s slender frame suggested to the coach that he had struggled to compete and assert himself. If that had been the case, then the end of the season would give him a chance to dismiss such misconception.

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In the summer of 1967, Bild left the club to return to Sweden. Kindvall was now the undisputed key forward. It must have been a time that both offered an impetus and a concern. His fellow countryman had been an east conduit for conversation, but perhaps there was an element of validity in a theory that his prowess had been eclipsed by the older man, and his presence had declined whilst in the shadow. 

Kindvall in De Feyenoorders suggests something along those lines: “Perhaps it has been good for me that Harry Bild has left. I really admire Harry, I think he is a great football player, but unknowingly I have probably submitted too much to him. I gave him the ball too often if I had scoring opportunities myself.”

The summer also saw the end of Kment. He was replaced by Dutchman Ben Peeters. That change may also have been beneficial for Kindvall, given the Austrian’s initial assessment of his worth. The increased time spent in the new country, however, was also a key factor, as things became familiar and a working knowledge of the language grew. 

Something of a natural linguist, Kindvall already had a grasp of French, German and English from his school days, and mastering Dutch would have made things much easier. Both he and his wife would read Dutch newspapers and watch local television programmes to help things along, noting down and researching any words that they couldn’t understand, increasing their vocabularies on a daily basis. 

Additionally, with Bild having now left the club, the easy option of spending time with his fellow Swede and wife was now denied to the Kindvalls. It may have been a blessing of kinds in that they now interacted more with the local Dutch community and readily adapted to the different way of life there. With his international career now also underway, Kindvall was becoming increasingly cosmopolitan in outlook.

It was an attitude that also fed into the family’s eating habits. Dutch food suited Kindvall’s palate. Satay, originally introduced into the Netherlands from Southeast Asia, was a particular favourite. The family also enjoyed the option offered by a big city such as Rotterdam to eat out in restaurants. The one drawback, though, was that Kindvall couldn’t get his favourite type of coffee there: “They didn’t know the extra roasted coffee they had in Sweden here. That was a loss. My parents then brought that along. We had a cupboard for Swedish stuff.”

The increasing satisfaction with home life and happy adaptation to the norms of the new environment led to a more contented private life, and a more prolific professional one. With the shackles of first season concern cast off, Kindvall would emerge from Bild’s shadow into the sunlit uplands of regular playing time – and copious amounts of goals. 

Even his teammates recognised the dynamic power they had in their squad. Defender Dick Schneider, who spent eight years with Feyenoord, waxed lyrical about the Swede’s prowess: “If Ove was in shape, every scoring opportunity was a goal. He was also incredibly fast on the first ten metres, nobody caught up with him.”

Kindvall’s was an uncomplicated pattern. He didn’t particularly go in for complex dribbles or firing in powerful shots from distance. He was a goalscorer and concentrated on the skills that helped him to achieve that end. As Schneider eluded to, that first ten metres, where the initial pace is generated by the speed of thought and an ability to identify and exploit opportunities, was one of Kindvall’s most potent weapons. Add in that uncanny ability granted to all great goalscorers to know where and when to be in order to score, and Kindvall had the complete package.  

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Aside from coffee, there was one other thing that the forward found it hard to come to terms with. In Sweden, football wasn’t played in the winter; in the Netherlands, as in most of the rest of Europe, football was very much a winter sport. Nederlof quotes him: “In Sweden, we don’t play football in the winter. Then we have time for other things. Perhaps I think too much about that when I stand on those wet, chilly fields in front of Feyenoord in the winter. Yes, I am often with my thoughts in Sweden during the winter months and that will have a good influence on my game.” 

It’s an understandable pang of homesickness, something that would grow over time. But for now, Kindvall was intent on improving his form for Feyenoord, and even developed a trait of dropping deeper when the team was struggling, to both support his midfield and become more involved. In 1969, however, a new manager would gainsay any such thoughts, insisting that Kindvall’s place was in the forward line and that’s where he should stay. 

Ernst Happel was another Austrian manager, and after winning the KNVB Cup with unfashionable Den Haag, he was offered the head coach’s role with Feyenoord. It was a move that would bring success and acclaim to both club and manager, and lead to Kindvall’s greatest moment on a football field. Happel would stay with the Dutch club for four years before moving on to success across Europe, winning trophies in Belgium, Spain, Germany and taking the Netherlands national team to a runners-up spot at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. 

When he arrived at the De Kuip, one of his earliest moves was to limit the roaming brief that Kindvall had drifted into. He wanted his forward to concentrate on his number one priority: putting the ball into the back of the net. It would yield great rewards. As well as that European triumph – the first for any Dutch club – Happel would also guide Feyenoord to the Eredivisie title in 1971.

That victorious domestic season would be Kindvall’s swansong in the Netherlands. Although the club flourished, their star striker felt that he had failed to perform for much of the time due to exhaustion following the Mexican World Cup in the summer of 1970. 

By this time, Kindvall was a regular for Sweden and his inclusion for the trip to North America was certain. The forward thought it had a deleterious effect on his club form in the new season, which caused a rise in unfounded rumours. A return to Sweden had already been mooted, as related in a quote by Nerdorf: “That was because of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. That was debilitating and after that I hardly had any vacation. I simply could not bear it anymore, no matter how hard I tried.”

By the season’s midpoint he had scored a mere ten goals. It wasn’t a terrible return for any half-decent forward, but Kindvall’s standards were a notch or three higher than the rest. The next 11 games brought a dozen further strikes, and by the penultimate game of the season, he was on course to be the league’s top marksman again. A brace in what was by then accepted as his final game for the club inked his name into the record books. It was a pretty decent end to what Kindvall had regarded as a poor season. 

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The departure had been announced well before the end of the season. The player’s decision to purchase a house back in Norrköping 12 months earlier had been a firm indication of his intentions, and despite the earnest attempt of teammates, of which Schneider had become a particularly close friend, nothing could dissuade the Swede from returning home. 

A last-minute contract devised by the club offered substantial financial return in exchange for a decision to stay, but it was to no avail; Kindvall’s priorities were clear. To many observers, quitting top-level football at 28 with a money-laden offer of a new contract available seemed strange. To Kindvall, it was perfectly simple, albeit somewhat emotional: “I left more friends than I ever thought. I have only just now realised how friendly Dutch people are. They go out a lot more than Sweden, and they visit each other much more. But that does not outweigh the future of my family.” 

The homesickness that had been illustrated by his lack of ease at playing in the Dutch winter had grown and the interests of his wife, children and wider family were at the forefront of his considerations. Despite entering fully into the Dutch way of life, he was still in a foreign country, and satisfied by what he had achieved with Feyenoord, the Siren calls of going home had become too loud and insistent to ignore.

Despite the successful season they had enjoyed, teammate and close friend Schneider understood Kindvall’s motives, adding that perhaps the prevailing atmosphere at the club would have done little to encourage any change of heart. From Norderf’s book: “In Kindvall’s last season, the atmosphere in the group was ruined. We still became Dutch champions, but they were incredibly anti-social. Ove couldn’t stand that, oversensitive as he was. He was positive in all respects.”

Feyenoord sought to replace Kindvall by signing Lex Schoenmaker from Happel’s old club, but he was a big act to follow, and like so many others who have tried, the Dutchman struggled and ultimately came up short. 

Kindvall returned home to his new job and old club, deployed mainly in midfield for Norrköping, and appeared for his country at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, playing in two of three initial group games as Sweden progressed to the second phase before being eliminated. The season would see him end his career on the international stage and move to IFK Gothenburg for the remaining years of his career, finally drawing down the curtain in 1977. 

Although for many, especially fans of Feyenoord, that late, winning goal in Milan back in 1970 would give Kindvall the sort of immortality granted to only a few, there was far more to his career than that. He would score 259 league goals in just 344 games across his career, and net 16 times in his 43 games for Sweden. With Feyenoord, he would be the league’s top scorer on three occasions, win two Eredivisie titles, the European Cup, the KNVB Cup, as well as the Intercontinental Cup, and be recognised in 1969 with the Svenska Dagbladet Gold Medal “for the most significant Swedish sports achievement of the year.” 

Above all of that, though, Ove Kindvall was a man who put the welfare and interests of his family at the forefront of his decisions. Football would always come second to that and, if for nothing else, such recognition of the important things in life is worthy of the highest acclaim. 

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

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