How the Östersunds fairy tale turned into a nightmare

How the Östersunds fairy tale turned into a nightmare

Contrary to what some people think, the city of Östersund isn’t actually in the Arctic Circle, but almost 400km to the south. Nonetheless, it is fair to say winter there is pretty dark. By the end of November, the sun is setting a little after 2pm. If you’re an Östersunds FK fan, you also have to prepare for five months with no football as Sweden takes its long winter break.

After the club’s darkest day – 5 November 2019 – saw the lead figure behind its incredible rise sentenced to three years in prison for fraudulently sending public money into the club, this winter, fans are left nervously waiting to see whether there will be any football at all in town next spring.

Two years prior to that day, ÖFK had been in the midst of a Europa League group campaign, vying with Athletic Club for top spot and preparing to send Hertha Berlin out. If you hadn’t heard of them then, by the time they played Arsenal the following spring in the round of 32, only those deliberately avoiding football could fail to have read their remarkably uplifting tale.

Elements of their rise remain genuinely moving, such as Graham Potter recalling to the BBC how he arrived at a fourth-tier club in 2010 with crowds of around 500 – many of whom wanted their team to lose – and how the parents at his child’s nursery joked to his wife that, upon finding out they had moved to Sweden for Potter to coach the club, they family should go home. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, felt inspired enough to pen a column about the “miracle of Östersunds”, which “I suspect will one day be made into a Moneyball style film”.

The club’s focus on cultural activities to foster team spirit, plus community and charity engagement to anchor its positive identity, provided food for thought for anyone used to the Premier League bubble awash with its egos and cash. “It’s not about the money here, it’s about the other stuff,” said Daniel Kindberg, the chairman with a background in construction who financed and inspired the club’s rise. “We think it’s important to contribute to the world, to society, to help people.”

Money was indeed the central element in the case being judged at Ångermanland district court at the start of November. Kindberg and two others were found guilty of funnelling around SEK15m of public money into ÖFK between 2013 and 2017. The man who shaped the club more than any other was sentenced to three years in prison. Kindberg continued to proclaim his innocence and says he will appeal.

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The irony is that while football was heaping praise on ÖFK for being a club with strong community values, it was questions that were first raised in the local community that would cast this dark shadow over their rise.

As a former officer of the Swedish defence forces who claimed to have once been kidnapped in Stockholm and to have witnessed cannibalism in Congo, Daniel Kindberg’s proclaimed ambition since becoming ÖFK chairman in 2010 of taking the club into the Champions League was an immense target.

With his background as CEO of a property venture backed by the giant Peab construction company (who he also worked as a regional manager for), by the time he had also become head of the city’s municipal housing company in 2014 and sitting on the board of the local ice hockey club, it was clear Kindberg wielded great power locally. There was also potential for that power to be exploited via conflicts of interest. 

It is with that in mind that Linda Hedenljung, a journalist at the local Östersunds-Posten newspaper, flagged a few questions in 2014 about a strangely expensive property deal Kindberg had committed to in his capacity as head of the local housing company. There was no connection to the club, which at the time was in Sweden’s second tier and aiming for the top flight. A couple of years later, Hedenljung managed to obtain a tranche of Kindberg’s work emails from the housing company and was struck by the fact that ÖFK seemed to come up in most of the messages he sent.

While nothing had emerged by this stage that was obviously improper or illegal, the question of how the club was putting its finances together had become unwanted background noise accompanying its fairy tale rise. Hedenljung and her colleagues were receiving threatening messages, ordering them to back off.

The puzzle continued to grow for anyone looking into how a path to the top of the Swedish game could be plotted for a club from a small town in a remote region with a passion for cross-country skiing – where a relatively limited economy made local sources of sponsorship scarce.

ÖFK may have prided itself on recruiting players discarded elsewhere, but they didn’t work for free. Neither did Graham Potter. For all his incredible achievements, the fact he seemed to earn some revenue from one of Kindberg’s companies raised eyebrows, as did Kindberg sponsoring the club via both his own business and the public housing company he headed. A highly lucrative deal signed with the Libyan government in 2014 to train 250 young Libyan footballers per year in Östersund seemed a sensational bit of financial planning, but it never came to fruition. 

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In 2016, ÖFK had a revenue of SEK44m (around £3.5m) which was a pittance compared to the sides they would compete against in the Europa League a year later. Malmö’s revenue at the time was estimated at SEK500m, and AIK’s around SEK150m. The club aimed to increase their turnover to SEK65m, which Kindberg said was enough to become Swedish champions. By Premier League standards that’s nothing, but by Östersund standards, it remained a suspicious level of wealth. Hedenljung was hearing a rumour that in order to get a contract for public work in some parts of the city, you were being told you had to sponsor the club