Södertälje is an industrial city 19 miles from Stockholm with a population of 86,000. But the interesting aspect of this Swedish city is that 44 per cent of Södertälje residents have a foreign background – the top five being Iraq, Finland, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon – with many taking advantage of the rapidly growing need for a workforce in yesteryear at the Swedish commercial truck manufacturer Scania AB, and the multinational pharmaceutical firm, Astra Zaneca.
Assyrians – descendants of one of the oldest civilisations in the world – primarily drove the surge of immigrants from these countries to Södertälje. It all started with the Assyrian Genocide in the early 1900s when scores of Assyrians – who predominantly practice Christianity – were victims of persecution under the Ottoman Empire.
In time, similar hostility was witnessed by the population during events such as the less talked about Simele Massacre in Iraq, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Kurdish Genocide in Iraq and the most recent religious persecution across Iraq, Syria and Turkey. This led to an increase in movement across borders with a significant number of the Assyrian diaspora seeking refuge in Södertälje.
And just like Brother Walfrid founded Celtic FC for the betterment of Glasgow’s Irish community and the Palestinian diaspora in Santiago, Chile gave rise to CD Palestino, a similar initiative was undertaken by Assyriska Föreningen in Södertälje – an organisation founded in 1971 by Turkey’s ethnic Assyrian refugees – giving rise to the city’s and most likely the community’s first ever football club, Assyriska FF.
Having started in the seventh tier of Swedish football when it was founded, Assyriska FF currently sits within the second division of the country’s league system, the Superettan. This was only possible because the would-be pool of talented immigrants grew larger as many ventured into the unknown of Södertälje, eventually creating a close-knit community of businessmen and women.
Their expertise ranged from commodities and retail to hair salons and restaurants, in addition to occupying top positions at Scania and Astra Zeneca. A few had also reached the parliament – namely Ibrahim Baylan, a Turkish-born Assyrian who is currently the Minister of Energy in the current Swedish government.
However, the increasing number of Assyrians to Södertälje gave rise to an identity crisis in terms of whether one should be referred to as an Assyrian or a Syriac (tied to the Syrian Orthodox church). This difference would flow down to the pitch. And thereon, it gave birth to a football team initially made up of Syriacs called Syrianska in 1977. In the blink of an eye, a rivalry was created.
The late 1970s brought forth the rise of the much-adored derby status between the two clubs, with the usual tense atmosphere resulting in the league having to separate them within the league system eventually allowing them to pair again a decade later.
In terms of performance Assyriska are the dominant team. After breaking barriers and moving through the league system, Assyriska saw themselves promoted to Sweden’s top division in 2005, which was only possible by removing the restrictions on non-Assyrian’s joining the club in the 1990s.
At the time Swedish football had extended its arms welcoming Assyriska to the top-flight, earning respect from the neutrals on the basis of their humble beginnings. Yet the club faced several issues early on in 2005. With status came greed, which resulted in instability, eventually seeing them fall back into the second division. Unfortunately, they have lingered in the second tier since, coming close to an unsuccessful promotion attempt in the playoffs in 2009.
The impact of Assyrian assimilation is also visible at the national level. Their technical understanding of the game (thanks to their background) coupled with the Swedish organisation credited to their host country, had resulted in a few players going on to represent some of the top teams in Sweden and elsewhere, along with an opportunity to represent the Blågult internationally.
A few of the names that stand out include that of Kennedy Bakircioglü, a Hammarby legend and ex-Swedish international still adorning the club colours of green and white at the age of 35, who begun his career at Assyriska before taking in playing time in Greece, the Netherlands and Spain before returning to Sweden. The free-kick specialist has dazzled many during his time with outstanding goals from distance. Then there was Sharbel Touma, who went on to play for German side Borussia Mönchengladbach before retiring at Syrianska in 2014.
The most notable Assyrian footballer today is MLS side Columbus Crew’s energetic striker, 27-year-old Iraqi international Justin Meram, who is extremely cognisant of his Assyrian background: “It is extremely important to represent my Assyrian background. Being the only professional in the United States with the Assyrian/Chaldean background, I must show how great our culture is and how great the people are. I love it and am blessed every day to represent us on a global stage.”
And the thought of the many eyes from the Assyrian community within the US and globally on Justin – apart from that of the millions of Iraqis – lingers in his mind every time he steps onto the field.
“The thought is always on my mind, especially when I represent the Iraqi national team. Being the only Assyrian/Chaldean player on the team, I am playing for the whole country but always making our culture proud.”
Then there is the youngest Assyrian star in the making. Twenty-two-year-old Mikael Ishak, a striker who currently plays at Denmark’s Randers FC, recently impressed at the national level with Sweden. He managed to score the only goal (his first for the nation in four games) in Sweden’s international 1-1 friendly draw against Estonia in Abu Dhabi recently. Like Kennedy, his footballing roots take him back to Assyriska.
While the community is thankful to the safe haven provided by the Swedes, the hope to travel back to their lands without the fear of persecution is common. Nail Yoken, former chairman of Assyriska, reflected a similar sentiment in 2012: “The Swedish Football Federation gave us all opportunities, but one still asks why we could not do that in our own country (referring to his homeland of Turkey). How I wish Assyriska could play in Midyat.”
These sort of validations, in the context of football, acknowledge the self-identity of the Assyrians. Few people, independent from the world of football, have realised the importance of how the game’s stronghold among the Assyrian community can bring people together.
Reverand Ashur D. Elkhoury, born in Beirut, Lebanon who is currently a Parish Priest at St. Paul Parish Assyrian Church in Orange County, California talked highly of the club in an interview in 2012: “In my opinion no other organised non-political movement with political ambitions has reached such high level of innovative recognition for our Assyrian people internationally as this club has. Assyriska fights for our awareness worldwide as the indigenous people of Mesopotamia and battles for the knowledge of our people’s recognition by the international community on their football arenas.”
The case of Assyriska and many such communal football establishments rising across the globe is symbolic of the strong sense of identity among the Assyrian community. And at the current rate of growth, the community will continue to contribute talent consistently to the global game. How well equipped these individuals are to carry the weight of their roots will be a key factor shaping not only themselves, but those around them. When I asked Justin about Assyriska FF, he had this to say”
“I have heard of [Assyriska FF] once. I think its name represents the Assyrians well because it has a football club with our culture’s representation, from the name to the flag in the crest.”
And that’s why the community is so proud of the club.