After several years of near parity, in which just about any team had a legitimate shot at winning the Allsvenskan title, the top division of Swedish football is starting to show some signs of separation.
The top teams in the league, despite some economic problems, are more often adopting the same operating standards as much larger clubs elsewhere in Europe. This translates to better game and training facilities, more sponsors, deeper squads and most important, winning.
The top ties are the elite teams. Next come the teams on the rise, followed by the potentials and the “just happy to be here” clubs.
No team has done more in the past year to follow in the footsteps of English, Spanish or Italian clubs than Malmö FF.

The 2010 champions, despite strong pressure to sell, kept every player from its championship squad. The MFF squad reads like a Who’s Who of budding Swedish stars, from Daniel Larsson to Guillermo Molins to Agon Mehmeti. Granted, Malmö didn’t have the money to get involved in serious player deals. The Skåne club is carrying 20 million kronor in red ink, but much of that is related to construction of Swedbank Arena, not to football-specific operations.

Although it didn’t add any big names, in many ways, Malmö didn’t have to. Head coach Roland Nilsson has a squad that is more than deep enough to trot out one starting 11 in a Swedish Cup match that should knock off any lower-division opponent and put a completely different team on the field for an Allsveskan or UEFA Champions League match.
Club management made it clear over the winter it had a goal of at least reaching the group stage of the Champions League, which was a major factor in the board’s decision to not sell off young stars such as Molins, Larsson, Mehmeti or Ivo Pekalski. Malmö is the first Swedish champion in more than a decade to enter Champions League with the same group of players that won the title. This could prove the edge in MFF’s quest to reach the group stage. The final qualifiers come just before the summer transfer window opens, and barring any major injuries, Malmö could well make a run in UEFA play.

Malmö is one of three teams that are at that elite level. Helsingborg and Elfsborg are the other two. Unlike Malmö, both teams sold and bought players, although Helsingborg was far less active on the transfer market than Elfsborg.

After selling defender Joel Ekstrand to Udinese in Italy, Helsingborg turned around and picked up defender Peter Larsson from FC Copenhagen. Larsson brings just as much talent to the team as Ekstrand and also a wealth of experience. HIF also brought goalkeeper Daniel Andersson back to the fold after allowing him to leave two years ago.

Like Malmö, HIF has a deep squad, but unlike its Skåne rivals, it isn’t carrying a mountain of debt.

Elfsborg, meanwhile, is turning itself into a potential powerhouse. The Borås side outsold and outspent every team in the Allsvenskan during the winter, letting prize prospects Emir Bajrami and Denni Advic leave, albeit for huge sums. Combined, the sale of the two players brought in more than $6 million to the club, which also shed an amount of age by releasing Abbas Hassan, Marcus Falk-Olander, Anders Wikström and Mathias Florén, all of whom were part of the club’s 2006 title-winning team. Elfsborg wasted no time in putting that money to use, buying Swedish international David Elm from Fulham in England, Lasse Nilsson from Saint Entienne in France and Anders Augustsson from AC Horsens in Denmark.

Elfsborg is also starting to reap major benefits from its stadium, Borås Arena. The stadium has become a popular venue for numerous concerts, festivals and other events, thanks to its artificial grass field, which frees the club from worrying about damage to the playing pitch.
The teams on the rise could be among the elite, provided a few things happen.

IFK Göteborg, Örebro and Kalmar are this year’s rising clubs and are likely to be there for a while. All three are economically stable—although Kalmar shows red ink due to its new stadium. Göteborg and Kalmar have both won championships in the past decade and know what it takes to win. Örebro got a taste of championship football last year with a third-place finish and has made it clear it wants more.
The main factor keeping these teams from the elite level—even IFK Göteborg—is the dependence the teams still have on selling players. That inability to keep a team together for more than a year prevents them from planning for more than the coming year, which keeps them from making the leap from really good to elite.

Then there are the “potentials” the teams that have the potential to win the title, but are still essentially outsiders. Once-proud clubs Djurgården and AIK fall into the this category as their economic situations simply prevent them from buying the talent they need to make a serious run at the title. Halmstad, BK Häcken and Trelleborg also fall into the category. Halmstad is in complete rebuilding mode as new head coach “Pep” Clotet Ruiz turns the southern Swedish team into a Spanish side. Ruiz brought in five Spanish players and a Brazilian as he tries to remake the former champions.

Häcken has also come to rely on South American imports but seems to lack the staying power to mount a year-long title challenge.
Trelleborg is a stable, efficient team and club which finished a surprising fifth last year. Whether head coach Tom Prahl can equal that success, however, remains uncertain.

As for the teams that are “just happy to be here,” the main motivation isn’t wining—it’s simply remaining in the Allsvenskan. Low goals usually equal spotty results and teams such as GAIS, Gefle, Mjällby and new comers Syrianska and IFK Norrköping all fall into this category. Norrköping remade itself in the image of the 2006 Elfsborg team that won the Allsvenskan title, signing five aging players from that side. Peking also plucked Astrit Ajdarevic from Örebro, something of a surprise as the former Liverpool starlet is among the budding stars in Swedishh football. Syrianska managed to lure midfielder Johan Arneng back from Norway while Mjällby, GAIS and Gefle all looked to South America and Africa for reinforcements, albeit at bargain prices.
Despite the seeming stratification, however, once the whistle blows anything can happen. Bookmakers anointed Elfsborg a 4-1 favorite to win the title, but the Borås club must start the season without its captain and midfield maestro Anders Svensson, who injured a knee that has twice required surgery. Malmö, Helsingborg, Kalmar, Göteborg and Örebro are all 6-1 to 12-1 to win, but no team has ever won a title simply because of the oddsmakers.
It is why they play game.

by Chipp Reid