American sports fans who thought the World Cup was exciting had better fasten their seat belts as the biggest, most lucrative soccer tournament in the world is about to kick off — the UEFA Champions League. And, for the first time since 2000, a Swedish team is playing with the mightiest clubs in Europe.
Malmö FF rallied from a 2-1 first-leg deficit to knock off Red Bull Salzburg 3-0 August 27 at Swedbank Arena to reach the Group Stage of the Champions League for the first time in club history. The Champions League features the top teams in Europe, most of which are star-studded international teams. English champion Manchester City features players from Serbia, Croatia, Argentina, Ivory Coast, Brazil, Belgium, France and England, all of whom played in the World Cup.
Malmö, with no World Cup players on its roster, doesn’t have to play Manchester. It does, however, face Italian champions Juventus, Spanish champions Atletico Madrid and Greek champions Olympiakos. Combined, the three teams feature 26 players from the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Juventus is a two-time Champions League winner, Madrid finished second last year, losing by a goal to Real Madrid while Olympiakos is a perennial group stage participant.
It is, to say the least, a daunting task for Malmö FF.

Difficult draw
“It is a very difficult draw,” said Malmö manager Age Hareide. “Juventus and Atletico are two of the top teams in the world.”
Hareide is in the group stage for the second time. He led Helsingborg to the group stage in 2000. HIF did not win a match.
Malmö reached the final of the old Champions Cup in 1979, where it lost to English side Nottingham Forest. However, that was in an era when national associations limited the number of foreign players allowed on each team to just three and many teams had players that were only part-time professionals. The Malmö team that reached the final had just four players who were full-time professionals. The rest all had jobs in the off season.
“It is all very different now,” said Malmö general Niclas Carlnén. “It is, as people say, a whole new world.”
There is more at stake for Malmö than just the prestige of playing Juventus, which reached the quarterfinals last year and raked in $83 million in prize and TV money. Atletico Madrid pulled in more than $100 million. While Malmö doesn’t have the television contract the larger clubs have, the prize money remains big, at least for a Swedish club.
Malmö earned $2.8 million for reaching the playoff stage and $9 million for reaching the group stage. A win in the group stage is worth $1.3 million while a draw is worth $650,000.
“It’s a lot of money,” Carlnén said. “I think it’s easy for people to think that we would be able to spend on players, but that isn’t our model. We are going to reinvest any money we win into our stadium, which we own, and into building the club. This money is for our future.”
American fans call follow Malmö’s every step in the Champions League, thanks to FOX Sports and ESPN. Fox owns the U.S. rights to the Champions League although it has sublicensed up to 60 matches to ESPN. Fans should check local listings for channels.
Malmö opens in Turin against Juventus on September 16. Match time is 2:30 p.m. EDT. The team then plays Olympiakos at home on October 1 and travels to Madrid to face Atletico on October 22. Malmö returns to Swedbank Arena Nov. 4 to face Atletico and plays Juventus at home on November 26. Malmö wraps up group play on December 9 in Piraeus, Greece where it plays Olympiakos.
The team stands to earn additional millions from ticket sales, depending on how its fans behave. Carlnén warned the Swedish champions could play in an empty stadium. Fans lit flares and other pyrotechnic devices during the home win over Salzburg, costing Malmö 100,000 kronor (roughly $20,000) in fines.
“UEFA does not look kindly upon this,” Carlnén said. “From Malmö FF's point of view, it is crystal clear — pyrotechnics are not allowed in the stadium.”
Malmö already has something of a following in the United States. MFF trains in Miami during the winter preseason and participates in pre-season tournaments against MLS clubs and now could have a trans-Atlantic rivalry. Red Bull Sports owns both Red Bull Salzburg, the team Malmö beat to reach the group stage, and Red Bull New York, an MLS club. Carlnén said he would welcome such a development.
“It could be interesting,” he said. “We certainly enjoy training in the U.S. and playing the teams from the league there.”
As for the Champions League, Hareide for one is keeping his expectations fairly level.
“We want to play (in Europe) next year,” he said. “I think two of the teams in our group will be very difficult but we like our chances against Olympiakos. I think we should be able to compete with them. We want to finish third in our group which would put us into the Europa League.”
The Europa League is the second-tier international competition UEFA holds. Third-place teams from the Champions League automatically enter the knockout phase of the Europa League.
“It’s football,” said Carlnén, “and anything can happen in football.”

Malmö 2104 Champions League Schedule
(Home games in CAPS)

Sept. 16 – at Juventus, Juventus Stadium, Turin, Italy
Oct. 1 – OLYMPIAKOS, Swedbank Arena, Malmö
Oct. 22 – Atletico Madrid, Vincente Calderon Stadium, Madrid, Spain
Nov. 4 – ATLETICO MADRID, Swedbank Arena, Malmö
Nov. 26 – JUVENTUS, Swedbank Arena, Malmö
Dec. 9 – Olympiakos, Karaisikakis Stadium, Piraeus, Greece