As I’m leaving the grounds of the Malmö FF academy, assistant first team coach Andreas Georgson beckons for me to hurry back, keen to set the record straight “We have been misinterpreted with this winning thing a lot. People think “OK, Malmö don’t care about winning anymore” and that is the biggest misunderstanding you can find. We want our players to be really competitive and feel the need to win; this is football after all!”
When one thinks of Sweden, it’s easy to picture beautiful, blue-eyed blondes and lavish lakeside retreats; and the capital of the Skåne County has plenty of those. Though with prettily cobbled central streets dating from the 1500s and soulful modern buildings which nestle easily alongside acres of elegant parkland, this is an afflicted place.
Named as the ‘crime capital of Sweden’, Malmö has gathered a reputation with certain neighbourhoods labelled as ‘no-go zones’. Various media outlets have pointed towards the huge influx of refugees – linking the increasing rates of immigration to the crime issues – yet for the city’s football club, the number of diverse cultures coming in is viewed as a key asset to their identity.
“It’s impossible to keep track of the backgrounds here and it’s turned into something really cool for us. It’s never once been something we’ve focussed on since I started.”
Georgson continues “There’s always new kids coming in with new backgrounds. I’ve never seen any player with a racist subconscious or mindset even. It’s a part of Malmö and if you’re here with us, you’re a Malmö citizen and that’s it!”
Having been employed as head of youth scouting for more than a decade before landing his role with the first team, Georgson concedes “Maybe the parents are our test as they’re so different in backgrounds. We don’t have them so close and some of them don’t speak Swedish. Some of them are really academic and others have never really had the chance to take in academic information.”
“It’s such a broad group of people so I think there is a bigger challenge for us. Some of the things we say must fly straight over their heads as it’s so far from what their picture of what football, and certainly youth football, was when they grew up in Yugoslavia or Italy or Africa.”
Georgson uses the example of an incensed parent once forcing his child to leave the club: “We put the boys in extremely hard situations; it’s a great challenge to be a goalkeeper at this academy as we don’t let them just kick the ball wherever, they have to find a solution. His father was extremely upset with us whenever his son made a mistake when playing out and claimed we were making his child “look like a fool””
“There’s a club that play not too far from here and they rely heavily on their under 17’s and 19’s to stay in the highest league, because otherwise they would lose all their best players throughout the academy; they have to be result focussed. It’s so easy for them to find the short-term gains in training sessions, which I’m certain will lead to a worse education for the players.”
“We signed a young forward from there and he was a natural finisher who had played in a side that just put the ball up there for him to tap goals in, but we wanted him to work on the other areas of his game where he needed development. We asked questions of him in order to challenge him and his father once called me after a game claiming “You’re ruining his career. He was almost in the national team and now he’s lost all his confidence as you’re forcing him to be something he’s not!”
“Our challenge is to make more of an effort to open doors to parents but we have to tell them that there are two sidelines; “the one for education is ours and you have to stand on the other one.” The more they speak against what we’re saying, the worse for their child. So if they’re on board then the kid won’t go home and hear the opposite of what we want as he sits at the dinner table.”
Nodding towards his former role in recruitment, Georgson points out “We’re almost alone in the Malmö region, so we can attract the best players and coaches around. Everything we do is focussed around our development plan called the ‘Sky Blue Way’, which was composed in 2012 and then backed financially after our first team’s success in the Champions League. Before then, we used to have a win at all costs attitude, but now we believe that development must come before anything else and to live up to that we work tirelessly every single day; which results in us being questioned, both internally and also from rival clubs.”
“We force both players and coaches to think creatively, for example – we never let players just throw the ball down the line – they have to find somebody’s feet. Some coaches have had to embrace the challenges that meet them with our changes in methodology, others have had to go; whether they quit on their own accord or we let them go.”
Head of Methodology, and part of the Sweden 1990 World Cup squad, Joakim Nilsson joins the conversation “We have had young players attempt back-heeled-passes and Cruyff turns to then be ridiculed by people on the sideline. Why?”
“It’s just another way to make a pass or surprise defenders. We encourage creativity and work extremely hard to construct an environment where kids can be free and comfortable to try things as it’s the best way to learn and develop. One negative shout from an adult can kill it all in a split-second.”
The former Sporting Gijón and Malmö midfielder advances “Every club has these development plans where the result isn’t important – then when it comes to the game and a kid makes an error when trying something different – they scrap their development plans and revert back to risk-minimizing football.”
“This is where we’re different at Malmö. Of course we want to win, but we want to win in our way. If we can’t win playing like this then we don’t care if we lose. We can’t change our identity just because the other team is strong. If we meet a very good opponent then it’s a perfect opportunity for our players to try to find solutions in our way.”
“We meet teams every six months, and the players then get to see how they’re progressing. In the end we have the best players. Opponents can take their youth wins, but we’re creating players who can play for the Malmö FF first team in European Cups.”
As I’m leaving the grounds, we pass a mural of the club’s most famous son, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Georgson tells me “He is a one off – a total maverick – but we use him as an example to the kids. When he was here as a young boy, he played with just as much freedom as he does now; he’s kept that way about him. The ‘Zlatan Court’ is down the road and it’s packed with our kids from all over the planet every single night; football brings everyone together. We encourage his way of thinking amongst our boys.”
The Øresund sun begins to set over the complex, meaning Georgson must rush off to join up with the first team, who have a UEFA Champions League tie in just a few hours’ time; seven of the players are home-grown academy products.
By Alex Clapham