Land Of The Midnight Sun: The Story Behind The Golden Age Of Women’s Football In Sweden
If you had to name the current Galácticos of women's club football, the answer is pretty easy: Olympique Lyon. The French side won a record 14 consecutive Ligue 1 titles and five Champions League titles in a row before both streaks were ended by PSG this year.
But 20 years ago, there was an unexpected forerunner in women's soccer, a team full of Galácticos that spawned at a time when the original Galácticos side at Real Madrid was still in its infancy.
The club came from the modest town of Umeå, rising out of the thick, coniferous forests of northern Sweden to control women's football in Europe at the advent of the 21st century.
The frigid city compiled a troupe of talent unlike anything seen in the women's game before; Umeå IK (UIK) won 15 trophies — including two European crowns — before the first decade of the new millennium was even over.
This is not just the story of UIK, it is the story of how Sweden came to rule women's club soccer in the 2000s — two narratives intertwined because they truly go hand in hand.
Due to its proximity to the Arctic circle, the cities (and football clubs) of Sweden are overwhelmingly concentrated in the southern half of the country.
Malmö, located on the southern tip of Sweden, is the country's most successful club football, leading all sides with 21 Allsvenskan (men's) titles and 11 Damallsvenskan (women's league) crowns.
Stockholm, about 380 miles northeast of Malmö, is Sweden's largest city and biggest footballing hub. It currently has three clubs each in the Damallsvenskan and Allsvenskan.
Head another 400 miles due north and you reach Umeå and its 130,000 inhabitants. The capital of Norrland — the large but sparsely-populated northern region of Sweden — Umeå is home to one of two Damallsvenskan clubs located in Sweden's northern half.
A small taste of the weather in this province is a reminder of why soccer in Sweden is played during the summer months.
Umeå IK was an unlikely candidate for success given its geography, but manager Roland Arnqvist had a vision for the club, which he believed could become one of the best on the continent.
Starting in 1991, he began paying his players by the match and holding more frequent training sessions. The Damallsvenskan went professional a few years earlier, but this payment system was unique as UIK was still in the second tier. After five years, Umeå IK reached the top flight and Arnqvist shifted to the front office to work as sporting director.
The blueprint was in place, and in 2000 UIK would win the league title — the first of seven in a nine-season stretch. But domestic success was just the start for the Norrland side.
In 2002, UIK reached the first of three consecutive UEFA Women's Cup Finals (the UEFA Women's Champions League was known as the UEFA Women's Cup until 2009).
In this very first iteration of the competition, UIK would lose to 1. FFC Frankfurt (now Eintracht Frankfurt), but it went on to take the next two cups, defeating Danish club Fortuna Hjørring before earning retribution against Frankfurt in 2004.
For the first two years of the competitions, Umeå IK employed exclusively Scandinavian players, with two Finnish natives mixed in with the Swedish-dominated squad. UIK was anchored by international-level players, as more than half of its starters earned caps for Sweden.
The lineup for UIK's two-legged final victory over Fortuna Hjørring featured five players who would go on to earn 100 or more international caps. Defender Sanna Valkonen and striker Laura Kalmari both reached the century mark for Finland, and center back Hanna Marklund and midfielder Malin Moström would do the same for Sweden.
But the centerpiece of the squad was Hanna Ljungberg — now Sweden's second-all-time leading scorer with 72 international goals. In 2002, Ljungberg was awarded the Diamantbollen, the award given to the best female football player in Sweden.
She scored a record-breaking 39 Damallsvenskan goals (in 22 matches) that season — a number no player has approached in the years since. Ljungberg would score 196 times across 227 league appearances in her UIK career.
Many of these players, including Ljungberg, Moström and Marklund, were products of Norrland, making Umeå's success even more impressive. UIK also accounted for five starters on the Sweden side that nearly won the World Cup in 2003.
Thanks to its core of Scandanavian footballing talent, Umeå IK was the most dominant club in women's football and Sweden was World Cup runner-up.
But in 2004, the reigning Swedish champions would make an unprecedented move that revolutionized the landscape in women's football.
Marta was just 18 years old in 2004, but the teenager was already considered one of the best talents in world football. The Brazilian attacker caught the attention of Umeå IK after scoring six goals at the first FIFA Women’s Youth Championship in 2002, and the Swedish side signed her for a nominal fee — making her the first Brazilian woman to play professional football in Europe.
When Marta joined the squad in the spring of 2004, Umeå IK was already in the semifinals of the UEFA Women's Cup, out-scoring its opponents 23-1 in the group stage. Marta would score in both legs of the semifinal against Brøndby, and she would add another three goals in an 8-0 demolition of Frankfurt on aggregate in the final, earning the club its second straight European title.
There was almost the possibility for an all-Swedish final in 2004, as Malmö FF Dam reached the semifinals of the cup in its first European appearance but was unable to get past Frankfurt.
If not for UIK, Malmö could very well have been the club in Sweden during this period, as the side experienced an improbable seven consecutive second-place finishes in the Damallsvenskan between 1996 and 2002.
Umeå IK cruised through UEFA opponents, but back in Sweden, the competition had grown much stiffer. Despite just two defeats across the previous three league campaigns from 2002-04, UIK still finished second to Djurgården/Älvsjö in 2003.
In 2004, Marta and teammate Laura Kalmari both scored 24 league goals to share the golden boot. But even a league record 106 goals and +89 goal differential could not prevent the club from finishing behind Djurgården/Älvsjö for the second consecutive year — with the margin again being a single point.
Djurgården/Älvsjö was a new club formed by the merger of Djurgården IF and Älvsjö AIK in 2003 — the latter of which won five straight titles from 1995-99. Djurgården/Älvsjö took the best players from both teams and immediately became one of the best clubs in the country.
The UIK-Djurgården rivalry continued into the following year. UIK claimed the 2005 Damallsvenskan title easily, winning 21 of 22 matches, but when the two sides met in the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup, it was Djurgården that earned the 3-1 victory on aggregate.
Djurgården reached the European Cup final that season, but fell to Turbine Potsdam 5-1 on aggregate.
Like Umeå IK, the club featured a core of Sweden centurions, including: defenders Jane Törnqvist, Sara Thunebro and Kristin Bengtsson, as well as striker Victoria Sandell — who ranks sixth all time in Sweden caps (166) and fifth in goals (68). The squad also featured American Venus James — a UCLA graduate — up top.
Djurgården/Älvsjö reached the semifinals of the UEFA women's cup in 2005-06, but was thwarted once again by Turbine Potsdam. The all-German final between Frankfurt and Potsdam in 05-06 was the first UEFA Women's cup to not feature a Swedish side in the title match.
Djurgården/Älvsjö finished second in the league in 2007 (behind none other than UIK), but through retirements and transfers, Djurgården/Älvsjö's core of players was gone by 2009, and the club has not been able to recreate its zenith.
Yet Umeå IK continued its dynasty, as Damallsvenskan titles in 2007 and 2008 were matched by a pair of defeats in the UEFA Women's Cup Final — versus Arsenal in 2007 and old nemesis Frankfurt in 2008.
Arsenal is still the only English club to reach the final, but the Umeå/Frankfurt chokehold on the cup (together they won four of the first five UEFA Cup finals and were runners-up twice) was coming to an end.
The level of footballing talent was increasing across Europe, and more countries started to take women's football more seriously and invested in the sport.
Umeå IK was becoming a more cosmopolitan club as well. It brought in two of the most promising teenagers in world football in 2007: Ramona Bachmann from Switzerland and Ma Xiaoxu from China.
Xiaoxu was named Asian Women's Footballer of the Year in 2006 as she helped China win the AFC Women's Asian Cup, while Bachmann made her Swiss international debut at age 16.
The following year, the team added Brazilian midfielder Elaine as well as Japanese striker Mami Yamaguchi, the latter of whom had just won the Hermann trophy, awarded to the best NCAA soccer player each year.
But of that quartet, Bachmann was the only one to have a real impact at the club, scoring 27 goals across four seasons as a teenager.
Umeå IK reached the UEFA semifinals in 08-09 and 09-10, but fell to Zvezda Perm (Russia) in 2009 and Lyon in 2010. German clubs won both years, but the increasing diversification of Champions League Final participants signaled a new era for the sport, and UIK was struggling to keep up.
Umeå IK had built arguably the best squad in Europe; unfortunately, the cost to keep those world-class players in Sweden increased dramatically.
Marta's $15,000-per-month salary was almost unheard at the time in the sport, but with the up-and-coming Division 1 Féminine in France, the expansion of pro leagues in the United States and the growing dominance of the Frauen-Bundesliga, paying that type of salary was necessary to stay competitive.
The club was then hit hard by the recession of 2008. UIK was already struggling financially, losing $2.2 million in 2006, and in 2008 the club recorded a deficit of $3 million. The recession then caused sponsorship revenue to decline by nearly 50 percent, further compounding the situation.
The bookkeeping shortfalls were conspicuous to the players, and there was a growing sense that the club was in limbo. UIK was then handed a stiff setback in 2008 when Marta declined a new contract for the following season.
Rumors of potential destinations were plentiful, and in the end the Brazilian star joined the Los Angeles Sol of Women's Professional Soccer (WPS) in the United States in January of 2009.
She downplayed the financial aspect, instead citing competitiveness as the reason for her move.
"For me the most important thing is to be in a place where the best players in the world are playing," Marta said, "and this is what they are trying to do here. The American League is being considered one of the best in the world, so I had to come now."
This quote foreshadowed the future of the club, as Marta's departure signaled the first of many key exits from Umeå IK. UIK finished second in the Damallsvenskan in 2009 — its four league losses were the most suffered by the squad in a decade — and by the next season, the squad was almost unrecognizable.
The final departure came after the 2009 season, when star striker Hanna Ljungberg retired after suffering a serious knee injury.
Umeå's Champions League semifinal appearance in 2009-10 would be the last farewell for the club, which would finish a disappointing seventh in the league that summer. Money continued to be an issue; the club staved off bankruptcy in 2011, but in 2016 a weakened Umeå side was relegated from the Damallsvenskan.
"It is always easy to sit back and use hindsight to say what we should have done,” UIK managing director Britta Åkerlund said back in 2011. “But, it is clear that I regret that were not tougher when it came to saving money.
"I don’t know how much of our trouble can be traced back to Marta, but that clearly played a role."
It was the end of an era.
Umeå IK's downfall did not signal a demise for Swedish football though, as Damallsvenskan clubs continued to place well in European competition in the 2010s
Tyresö FF was the new power emerging in Damallsvenskan during this decade. Thanks to significant funding from local businessman Hans Löfgren and a network of sponsors, the club went from the fourth-tier in 2006 to Damallsvenskan champs in 2012. Two years later, Tyresö was in the Champions League Final after winning its four knockout-stage ties by a combined score of 19-3.
Just as UIK had done in the late 2000s, Tyresö continued the legacy of importing foreign talent to Sweden — but this time at a much higher price. Tyresö had just five Swedes in a starting lineup that also featured three Americans, a Dane, a Spaniard and, most importantly, Brazilian superstar Marta and her ludicrous price tag.
Marta's $400,000-per-year salary was four times more than she made in the United States and was even, "partly blamed for destabilizing the WPS," which folded in 2012 amid financial difficulties.
Along with Marta, Tyresö built a formidable squad that immediately became a European contender.
The backline featured Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg, who would go on to combine for more than 100 USWNT caps. Spaniard Verónica Boquete was the creative force in the midfield, and the attacking duo of Marta and Christen Press was as good as the continent had ever seen.
And the five Swedes in the lineup? Three currently have more than 100 international caps, while midfielder Caroline Seger is one off the Swedish record with 219 appearances, a record she could equal in the 2020 Olympic gold-medal match against Canada.
It was almost fitting though that the Wolfsburg side Tyresö met in the final in 2014 was anchored by Nilla Fischer, formerly of Malmö and currently tied for third in all-time Swedish caps with 185.
Sweden still produced some of the best footballers in the world, it just couldn't retain them.
In the end, Marta's two goals were not enough, as Wolfsburg came back from 2-0 down to win 4-3.
But even before the opening whistle, the future of Tyresö was in a state of uncertainty.
The large sums of money Tyresö spent to acquire its star players put the club under some serious debt, and by the start of 2014 it was essentially bankrupt. All of its UCL prize money went directly to creditors, while Swedish bankruptcy laws meant that the government was covering the players' wages.
Marta, Seger and Boquete were already set to leave when their contracts expired in June — the middle of the Swedish domestic season — and the three American were set to head back home and play in the NWSL.
Just two weeks after the Champions League Final, Tyresö was forced to withdraw from the Damallsvenskan due to a lack of players.
Between 10-11 and 17-18, Sweden sent a team to the UCL quarterfinals eight consecutive times, with four different clubs making a total of 11 quarterfinal appearances. Yet Tyresö FF in 2013-14 was only one to advance past the quarterfinals.
Marta accounted for four of these appearances — one with Tyresö and three with FC Rosengård (formerly known as Malmö), which the Brazilian joined after Tyresö's collapse. Including her time with Umeå IK, Marta garnered eight quarterfinals, three runners-up and a champions medal in the Women's Champions League.
But with just one UCL Final appearance since 2008, Sweden is no longer the European power it once was.
In 2018-19, the quarterfinals of the Women's UCL did not include a Swedish club for the first time in the history of the cup. The same thing happened the following season.
Rosengård ended the drought by reaching the final eight in 20-21 before losing to Bayern Munich — one of many women's sides that has only gained prominence in the last decade. It was the ninth consecutive season that Rosengård was eliminated in the round of 16 or quarterfinals.
Sweden is currently ranked fifth in the UEFA Women's Champions League association coefficient, making it just one of six European nations that will send three clubs to the UCL for the upcoming season. Yet this is the country's lowest ranking since the coefficient was first tracked in 01-02.
As for the national side, the Blue and Yellow are also ranked fifth by FIFA and have consistently been among the best in the world, reaching numerous semifinals and finals in international competition. Still, the country has just a Euro 1984 title to show for it.
Even though the days of Swedish dominance in the Champions League are over, there has been no drop in the quality at the national level. Sweden's best players are still playing UCL football, it's just that many of them are doing so for foreign clubs.
Goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl plays for Atlético Madrid after previously suiting up for Chelsea and Wolfsburg. Defenders Magdalena Eriksson and Jonna Andersson were teammates of Lindahl at Chelsea and still play for the Blues. Attackers Kosovare Asllani and Sofia Jakobsson suit up for Real Madrid, and Fridolina Rolfö recently joined them in Spain — moving from Wolfsburg to Barcelona.
"When we look at players now, we also look at young players from abroad that see us as the next step,” Therese Sjogran, sporting director of Rosengård, said in July of 2021. “Before, it was obvious that we were the next step, but now we are just trying to find our place in the food chain.
“We can still compete with the best teams in Europe. We played Bayern Munich in the Champions League this spring. They won, but we could still compete — but, financially, we can't. We are struggling a little bit with our own identity."
The peak of women's club football in Sweden has passed, but could this actually benefit Swedish soccer?
"Today, we don't have the best players in the league," said Andree Jeglertz, coach of Umea IK 2004 to 2008 and now at coaching Linköpings. "But we have better coaches, we have better structure in all teams, better identity for each team, we give young players more possibilities to play and there is an idea in each club of how they would like to play and what they would like to do.
“That wasn't the case earlier because then it was just about winning every day. The identity of each club is stronger today than it was. I think that is a key thing."
Sjorgran agrees, suggesting that the balance between young players and experienced veterans in the Damallsvenskan helps keep the league competitive internationally and is beneficial for developing the country's budding talent.
The major difference now is that the final phase for these players is ultimately moving abroad, where they can compete against Europe's best talent in Engand, Spain and Germany.
The Damallsvenskan has found the balance between European competitiveness and fiscal responsibility, learning from the mistakes of Umeå IK and Tyresö FF to create a more sustainable footballing model.
The days of competing in the Champions League Final are likely over, and the probability of another Ramona Bachmann or Marta coming to Sweden is becoming increasingly slim.
But Sweden is still producing some of the best young talent in women's football, and clubs are building their squads around this local talent instead of importing expensive foreigners.
The Damallsvenskan boasts the likes of midfielder Hanna Bennison, who already has 47 appearances for Rosengård and seven caps for Sweden before her 19th birthday.
"I have probably never seen such a great talent" - Sweden captain Caroline SegerTechnique, physicality and an eye for goal - Hanna Bennison has it all ⭐
— Goal (@goal) March 23, 2021
The golden years of Swedish club football are now in the past, and for many fans, this decline is tough to take. But sometimes the most meaningful aspect of that peak is the positive impact it has in the years to come.
The midnight sun no longer shines as bright in Sweden, but the winter isn't coming any time soon.