If it wasn’t for this I wouldn’t be playing football anymore. It’s changed my life. I’ve found my love for football again.”
It may have been down to sheer economics, inertia, cultural narrow-mindedness or even just coincidence, but England were the only squad at the World Cup without a single player based abroad. Every other country had at least one player not earning their living in their homeland, the Scandinavian squads had barely a player each with domestic clubs. The power of the Premier League (and lack of language teaching in our schools) sees almost every top British player opt to stay at home. There are, however, dozens of Brits playing abroad in a country few Brits visit but where almost everyone speaks English: Sweden.
The primary lure is an opportunity to remain professional and the mechanism by which many get their first taste of Swedish football is Erasmus+, the EU’s social mobility programme. League Football Education, the education and welfare arm of the EFL’s youth department, have been operating the programme since 2008, and have now sent around 200 players to Sweden on three-month placements.
These players have been recently released by their EFL clubs at the end of two year apprenticeships and, without a job offer or university place lined up, are often at a loose end. As part of their extensive Progression programme, LFE reach out to these 18-year-olds, and offer them a chance to reignite their football dream in a Swedish second chance saloon.
Eighteen months ago, Zak Guerfi was playing at Under-18 level for Stevenage FC and Tunisia. A few months later he was drifting around minor non-league clubs in his native Hertfordshire.
“Last season was the worst year of my life. I thought non-league was horrible. I left Bishops Stortford because I wasn’t going to get paid and then I couldn’t get a club for two months! I thought, what am I doing? My Dad came over from Tunisia and said I should make a choice as that was not what I worked for. I rang my regional officer at LFE and he mentioned Sweden. I jumped at it and came over as soon as I could. If it wasn’t for this I wouldn’t be playing football anymore. It’s changed my life. I’ve found my love for football again.”
Despite arriving just south of the Arctic Circle at the tail end of winter, when the temperature was minus 30C, Guerfi hit the ground running. Within a month or so of joining Bodens IK, a fallen giant now battling to get out of the fourth tier but with facilities to match most English League Two clubs, he had been offered a two-season deal.
“I had no hesitation signing the contract. It’s entirely what I worked for. Going back to England would not have made sense. Non-league football is always going to be there for me back home. An agent told me not to sign here because I’d be off the radar. Being on the bench for Biggleswade is not exactly on the radar, is it! If I play out here and come back with two years full-time football under my belt, why not do that? It’s a great experience.”
Many English players feel the same and, once their three months is up, stay as long as they are wanted. Around 40% are offered a pro contract. Some stay for the bulk of their active career. Bodens’ star striker Jack Serrant-Green has been in Sweden for five years since being released by Burton Albion, ex Notts County youngster Lewis Whiteley has made a life for himself at IFK Ostersunds, and former Barnet striker Moses Duckrell is working his way up the divisions. Playing against them all in Division 2 Norrland is former Plymouth youngster Toby Davis. The very first ex-apprentice LFE sent out to Sweden, Davis is playing with Duckrell for Friska Viljor and monitoring the placement players as LFE’s liaison officer.
Being on the programme is similar to being an overseas student, attending training rather than lectures. The pace of life where most of LFE’s Swedish partner clubs are based is tranquil, too.
“My life is chilled out here: I wake up, go to the beach at the lake on my bike, come to training, go to the gym, all within 15 minutes,” reveals Guerfi. And yet one of the clubs who have had the most success with the LFE programme are Ytterhogdal, a well-respected fourth-tier side based in a hamlet 90 minutes from the boutique city of Sundsvall on the Gulf of Bothnia. They have taken LFE players since 2009 and now, of the population of 534, 15 are full-time foreign footballers!
There is little money in the lower levels of Swedish football. Some clubs are amateur, others have full-time players on low wages. But training in the late afternoon – usually four times a week – enables all players to work or study, operating the dual lives that many athletes are used to in other sports. The funding from Erasmus+ enables LFE players to receive a similar weekly wage to their apprenticeship – little more than £100 – but with free food and accommodation, the overall package is attractive to an unemployed teenager. And with it all funded by Erasmus+, Swedish clubs are happy to gamble on unknown young players. Neither player nor club has anything to lose.
“What you earn is yours to put in your pocket,” explained Guerfi, who shares student-style accommodation in Boden with overseas players from Bermuda, Nigeria, Canada, and America. “Your rent is paid for, gym, food and flights home. The money is not the best at this level but you have the chance to move up. If you do well you will get seen. If you can get to Superettan (second tier) you can play anywhere in Europe or the States.
“I can see why English players stay here for years. The only time it’s a bit tough is if you have a bad session or game and you’re used to going home and your mum saying ‘Don’t worry’. Here there are five lads in the house saying ‘You were rubbish today’!”
The training demands and low wages means there are few over 30s playing at fourth tier level which means a style of football attractive to Academy players deemed not good enough (yet) for English senior professional football. Juma Omar, who swapped MK Dons for the remote rural fotbal outpost of Ytterhogdal last spring, agrees: “It’s like reserve games back home, the (Under) 21s or 23s: a lot of young players, technical football, but not intense like first team games in England.”
The poster boy for LFE’s programme is Jamie Hopcutt, who was released by York City and went out to join Ostersunds FK when they were in the fourth tier of Swedish football. Three rapid promotions, a Swedish Cup triumph later, Hopcutt found himself starring in the Europa League. The adventure saw Graham Potter’s team eliminate Turkish giants Galatasaray and Hertha Berlin and draw with Athletic Bilbao, before the astonishing run was ended by Arsenal – but only after an historic win at the Emirates.
That is all an exceptional dream, but the grounded reality in Sweden is still preferable for most English players there than a string of rejections from clubs back home.
Read more about it: http://www.lfe.org.uk/progression/player-placements