Assyriska rises to Sweden's promised land
They have been called modern day churches, provided a sanctuary for the oppressed and an escape for the masses. But despite the religious likeness, few football stadiums can claim to house spectators speaking the language of the Lord - until now.
Aramaic, the tongue said to have been spoken by Jesus Christ, is regularly chanted by the faithful of Assyriska, a club in, of all places, Central Sweden. Last month, the team, founded in 1974 by descendants of the Assyrian people who had fled from the Ottoman Empire in 1914, gained promotion to the top flight of the domestic league for the very first time.
"Assyriska feels like a national team for the entire group," said club president Zeki Bisso. "For all of us who were oppressed in our home countries for many years ... this felt superb, it was something every Assyrian wanted to take pride in."
The very first Christian converts, the Assyrians, historically from the Mesopotamian region between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris in the Middle East, have never had a state of their own. After the beginning of the First World War, a great number dispersed across the globe with many of that diaspora ending up in Sweden. Since then, the club has provided a means of identity and unity not only for those living in Scandinavia but for close to two million Assyrians living throughout the world.
For a people who have become used to playing the waiting game, 30 years for Assyriska to rise from the depths of the seventh division to Sweden's Premier League was not too much to ask. But, despite screening the decider against Orgryte live to 82 countries with thousands more gathering from all over Europe, it so nearly ended in tears.
Assyriska, who had won the first leg of the play-off for promotion 2-1 at home in Sodertalje, fell to an extra time winner in the second leg. It seemed like more disappointment for a team that had failed at the final hurdle in the Swedish Cup the previous year.
Intervention, though, was to come from the Swedish Football Association (SVFF) a day later. Because top flight club Orebro had run into debt, Assyriska were elevated to the Premier League.
"At that moment we just felt such enormous joy, I figured everybody in the world is Assyrian now, even God is Assyrian, or at least a supporter," said Robil Haidari, the club's marketing director.
Local resident Abraham Staifo could not contain his joy.
"It encouraged the young ones to feel pride in being what they are, and brought tears to the eyes of the elderly. It was so much more than just football," he gushed. "The Assyrian people have few opportunities to express themselves. We felt our hearts would shoot out from our chests. That is why the elderly cried."
Scattered across the globe from New Zealand to Brazil, calculations for the number of Assyrians vary from one to more than three million. In April, many will turn their gaze back to Sweden where Assyriska, now coached by Portugal's Jose Morais, will rub shoulders with the likes of Malmo, IFK Gothenburg and Halmstad when the new season kicks off. Who knows what 2005 will bring? But one thing is for sure - the Assyrians will never stop believing…