Back in May 2005, the crowd at the Ullevi stadium was in a state of advanced nervous tension as IFK Goteborg's George Mourad stepped forward to take a penalty - the 26th of the evening, in fact.
The ball rebounded from Copenhagen keeper Benny Gall's head, before bouncing out of play off an upright. The missed spot-kick meant FC Copenhagen won the first Royal League final 12-11 on penalties, thus becoming the inaugural Scandinavian champions. The final had ended dead-locked at 1-1 after normal and extra time.
It is hard to imagine a more dramatic conclusion to any tournament, let alone a competition in its first year of existence. The prestigous title also brought the Danish side the welcome sum of approximately €1 million, a huge amount of money in Scandinavian club football, where revenue from European competition tends to be scarce. Copenhagen clearly enjoyed their night of triumph as they came back a year later and defended the regional crown, albeit in far less dramatic circumstances, defeating Lillestrom SK on this occasion by the only goal of the match.
The second year of the tournament saw a disappointing drop in attendances, as exceptionally poor weather limited the total to around 200,000 fans. The 48 matches in the inaugural event attracted 260,000 paying customers. "We were hoping for more, but the weather has definitely taken its toll, especially in Norway and Sweden," Royal League Managing Director Thomas Christensen observed.
The Royal League kicked off in the autumn of 2004 with a thrilling 4-4 draw between Rosenborg and Djurgarden.
The tournament was founded by the Danish, Norwegian and Swedish Football Associations for sporting and financial reasons, with four main objectives: to promote the development of the game at all levels in Scandinavia, to offer the clubs an attractive sporting and financial incentive, to help Scandinavian teams become more competitive (the Royal League fills the gap created by the long Scandinavian winter breaks, and is partly intended to help teams stay in shape for European competition), and to bring on new young talent.
The Royal League, Europe's first professional cross-border league set-up, is open to the four best teams from each of the national championships in Denmark (SAS Ligaen) , Norway (Tippeligaen) and Sweden (Allsvenskan) . The 12 teams are sorted into three groups according to a coefficient system, with quarter and semi-final stages introduced last season.
The name Royal League reflects the fact that all the participating nations are kingdoms, but also symbolises a measure of distance from Finland, whose clubs were not incorporated at the start as officials questioned their sporting credentials and spectator appeal. The competition is mainly financed by local sponsorship and the sale of TV rights. Three different television stations signed five-year deals right at the start. In the mid-term, teams from Finland and Iceland may be considered for admission.
Copenhagen with work to do
In the current campaign, seven of the last eight berths have already been filled. The quarter-finals in early March will feature SK Brann, Lillestrom SK, Valerenga, OB, Brondby IF, IF Elfsborg and Helsingborgs IF, with FC Copenhagen still needing four points from three remaining group matches in February to seal the remaining place. AIK still nurture hopes of capturing the final berth for themselves, but the matter is out of their hands as they have already completed their group programme.
To most observers' surprise, serial Norwegian champions Rosenborg BK are already out of the running, but the remaining Norwegian trio of Brann, Lillestrom and Valerenga top the three groups. The top two spots in the scoring charts are also occupied by Norwegians.
Valerenga hitman Jan Derek Sorensen leads the way on six goals ahead of Rosenborg's Oyvind Storflor on four. The four teams amassing the most points in the first group phase enjoy home advantage in the quarter-finals, which are decided in a single match on a win-or-out basis.
The 31 matches so far this term have attracted 117,484 spectators, with a highest single attendance of 7,149 for Copenhagen's meeting with Lillestrom. Royal League managing director Thomas Christensen declared himself pleased with the progress made, saying: "The Royal League is a success. We have excellent TV coverage, good sponsors and high standards."