Court case threatens to take gloss off Ostersund's rise
By STEVE DOUGLAS
OSTERSUND, Sweden (AP) It was one of European soccer's most heartwarming stories, an unconventional club from a sleepy city in central Sweden making an eight-year journey from the amateur ranks to beating Arsenal in the Europa League.
But was the remarkable rise of Ostersund built on illegal foundations?
In a case that has rocked Swedish sport in recent months, Daniel Kindberg, the larger-than-life former chairman of Ostersund who is regarded as the mastermind behind the team's success, is heading to court for a trial in which he is accused of serious financial crimes.
The basic premise? Kindberg is alleged to have helped funnel 11.8 million kronor ($1.3 million) of taxpayers' money into the club in an elaborate scheme that involved two other men and three companies - one being the municipality's housing corporation for which Kindberg was chief executive.
Kindberg could go to jail for a maximum of six years, according to the Swedish Economic Crime Authority. Ostersund could lose its place in the top league in Sweden. A small soccer club's great achievement, which was celebrated and enjoyed across the continent, might be tainted.
"As good as it was for the Ostersund brand with this fairy tale of the OFK team going into Europe," Ostersund's mayor, Bosse Svensson, told The Associated Press, "this is just as bad."
Kindberg, who denies the charges, was arrested a year ago and has stood down from his role as Ostersund chairman.
The case has both shocked and polarized the natives of this remote city - located 300 miles (480 kilometers) northwest of Stockholm and with a population of around 50,000 - that is better known for its winter sports than its soccer.
"Ostersund is split," said Linda Hedenljung, the investigative journalist at The Ostersund Post whose 2014 interview with Kindberg, and subsequent research, unearthed the scandal. "One half say keep digging; the other half say stop interfering with our beloved football team."
Hedenljung's newspaper is calling the case the region's biggest story in more than 100 years.
A cloud has settled over the club as Ostersund begins its fourth straight season in Allsvenskan, Sweden's top league. The club is not on trial, too - although three other officials at Ostersund have been investigated in the matter - but it has been stained by association.
That's because Kindberg, a former army battalion commander, and his unique approach have come to embody Ostersund's soccer team. Believing it needed to be different to grow and survive alongside the bigger and richer clubs in the south of Sweden, Kindberg developed a "Culture Academy" where players learn skills such as stand-up comedy, art, dancing and rapping, and perform them in front of the city's inhabitants. The idea is to challenge the mental process and decision-making under pressure of players and the coaching staff.
Then there is a recruitment policy where Ostersund target players who have lost their way, been rejected, or failed to reach their potential.
The results have been stunning. From being in Sweden's fourth division as recently as 2011, Ostersund was promoted to the third tier in 2011, the second tier in 2012 and the top tier in 2015. It won the Swedish Cup in 2017 to earn a place in the Europa League, where the team advanced to the knockout stage before losing over two legs to Arsenal despite winning the second game 2-1 at Emirates Stadium.
It was regarded as a fairy tale, engineered by Kindberg and his philosophy and carried out by Graham Potter, the English manager that Ostersund had from 2010-18.
But were there other factors at play?
"There've always been quite strong opinions that this is like a fake or a fraud because we have done things differently in terms of how we danced and did all the cultural acadamies," said Martin Johansson, Ostersund's chief executive, in an interview with the AP in the club's boardroom. "I think football is quite a conservative place and there's always going to be divided opinions when something new comes out in a conservative world.
"One group want (the Kindberg scandal) to overshadow everything, while the other group is quite comfortable in feeling it is not this that made the club do the things it did."
Johansson is aware the threat of ejection from Allsvenskan hangs over the club if Kindberg is found guilty of his alleged crimes.
"Obviously we always need to have it in the back of our mind," he said. "But from our point of view, the club is not in the court case as well. So I think we should feel proud of what we've done, not scared of it."
And that is the dilemma the locals in Ostersund are wrestling with: Does this place an asterisk next to its soccer team's ascent?
"It would be a pity," said Elisabeth Richardsson, marketing manager for Visit Ostersund, "if the trial would overshadow all the performances that the team has made.�I think it's very important, which I don't think everyone does, to make a difference between him and his trial, and the football club."
But Kindberg - regarded as "Mr Ostersund" because of his notoriety here with soccer and the real-estate business - has come to represent the city, and his alleged actions have left a bitter taste for some.
According to Svensson, it will take years for the municipality to clear up the "damage" he says Kindberg has done to Ostersund. Svensson said the municipality has made losses of "around 200-220 million Swedish kronor ($21.6-23.8 million), which we find is connected to his management - or mismanagement - in general."
The municipality is suing Kindberg for damages in a separate case.
Meanwhile, Ostersund as a soccer club is attempting to move on without its long-time leader and inspiration. There are new faces in the boardroom and a much-changed set of players on the field .
"We've signed eight or nine players, and one or two might ask a question, `Oh we've read this, what's going in?'" Ostersund coach Ian Burchnall said. "But people still want to be here. It's a good club.
"I just work with what I've got. If something happens, then you have to take a new route."
The trial had been due to start on April 24, but has been postponed until October.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80
Updated April 19, 2019