Assyrians pray for shock in Swedish league debut

4/11/2005 3:36:44 PM
Assyriska Soccer Team

STOCKHOLM, April 11 (Reuters) - A soccer club established by Assyrian Christians 30 years ago makes its debut in Sweden's premier league on Tuesday.

Assyriska was founded as part of an immigrants' association in 1974. It has since struggled up through the divisions and capped a rags-to-riches story with promotion last year after another team was relegated due to financial difficulties.

"Our goal is to cling on in the top division. We have a good squad and I'm quite optimistic," said chairman Ferit Varli.

Hardcore fans are setting their sights slightly higher.

"I think we're going to shock all of Sweden. Assyriska will do well, we'll win the title," said Sabo Rhawi, head of the team's fan club in the central Swedish town of Sodertalje.

"I don't think there's anything more important for lots of Assyrians than this. Our biggest wish is that Assyriska does well this year."

The Assyrians, a Christian minority from the historical region of Mesopotamia between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris in the Middle East, have never had a state of their own.

Assyriska has become a quasi-national team for Assyrian Christians around the globe and fans in 82 countries last year followed their games on satellite television channel Suroyo-tv.

It has not yet been decided whether Suroyo-tv will broadcast the games this year although Sweden's public radio will provide relief by broadcasting Tuesday's match versus Stockholm side Hammarby live on internet radio.

"I've been told that people from the U.S. and Australia want to listen to the games," said Augin Kurt, who will do the game commentary in Assyrian, or Syriac as the language is also known.

The team contains a wide variety of nationalities, including Swedes, a Latvian and one player from Sierra Leone, and may need to abandon its skilful style if it is to survive the physical approach in Sweden's premier league.

The side is still not fully professional as it features several amateur players.

"They will have to ... play more tactically and defensively, but they won't manage to combine these new tactics with winning games. They will have a lot of draws," said Johan Esk, a columnist at daily Dagens Nyheter.