Assyriska, Special club, special fans

6/17/2005 4:06:04 AM
More and more, you see people who have visited family in Sweden wearing the scarves and jerseys here in Toronto Nick Dinkha (photo), a 36-year-old Bay Street bond analyst, is one of the estimated 25,000 Assyrians in the GTA

Assyrians around the world follow the exploits of their beloved Swedish team, Assyriska, on the Internet

The rising fortunes of a small Scandinavian soccer team founded by factory workers have become the unlikely focus of an estimated 4 million Assyrians worldwide.

Assyriska Foreningen Sodertalje's three-decade long progress from a weekend kick-around club to a professional side in Sweden's elite league is a sporting fairy tale. In Canadian terms, it's the equivalent of a beer-league hockey team making the NHL.

But Assyriska is much more than a sports success story. The team has become the national obsession of millions of immigrants scattered around the globe. Like the Kurds, the Assyrians — a stateless nation of middle-eastern Christians who come from an area bounded by Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey — have never had their own country to root for in the Olympics. What they have is Assyriska.

"It's our national team," says Nick Dinkha, a Bay Street bond analyst.

Dinkha, 36, is one of the estimated 25,000 Assyrians living in the GTA. Like many of his compatriots, he goes to extraordinary lengths to follow the tiny club thousands of kilometres away. The games aren't broadcast live internationally, so Dinkha is forced to follow via Internet radio ... often in Swedish.

"You don't really understand it. But you can hear the names of the players," Dinkha says.

But why listen at all, if you can't follow the game?

"Why do people listen to opera? They can't understand that either," says Layth Jato, president of Toronto's Assyrian Athletic Club. "For us, it's saying, `There they are.' That's enough."

Assyriska was started in 1971 in the town of Sodertalje, home of tennis legend Bjorn Borg. The founders were Assyrian immigrants working at the local Scania truck factory. The name "Assyriska" paid tribute to their heritage.

After four years, the team was admitted into the seventh division — the lowest rung in Swedish football. By the mid-'80s, the team had risen as high as the fourth division. In order to spur its progress, in 1990 Assyriska began admitting non-Assyrian players.

"We are southern, warm-blooded people who like to run with the ball. It's good to have a couple of solid Swedes at the back," Assyriska administrator Fehmi Tasci explained to London's Observer.

Last year, it made history by winning promotion to Sweden's highest league, the Allsvenskan. It celebrated by hiring a Portuguese coach to lead a multi-ethnic side populated by Assyrians, Swedes, a Ghanaian, a Bosnian and a Sierra Leonean.

It began its first season in the top tier in April. It's struggled so far, winning only two of nine games. But that doesn't seem to bother the Assyrian fans much. Internet chatrooms usually filled with heated discussions about the war in Iraq now devote almost as much space to soccer tactics and Allsvenskan results. When the games aren't available on radio in any language, Swedish Assyrians update live game scores while thousands around the world huddle over their monitors.

"We're in 82 countries, but the Internet has become our home," Dinkha says.

If they can wait, fans can catch post-game highlights on Assyrian-language satellite TV.

Dinkha is trying to organize live broadcasts of the games at the Assyrian community centre in Mississauga. He's already bought the big-screen monitor, but he's still trying to untangle the mysteries of Swedish satellite feeds.

For many Assyrians, travelling to Sodertalje to watch a game has become a pilgrimage of sorts.

"More and more, you see people who have visited family in Sweden wearing the scarves and jerseys here in Toronto," Dinkha says.

Hundreds converged from around the world in 2003 when Assyriska, then a second-division club, made it to the final of the Swedish Cup. Assyriska lost the game to top-ranked Elfsborg, but the highlight for Assyrians worldwide came off the pitch.

As the players took to the field, fans unfurled a massive Assyrian flag big enough to cover one entire end of the stands.

"When I saw that, it felt as if my country was being born," says Jato.

Jato, 43, is planning a trip to Sodertalje in late July. He is helping put together a North American-Assyrian team to play in Sweden.

In all, four players from each of the GTA, Detroit, Chicago and California will be chosen to play against Assyriska's senior and reserve squads in a series of exhibition matches. After its Scandinavian tour, the team continues on to Iran to play in the "Assyrian Olympics."

Jato has already tapped Danny Jirta, 23, of Hamilton, as one of the Canadian contingent. Jirta has taken three months off from his contracting job so that he can work out three times a day in preparation for the two-week tour.

"I'm taking this more than seriously," Jirta says. "It's an Assyrian team. I want to honour that."

Assyriska's immediate challenge is surviving in the Allsvenskan. It's playing in a borrowed stadium against better funded rivals like Malmo and Djurgardens. A new 6,700-seat facility won't be ready until the Swedish season ends in October. All in all, the odds seem long.

But Assyrians in Toronto and around the world are intent on enjoying every minute of the ride.