Sweden is a beautiful country and full of lovely people, and has produced a number of brilliant footballers who have graced the pitch at the Stadium of Light. It also has a self-image as an open, progressive, liberal, and tolerant society.
But, like all European societies, scratch the surface and there’s an underbelly of racism that has existed for many decades, and still exists today. Indeed, it’s far-right political party the Swedish Democrats are now a powerful force in the country.
When Sunderland, along with Manchester City and West Bromwich Albion, travelled to Scandinavia to play a “friendly” showcase - nicknamed the “Swenglish Cup” in early October 1984, the outcome couldn't have been less cordial.
Sweden was pretty much monocultural at the time, certainly compared to Britain in the 1980s, and Sunderland’s tie was in the capital against Stockholm’s working class side Hammarby, who had developed a terrace culture drawing heavily on the that of England - and that included the vociferous racism directed towards any black footballers who happened to feature on the pitch at the Soderstadion.
Sunderland’s side contained two black players, Gary Bennett and Howard Gayle, and they were subjected to a torrent of racially-motivated abuse and the team as a whole went through a “frightening experience” according to Martin Howey, writing in the Newcastle Journal a few days later.
Sunderland had three players sent off, Barry Venison departed after receiving two yellow cards on 50 minutes, and captain Clive Walker was sent off for with three minutes left for violent conduct after being provoked, according to Ashhurst, by the opposition players and particularly the referee who had given 24 fouls against Sunderland and four against Hammarby.
The report in the Journal suggests only two players departed, although the authoritative StatCat website notes that Walker was joined in seeing red by Paul Lemon, as we finished the game with eight men.
Sunderland’s manager, the late, great Len Ashurst, took his two black players off midway through the second half, following Gayle’s receipt of a yellow card, rather than have them face the racists any longer.
Sunderland lost 2-1, but after the game nobody was particularly concerned about the result. Of more concern was the potential for those players who had been sent off to be banned for forthcoming domestic games as a result of their “offences” on their travels.
However, after the game, a Swedish fan handed Sunderland club officials a video of the game, which he hoped would help with any appeal against FIFA-mandated sanctions by the English FA. And the FA did have a sympathetic ear open to Sunderland’s cause, their spokesperson stating that they were “not averse to listening” to our case.
Sunderland ultimately escaped a sanction. The referee, a Stockholm-based Finn named Rune Larsson, perhaps had second thoughts about the nature of the game when reflecting afterwards, and wrote in his report to the Swedish FA that the bookings and sendings off were “slight offences”.
Of course, Hammarby faced no charges, no punishment, no comeback for the behaviour of their supporters, and the racism was not the main feature of coverage of the game. 37 years later, players are still facing racial abuse - from schoolchildren, no less - for simply doing their jobs, and with minimal sanction from the footballing authorities!