Monday 21 January 2019

Remembering The Royal League (Expanded piece)

A few months ago I wrote short a piece on the Royal and have since decided to expand on it further and give a more detailed account of the short lived competition. I hope you enjoy this more in depth look at Scandinavia's Royal League, of which a version was featured on the These Football Times website. You can read the original piece here.

"If we don't find a way forward and negotiate a new TV deal it doesn't look good for the Royal League”. Those were the words of then Brøndby chairman Per Bjerregaard after his club won the third and final instalment of Scandinavia's short lived regional Champions League style club tournament, a Nordic festival of football called the Royal League.

Described by some as a failed experiment the Royal League ran for three seasons starting in 2004/05 with the four best teams from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden all taking part and qualification based on the previous season’s domestic league positions. Split into three groups, the first tournament saw the top two teams from each of those progress to a second group phase before those two group winners met in the tournament final. For the second and third seasons, the second group phase was replaced by a knockout format with the two best third placed sides also joining the first and second placed teams for this.

Aside from the main UEFA competitions, there has been over the years many weird and wonderful club competitions involving teams from more than one country, albeit usually short lived and often undervalued. These included such delights as the Texaco Cup, involving teams from England, Scotland, and Ireland, the self explanatory Anglo Scottish and Anglo Italian Cups, and the Setanta Cup, involving teams from both sides of the Irish border. There have also been many more ideas for potential competitions that never came to fruition such as an Atlantic League involving teams from places such as Scotland, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia, a combined English-Scottish League Cup, and a European Super League, which, as yet has never progressed into anything serious and hopefully never will.

Even the mere idea of such competitions, however, has always fascinated me - even if I haven't on every occasion been in favour - and when the Royal League was created I remember reading about it with absolute intrigue. The competition did not get much media attention in Britain and it became something I mostly read about briefly in football magazines. Flicking through old magazines recently (I am Grade A hoarder when it comes to these things) I found myself reading various articles about the competition, how it proceeded over the three seasons, and a short piece on its initial demise. Searching online gave me more information and I felt compelled to write its story, which, barring the odd magazine article in publications such as World Soccer, has mostly gone untold on these shores.

Some might argue that the Royal League did well to last three years. I may have slightly sentimental memories of following from afar, but in reality, right from the beginning it struggled to gain credibility, not everyone was convinced by the competition. "I would never give priority to the Royal League. The domestic league and any UEFA Cup matches are the most important,” said Hans Backe the Swedish coach of Denmark's FC Copenhagen. Staying in Denmark and AaB coach Søren Kusk was, however, more worried about the extra game's participation would involve, referring to keeping his players fit and free from injury he said: "There is no doubt that more matches will result in more damage". 

The tournament also struggled to gain enough sponsorship, with eight sponsors sought after, and there were also problems trying to secure suitable TV deals in each of the three markets. This meant that in the months leading up to it, there were genuine suggestions that the competition would never take place. The idea of playing matches over the winter also worried some, with Norway and Sweden both running their domestic leagues over the summer, this is to avoid the harsh conditions of Nordic winters, that are not often suited to playing football. "I shake my head at the impossible Royal League. No club wants a Scandinavian football league in the middle of winter," wrote Mats Olsson a sports correspondent for Sweden's Expressen newspaper.

It was not all doom and gloom for the Royal League however, as some were enthusiastic about the prospect of a new Nordic tournament, with Frank Grønlund, sporting director at Lillestrøm SK in Norway for example envious that his team had not qualified for the first edition, "The Royal League looks very exciting" he declared.

How the Royal League actually came about has been difficult for me to determine, but reading old Norwegian newspaper articles online, it seems that Rosenborg and their then Sporting Director Rune Bratseth were both rather keen on a Nordic club competition, and heavily involved in initial talks regarding its creation. Various other businessmen, club directors, league executives, and ex-players also got involved, and eventually, the idea actually came to fruition.

With the initial problems regarding sponsorship and television rights all eventually resolved in time, the first edition of the Royal League kicked off on 11 November 2004, with all twelve teams involved on that opening day. Brann's first game came just days after winning the Norwegian Cup, whilst the Swedish teams, including Brann's first opponents Halmstads, started the competition just weeks after their domestic league had finished. Unlike the other two countries, Denmark's domestic league was not a summer one, meaning they were not even halfway through their season yet and were represented by teams selected based on last season's league positions. Highlights from those opening fixtures included Brøndby's 3–2 home win over Tromsø, and Rosenborg's 4–4 home draw with Djurgårdens of Sweden.

In Group A it was the Norwegians who came out on top, with a Vålerenga -Rosenborg one-two after all the fixtures were completed. The pair met on November 20, and then again in February, with Vålerenga coming out on top both times. Despite those two defeats though, Rosenborg still finished three points ahead of third placed Esbjerg from Denmark. 

After having to forfeit their final two games as punishment for earlier fielding an ineligible player, fellow Norwegians Tromsø comfortably finished bottom of a Group B table that saw FC Copenhagen, and IFK Göteborg of Sweden qualify for phase two. The other Norwegian side in the competition, SK Brann, finished second behind Sweden's Malmö in Group C. 

Group B had seen arch city rivals FC Copenhagen and Brøndby drawn against each other, and both games - a 1-1 draw and 0-2 Copenhagen victory - were undoubtedly two of the main highlights in this inaugural Group Stage.

'Norwegians in charge' reported World Soccer magazine, reflecting the dominance of the country's sides in the opening stages, but in the second phase of the tournament, it was Sweden and Denmark who came out on top.

FC Copenhagen finished top of Group One ahead of Malmö and Rosenborg, whilst in Group Two, IFK Göteborg didn't lose a single match and finished comfortably ahead of their two Norwegian opponents, Vålerenga, and Brann, who finished second and third respectively.

There was to be a £400,000 prize fund for the winners of the inaugural final, that took place in Gothenburg's Ullevi Stadium on May 26th 2005. FC Copenhagen defeated local side IFK on penalties, after a 1-1 draw in front of 10,216 spectators. Both goals had come in the first half, with rest of the match being a complete stalemate. Hjalte Bo Nørregaard gave the visitors the lead after 18 minutes, whilst 13 minutes later the hosts were level through George Mourad. No extra time was played, so they went straight to the shoot out, and it was a mammoth one at that! One which FC Copenhagen eventually won 12-11, with Nørregaard twice on target.
This first edition of the tournament was sadly plagued by poor attendances, and although the tournament's highest match attendance was a more than respectable 21,763 for one of the two Copenhagen derbies, only 272 turned up to watch Brann v Denmark's Odense BK, and Odense v Halmstads fared even worse, with only 86 people present. These were well below usual domestic league crowds.

Attendances did not fare any better for the second edition of the competition, with a low of 63 for one game. With the new format, two of the three third placed teams in the opening groups would qualify for a second stage knockout format. Danish side Midtjylland opened Group One with a thumping 4-0 of Vålerenga and finished top of the group with three wins and three draws. Hammarby finished second whilst Vålerenga in third, also qualified for the next round as one of the two best third placed teams, winning their final match against Hammarby, and finishing behind them only on goal difference. 

In Group Two Brøndby only managed a draw in their final match knowing they'd have qualified instead of Vålerenga with a win. Instead, they were going home having finished behind Lillestrøm - who'd actually qualified for the tournament this year - and city rivals FC Copenhagen, who for the second year had had the better of them by again taking four points from the two derby matches. The other third placed team to qualify were IFK Göteborg in Group Three, who secured their place by drawing with Danes Aalborg, who finished fourth but could have potentially qualified with a win. Djurgårdens and Norway's Lyn finished first and second in the group.

The two legs of the four quarter finals took place on 23rd February and 9th March respectively. Midtjylland beat Lyn 4-1 over two legs whilst Djurgårdens progressed with a 5-2 aggregate victory over Vålerenga, and after a 0-0 draw in the first leg, Lillestrøm beat IFK Göteborg 2-0 at home in the second. The fourth and final tie saw FC Copenhagen face Hammarby, and the first leg at Copenhagen's Parken Stadion saw the hosts win 2-0, but a dramatic finale to the second leg saw two goals in the last three minutes give Hammarby a 2-0 win, and see the tie end with a penalty shoot-out, which unfortunately for them, FC Copenhagen won 3-0.

The semi final first legs took place the following week, with second legs a week later, FC Copenhagen easily progressed to a second final with a 7-1 aggregate win over Midtjylland, whilst their opposition in the final would be Lillestrøm, who defeated Djurgårdens 5-1 over the two legs.

Copenhagen's Parken Stadion was the venue for the 2005/06 Royal League final . Could FC Copenhagen retain the trophy they won in the inaugural season a year earlier? Well, in the end, FC Copenhagen did win again and sealed that second successive trophy, but those in attendance had to wait until the 89th minute for what was the only goal of the game scored by FC Copenhagen's Razk Pimpong. Pimpong however, was sent off with a second yellow card for celebrating his goal by taking off his shirt. How dare he!

The 2005/06 finale wasn't the most thrilling of matches though, and the attendance figure of 13,617, was well below domestic averages at the ground. This was yet further proof that the competition was struggling to gain interest from fans in the region, something that rather low crowds for earlier matches had already suggested. 

When the Royal League entered into its final season, no one yet knew that this would be the last ever tournament, but before long the first signs were beginning to show. Attendance-wise there was only limited improvement for the third year of the competition, and as the tournament progressed, it became apparent that finding an all important new TV deal to bring in much needed revenue, was proving rather difficult.

The Group stages in 2006/07, saw the three of the four Danish teams progress to the knockout rounds. Odense BK topped Group One, followed by SK Brann, whilst third placed Helsingborgs of Sweden lost their final game, knowing they had already qualified. 

Group Two saw city rivals FC Copenhagen, and Brøndby, drawn together once more. The first meeting between the two saw a 1-0 Brøndby away win, whilst the reverse fixture saw FC Copenhagen come out on top with a 3-1 victory. That win saw them qualify for the next round, with a third placed finish behind Lillestrøm, and those city rivals Brøndby.

In Group Three third placed AIK of Sweden, and Denmark's Viborg FF in fourth faced off against each other in what was both teams final fixture, knowing neither could qualify for the knockout rounds. Vålerenga topped the Group whilst Sweden's IF Elfsborg finished second, having lost to Vålerenga both home and away.

For this third season, all knockout games were played over one leg only. In the quarter finals Brøndby were drawn at home to Brann and won 3-0 whilst Odense beat Lillestrøm on penalties after a 2-2 draw that saw extra time played for the first time having just been introduced for that season. FC Copenhagen won 2-1 away at Elfsborg to see all three remaining Danish clubs reach the semi finals where they were joined by Helsinborgs who won 2-1 away at Vålerenga.

In the semis, Brøndby came from behind to beat Odense 2-1 after extra time and this set up an all-Danish final with city rivals FC Copenhagen who had beaten Helsingborgs 3-1 at home earlier on the same day.

The 2006/07 final took place at the Brøndby Stadion on March 15 and was a heated Copenhagen derby that had a fairly healthy crowd of 17,914 watching in the stands. The only goal of the match came from the penalty spot on 38 minutes. Norwegian referee Tom Henning Øvrebø pointed to the spot when FC Copenhagen's Jesper Grønkjær pulled down Brøndby's English centre back Mark Howard. Swede Martin Ericsson took the penalty and found the net to send the home support into raptures. FC Copenhagen were according to one paper more 'aggressive' in the second half, but the second period saw no goals meaning Brøndby had gotten the better of their fierce rivals and stopped them from claiming a treble of Royal League titles.
In the run up to the final in 2007 there were rumours that next year’s tournament could be postponed or that the competition might even be scrapped for good, and although the former initially happened it was the latter is that ended up being the final result. Attendances were a little better for the Brøndby won third season, but it was financial issues and in particular, problems securing a new TV deal that proved to be the competition's downfall.

In the end, Per Bjerregaard's prediction of a potentially bleak future sadly became reality. Several teams were unwilling to participate until a TV was secured and that was the main reason for following seasons competition being cancelled. It was suggested that all problems could eventually be resolved and many were confident of a tournament taking place in the 2008/09 season with one headline in Danish newspaper BT exclaiming 'Royal League Not Dead Yet'. There was even talk of accepting reduced TV exposure and a scaled down tournament if that was what it would take to keep the competition continuing long term.

During 2008, it was again suggested that the Royal League would resume later that year, however, it was now claimed it would return under a new name, the Royal Cup, and would also include clubs from Iceland and Finland. This, in the end, did not happen and although talk of resurrecting the tournament continued for the next couple of years by 2011 all talk of the idea seems to have disappeared. 

In terms of exactly when the Royal League or the Royal Cup as it was supposed to be renamed was finally considered dead for good, it seems unclear with information online about its revival drying up and the whole idea of resurrecting the competition seemingly quickly forgotten. Maybe many were glad to see the back of it and happy to sweep it under the carpet, or maybe they realised it was never going to get the support needed to make it a successful yearly competition, either way, the sad thing is that it disappeared almost without a trace and was never really spoken of again. From what I can see, Scandinavia has almost completely forgotten about this short lived competition for clubs from the region, whilst many outside that part of the world don't realise it had even existed in the first place. 

I for one however will always remember the Royal League though. There may not be a place for it in today's football calendar, but there will always be a place for it in my memory, a memory of a time when I avidly read about these Nordic football exploits as an enthusiastic follower of European football in my late teens. At a time when life seemed to become complicated, as it often does at such an age, there were always football tales from Scandinavia to captivate the mind, with the short lived yearly battle to be the regions number one club momentarily finding a little place in my world.

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