From Lagos to Silkeborg, via the beautiful game

The Danes love their football – and, as we found in Silkeborg, in central Jutland, the modern Danish game also reflects an increasingly diverse nation.

by Viral Shah / Photos: Robert Born 

Silkeborg IF is hardly considered one of the household names of Danish football. Of course, the side is based in Silkeborg, a relatively small town of around 40,000 people in the centre of the Jutland peninsula, known more for the avante-garde Danish artist Asger Jorn and its paper mill-owning founders than its sporting prowess.

Still, Silkeborg IF have won the Danish Superligaen once in 1994, the Intertoto Cup in 1996 and the Danish cup in 2001. Since then, they’ve alternated between promotion and relegation and are currently fighting for promotion back to the top division.

The Danish top division is considered the best of the Scandinavian leagues, with capital side F.C. København the most successful of the lot, having won ten championships since its inception in 1991. With a small national population of just under 6 million, the fact that the average matchday attendance in the top flight ranges between 7000-8000 is quite impressive.

Danish football may also be becoming less exclusively ‘Danish’. This season, FC Midtjylland, with a large number of foreign players, are challenging for the league title against current leaders Aalborg and, of course, FC København (Aarhus’ AGF are on course for relegation, a source of considerable local embarrassment). More widely, football clubs in Denmark have become more receptive to foreign players from outside Scandinavia over the past decade.

The Danish Football Association has declared the league as the “most tolerant” in Europe. But as with all football nations, it has its problems. For example, this season FC København refused to sell tickets for European games to fans with non-Danish sounding names – a decision labelled as racist in some quarters, although the club claimed it was to keep out foreign football hooligans.

“The Danish Football Association has declared the league as the “most tolerant” in Europe”

 

Nor is the game free of hooliganism – 484 people were arrested last December following a game between FC København and Brøndby.  And here in Aarhus, the ‘White Pride’ movement is a racist group within supporters of local club AGF. It was infiltrated by Charlotte Johannsen, a young swimmer who published a book about her experiences, before moving to Copenhagen.

But on the pitch, Danish football is steadily becoming more heterogeneous and open. Brazil, the largest source of professional footballers in the world, is naturally one of the nations where a large proportion of non-Nordic players come from. The other is quite surprising – Nigeria.

And that’s how we met Adeola Runsewe, a 24-year-old Nigerian winger, playing at Silkeborg IF in the second tier of Danish football, after a nomadic journey starting at the age of 16.

“FC Midtjylland have a deal with a team in Nigeria’s capital Lagos called FC Ebedei [in the third tier].  They used to come maybe twice a year to see young talent and I was in the academy,” Runsewe recalls. “Out of the three guys they chose, I was one of them and I felt so lucky and happy – that’s basically how I got to Denmark.”

Born football 1

Silkeborg IF are fighting to return to the Danish top division

The move did not go entirely smoothly: in 2009, FC Midtjylland and the Danish Football Association were strongly warned by FIFA and the international Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) from signing Nigerian youngsters under the age of 18 under the pretext that they were students. The ruling broke Article 19 of FIFA’s regulations, which ensures the protection of minors.

Runsewe, 16 at the time the move was arranged, was one of the players involved in the case, along with Ikechukwu Jude Nworah, 16, and Akubar Yabubu Akilu , 17. FC Midtjylland director Jens Ørgaard has also been quoted on record claiming that the link with African academies (there’s one in Accra, Ghana too) is mainly financial: “For us it is not a social project, but a way of doing business.”

Yet, Runsewe insists he was treated well, when asked about the move to Denmark. “There was no problem. I was there when I was 16 and I got to play my first game for FC Midtjylland in the Superliga when I was 18, which made me very happy.”

“Out of the three guys they chose, I was one of them and I felt so lucky and happy – that’s basically how I got to Denmark”

 

After a couple of first-team appearances, Runsewe began his journey around Denmark, first being loaned out to Skive IK, before transferring to FC Hjørring. Having failed a trial with FC Kolding, Runsewe signed a three-year deal with Swedish Allsvenskan side  Trelleborg. As he was signed outside of the transfer window, Runsewe could only play in the reserve team and was eventually released after half a season.

A return to Denmark and HB Køge was not necessarily the ideal move. The pacy attacker did not have a residence permit, and the club was having financial difficulties, meaning it could not write contracts.  It was six months before he could play for the first team, but despite relegation, an impressive season won Runsewe a move to Silkeborg – and he’s settled in well: “It’s not a big city but it’s a nice place to be. Everyone is close to each other – it’s tight. I’ve been here two years now”.

Having spent almost a third of his life in Denmark, Runsewe offers his insights into how to successfully integrate into Danish society and breaking past the reserved Danish exterior. Referring to his team-mates, Runsewe, the only non-Scandinavian foreigner in the team, says: “I want to get to know them – even if they don’t want to know me. To know what kind of person they are, to talk with them, smile with them, try to learn from them. If you don’t talk with people, you don’t know who they are – so they can be open with me and we can get to know each other. They are my family because everyone supports each other in this team, which has given me so much confidence.”

Runsewe is returning from injury, and needs to work to secure his place in the team

Runsewe is returning from injury, and needs to work to secure his place in the team

The notorious difficulty of the Danish language for foreigners is another hurdle that Runsewe has overcome: “It’s ok as actually I understand almost everything. I can speak it well – when I go to the shop and want to buy something, I can express myself well.”

Having arrived in Jutland alone as a boy, Runsewe will feel even more at home as his young family join him in Silkeborg: “I feel good because my wife was with me here last year. She became pregnant, so we went back home to Nigeria and got married. Now, we have a three-month-old baby boy and they’re moving back to Denmark this year for sure, in a few weeks”.

“They are my family because everyone supports each other in this team, which has given me so much confidence”

 

Professionally, Runsewe appears to be in a good place as well, with Silkeborg IF two points clear at the top of the league and looking well positioned for an immediate return to the Danish Superligaen. But Runsewe still needs to establish himself in the starting first team: “We’re pushing for promotion and everyone’s doing well. Even if someone gets injured and another comes into their position, everyone plays well.  I’m feeling happy, coming back from injury, and I can’t wait to get a chance to play.

Regardless of his time on the pitch, Runsewe’s presence in Silkeborg is a remarkable reflection of the changes occurring in Danish football; he, his team mates and other small clubs like Silkeborg IF are blazing the trail of making Danish football more tolerant. Runsewe of course keeps his eyes on the game: “It’s not easy right now when everybody in the team is doing so well and winning – it’s not easy for the coach to take anybody out. When the chance comes, I’ll grab it”.

This Danish resident has faced tougher challenges in his quest to become a professional footballer – he should be just fine for this latest one.

 

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Viral Shah is an Erasmus Mundus journalism student and freelancer, who has been published in a range of UK newspapers and magazines.