This is what it’s like for a player (hint: 1/10 would not do again)
Fans of all ages were crying and consoling each other in the stands. Just five years ago, in 2011, they had watched our club, Helsingborgs IF, win the domestic treble. We were the first Swedish club in history to do so (I say “we” even though I arrived in 2015). Now, in November 2016, we were confronting another landmark: the club’s first relegation from the Allsvenskan since 1968, 48 years ago. It had taken Helsingborgs 24 years to return to the top flight and another 24 for us to go back down.
With 10 games left, we were 14th in the 16-team league. A few good results and we’d be safe. With five games left, having lost eight of the last nine, the media began talking about worst-case scenarios. Relegation hadn’t even crossed our minds, but there it was.
We finished in 14th place, which meant that instead of being autorelegated like the two teams below us, we would have a home-and-away playoff with the third-place finisher from the second tier. This didn’t bother us. Get through those games and we could look forward, start the next year fresh, and forget any of this ever happened.
We drew 1–1 away to Halmstad, but we were outplayed. Back at our own stadium, they were outplaying us again, but we went ahead on a counterattack in the 82nd minute. We were saved. Eight minutes to go. And then… collapse. In the 86th minute, a needless foul led to a penalty. And in the 90th, a Halmstad player scored the goal of his life. Two–one. Final score.
On the field, we were still processing what had just happened when a group of masked hooligans rushed the pitch, kicking down the field advertisements on the south end, pushing through security, and launching flares at us. As soon as I saw them running at us, I grabbed a few of my teammates, and we took off for the locker room. We understood their pain — we felt the same thing inside — but this wasn’t the right way to handle it.
Inside the locker room, some guys were screaming and some were crying, but most of us were just staring off into some distant place where we didn’t have to confront the feelings that were threatening to consume us. I’ve never been in a room filled with more disappointment, sadness, shock, regret, and tears in my life.
The club chief, the board, and our coaches walked in, the repercussions of the team’s failure written on their faces. We players were thinking about the fact that we would be playing in the second division next year. They were a step ahead of us: the club would lose somewhere in the region of $2 million to $2.5 million, several sponsorships, and some of the people whose jobs had made them just as much a part of the club as the players.
As with any difficult season, there were things that went on behind the scenes that contributed to our struggles, but it’s too soon to have that reckoning. For now, my teammates and I have had to face several members of the Helsingborgs family with the knowledge that our performances were part of the reason they would be losing their jobs — people we spoke with every day, people we genuinely care about.
I’ve agonized over it ever since that last match, and over time I’ve come to realize that the futility of my emotions is one of the worst parts. We all want an opportunity to fight for Helsingborgs and bring the club back up to the top flight, but the club has to cut its costs. In a way, it will help Helsingborgs more if many of us do move on — so it’s unlikely most of us will get the chance.