Before Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson, there was another superstar Swede who played a role in writing history for Manchester United. Jesper Blomqvist never quite held down a starting role for Alex Ferguson’s side but will always be remembered for starting the 1999 Champions League final and being part of that magical treble winning side. After a spell in Italy where he played first for AC Milan and then Parma, Sir Alex signed the Swede who first caught his eye during a Champions League game in 1994 and he spent three years in Manchester before moving to Everton and then Charlton.
His career outside of Scandinavia was bookended by two spells in his native Sweden where he left an indelible mark on the footballing landscape and on the fans of one club, in particular, IFK Göteborg, where he went from an adored and decorated hero before leaving a traitor on his return to Sweden.
Tavelsjö, the town in which Blomqvist was born, is a tiny town with a population of only 245. It is in the North of Sweden and is not exactly known as a hotbed of footballing activity, the closest city, Umeå, averages less than an hour a day of sunshine during December and temperatures regularly reach below -10. The closest big team to Tavelsjö is Umeå FC who currently play in the third tier of Swedish football. In short, it is a world away from the hustle and bustle atmosphere of Malmö where Zlatan grew up or Helsingborg where Henrik Larsson cut his teeth as a young player.
Blomqvist began his career at AIK Tavelsjö. The town’s sports club, despite their size, once managed to play in the fifth tier of the Swedish pyramid. Interestingly, Blomqvist is not their only famous export. Bjorn Nilsson who played one season in Sweden’s top division Allsvenskan for Umeå FC also played for Tavelsjö. However, there is no doubting who the most famous player to ever play for Tavelsjö is.
He played there until 1992 when he joined Umeå FC, who had only been formed in 1987. He played an important role in getting the team promoted to the second tier of Swedish football in his first season at the club and then helped to keep them in the division in his second season playing a total of 38 times and scoring 8 goals. The youngster was starting to get a reputation in Sweden as a real talent; he was lightning fast and combined great football intelligence with great skill.
This led to arguably the biggest club in Sweden securing his signature, IFK Göteborg. The club, based in Sweden’s second biggest city, were basking in the glow of a golden era. The 1980’s saw a level of unbelievable success for the Blåvitt who won two Swedish titles and two UEFA cups, becoming Sweden’s first and only club to win a European Trophy. They continued their success into the 1990’s winning the first two titles in 1990 and 1991.
However, in 1992 IFK struggled. The Allsvenskan in those days used to be split into two separate divisions half way through the season with the top six competing for the title in what was called the Mästerskapsserien and the bottom four joining the top four from the tier below in the Kvalsvenskan. This bizarre format was scrapped after only two seasons but in the 1992 edition IFK only just made the Mästerskapsserien on goal difference and finished a distant fifth behind Stockholm’s AIK.
The following year, 1993, saw IFK re-establish their dominance over Swedish football and IFK signed Blomqvist towards the end of the 1993 season, just as they were locked in a battle with IFK Norrköping to win the title. Blomqvist joined with seven games left and played in six of those, scoring once as Göteborg went on to lift the title. At 19 years old Blomqvist had secured his first trophy and had begun to show the crowd at Ullevi what he could do.
Göteborg’s domestic dominance continued, they won the next four titles. In the first seven years of the 1990’s IFK won six titles. Blomqvist played a part in four of these title wins. His rampaging runs down the left wing coupled with a superb work ethic and great vision saw him rapidly become earmarked as one of Sweden’s brightest young talents. In total, he scored 17 goals in 67 Allsvenskan games between 1994 and 1996 and he was voted as the league’s best midfielder and fans’ player of the year in 1996.
Blomqvist often dazzled the crowds at IFK and his penchant for the spectacular was illustrated in a game against Helsingborgs IF where he mimicked Pele’s famous dummy against Uruguay. As Blomqvist chased down a through ball, the Helsingborgs keeper charged off his line, Blomqvist dummied the ball and went to the keepers left as the ball went to his right. Unlike Pele though Blomqvist collected the ball and slotted it into an empty net. He was loved at IFK and they saw him as a special Swedish talent lighting up their side.
While his impact in domestic football was important, Blomqvist is particularly remembered for his impact at IFK in European Competition. Their stranglehold on the title meant they qualified for the Champions League playoffs and were Sweden’s sole representative at the top tier of European football. IFK’s two UEFA Cups are always measured against Malmö FF’s famous run to the 1979 European Cup final where they were beaten by Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. It may not have resulted in a trophy but many Malmö fans feel the fact it was in the top tier of UEFA competition gives them something IFK have never had.
Their wonderful early 90’s squad gave them the opportunity to replicate Malmö’s success and gave Blomqvist the chance to show his skills to a wider audience and at a higher level. The 1994-5 Champions League is often remembered for Louis Van Gaal’s Ajax side’s win over Milan but in Sweden, IFK Göteborg’s run to the quarter-finals is the first thing that springs to mind and Blomqvist’s contribution in particular.
They faced Sparta Prague in the qualifying round and lost 1-0 in the first leg in the Czech capital but in the return leg, a Blomqvist goal quickly cancelled out Sparta’s lead and a Stefan Rehn goal put them into the group stages. They were placed into a group with Manchester United, Barcelona and Galatasaray, which suggested the group stages were as far as they would get.
This was only reinforced by a 4-2 defeat to Manchester United in their first match, with United’s own magician on the left, Ryan Giggs scoring two. Their next fixture was against a Barcelona side who had won the competition only two years previously. After they scored inside 10 minutes through Hristo Stoichkov, IFK were in deep trouble. But after Magnus Erlingmark popped up to equalise in the 73rd minute Blomqvist won the game for IFK and gave them a famous victory over the Catalans. Fullback Mikael Nilsson floated a ball towards the Barcelona box and Blomqvist beat the onrushing Carlos Busquets to the ball to score the winner in the 88th minute, it was a special moment for him and his team.
Blomqvist featured in their next two games, which saw them, defeat Galatasaray 1-0 both home and away meaning matchday five was a showdown with Manchester United in Gothenburg. The Swedes had a two-point lead over United and knew a win would guarantee them a place in the quarter-finals, taking the pressure off their final game, away in Barcelona.
It was a chance for IFK to come through a group containing two European giants and place Swedish football even more firmly on the map. The national team had just followed up a semi-final at Euro 1992 with a third place at the 1994 World Cup and were desperate for their premier club side to continue this upward surge of Scandinavian success. Despite being only 20 years old at the time hopes were high that Blomqvist would be able to play a big role in guiding IFK through. A now famous banner brought to the game by one set of IFK fans read, “Giggs is talk, Blomqvist is action.”
While Giggs didn’t play, United’s side still contained a number of stars including the returning Eric Cantona, but it was the twenty-year-old from the tiny town who lit up Ullevi that night. It was Blomqvist who opened the scoring, he gave David May a torrid time throughout the match, and in the 11th minute he picked up the ball in his own half and played a superb one-two with Stefan Rehn whose through ball split the defence. Blomqvist sped past May and collected the ball before storming into the area and slotting it past Gary Walsh. IFK went in a half time 1-0 up with the next round in their sights.
United came out all guns blazing in the second half and managed to equalise through Mark Hughes in the 64th minute. With the game finely poised Blomqvist proved the banner-waving fans right and took action. He got the ball in United’s half on the left touchline beat the flailing David May once again for pace and whipped in a near perfect cross, which Magnus Erlingmark prodded in. Those two linked up yet again as Erlingmark slid Blomqvist in behind the United defence; Steve Bruce chased and brought down the young Swede as he shaped to shoot giving away a penalty. Pontus Kåmark stepped up and made sure IFK collected another huge scalp.
The game is worth finding on YouTube partly for Blomqvist’s exceptional performance but also for the wonderful Swedish commentary where the two commentators show the kind of enthusiasm and delight usually reserved for their Spanish language colleagues. It was a very special night for Swedish football; while United weren’t quite the super club they are now, the love for English football that many Swedes have made it extra special.
A 1-1 draw in the Camp Nou meant a quarter-final tie against German giants Bayern Munich, unfortunately, Blomqvist missed the first leg but a 0-0 draw in Munich gave the Swedes hope of doing something special at home. Blomqvist returned but two goals for Bayern in the 63rd and the 72nd minute left them on the ropes. IFK hit back with two late goals, including one which Blomqvist started the move for, but they couldn’t find a third and lost on away goals. It was heartbreaking for the Blåvitt but the pride of the fans was evident and it was a magical European campaign.
In the 1995-96 Champions League Göteborg crashed out at the qualification stage losing to Legia Warsaw but they managed to reach the group stage again the next year. Blomqvist scored as they beat Fernavacos 4-1 on aggregate. In the group stages, they lost five games but managed one win over AC Milan with Blomqvist impressing in both ties against the Italian giants.
Having seen IFK crash out of the group stages it felt like time to move on for the now 22-year-old talent and this led to his time outside of Sweden, first in Italy and then in England. He left IFK though as a hero, the kind of player who the fans felt they would be able to point to and beam with pride at his achievements.
When his time in England was up, sadly mostly owing to injuries, Blomqvist headed back home to Sweden to finish off what had been an excellent career. While only 29 at the time it was clear that injuries had stopped him from fulfilling the potential he showed at IFK. Nevertheless, his time with IFK in the 90’s and his subsequent part in United’s treble win made him a big name in Sweden and most, if not all Göteborg fans expected him to come back home. He was a hero in their eyes and surely would want to finish his career off where it had taken off so wonderfully only a decade before.
The fans, however, were in for a nasty surprise, their hero decided not to return back to Sweden’s second city but to its capital Stockholm and Djurgården, a great team but not a giant of Swedish football like IFK. IFK’s chairman put out a statement expressing the clubs disappointment, “It’s obvious that we are sad that he didn’t choose us but we have to respect his decision.”
The fans were livid; he was quickly turned into a figure of hate at the club, with many calling him a traitor. When he returned to the club to play, one of the official supporter clubs, the Angels, arranged a silent protest where they turned their back to the pitch when the Djurgården players were announced.
Another, unofficial supporters group sold t-shirts with the inscription ‘Jesper Blomqvist, Judas.’ One of their members spoke to newspaper Aftonbladet and said, “we will do everything we can at the game to make sure he knows he made the wrong choice,” and when asked what that would look like said, “we will do everything to put him off, boo and whistle,” he went on to say that, “I think he is a traitor.” He felt that no other club cared about Blomqvist when he was injured and that it was a betrayal that he joined a rival club.
Looking on blogs and message boards frequented by IFK fans suggests that animosity has not died down, one blogger wrote in 2007 that from the moment Blomqvist pulled on Djurgården’s shirt, “he was not our Jesper Blomqvist anymore, he was for me, and others, the repulsive man from Tavelsjö.” Not all IFK fans shared this opinion but it was clear that a great deal of the fans had been angered and felt betrayed by their former hero.
The reasons for the move are hotly debated with some IFK fans suggesting it had very little to do with matters on the pitch and a lot more to do with financial ones. Aftonbladet noted at the time that he was becoming the best-paid player in the league and would get large appearance bonuses.
Djurgården fans, however, point out that in 2003 IFK were far removed from the heights of the 90’s. They had not won the title since 1996. When Blomqvist was deciding on his move in July of 2003, IFK were mid-table in the Allsvenskan and unlikely to be putting together a title challenge anytime soon. Djurgården, on the other hand, were top of the table, on the way to back-to-back titles and had secured a place in the Champions League qualifiers that would take place that autumn.
In a passionate defence of his move, Viktor Barth-Kron, a Djugården fan on the Swedish fan messaging board Svenskafans, argues that Djurgården had a better economic situation, a better vision for the future, a stronger squad and better attendances. Blomqvist himself, when asked about the move, said that “it was a difficult move…I had many friends at IFK…but Djugården was the right challenge for me.” He noted that he had been following them for a while and felt that their vision for football and the future better aligned with his.
Regardless of the reasons, the move was incredibly controversial. In the end, like much of his post IFK career, his time at Djugården was a bit of a disappointment. He only played nine games in three years at the club and after a short spell at Enköpping took up a coaching role at Stockholm-based Hammarby as an assistant manager and part-time player, playing seven games for the club. Hammarby went through a tough period and he left the club and football altogether in 2010. According to a 2012 article in newspaper Expressen, he studied for a degree in business and PR.
Blomqvist is the kind of late 90’s early 00’s player that most English fans can remember when he is mentioned but rarely can they remember much more than his name and perhaps the fact he used to play out of the left flank. He is not remembered as being a particularly special player; in fact, a Talksport article put him alongside Ross Turnbull and Jovan Kirovski as one of the worst 15 players to ever win the Champions League.
In Sweden, however, he will always be remembered as a player whose pace, skill and footballing brain lit up a very special IFK Göteborg side and proved they belonged on the biggest of stages. As the banner said, Blomqvist will be remembered as a player of action and important moments.
When an IFK supporting friend and I talk about that game against Manchester United he can’t help but smile and say “Man, Blomqvist was so good.”