Ticket in hand, I’m waiting to board my flight to Stockholm Arlanda at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. A man cuts in front of me suddenly, with not even a word. I can only laugh as I turn back to the Swedish lady standing behind me. She smiles, and just shrugs. “Why not?” Indeed, why not. The man shows no remorse, I don’t think he’s even noticed. I’m ready to get to a “normal” country.

Aboard the Turkish Airlines Airbus I am reading the papers, they are all depressing these days. Right now, the subject matter is the dark undertones of the weekend’s pitch invasion during the Besiktas-Galatasary Derby. On my mind is a different derby, the Tvillingderbyt between AIK Stockholm and Djurgardens IF on Thursday night. To take my mind off the dark headlines from Turkey, I look around the plane. In front of me, a man is reading Agos, an Armenian daily published in Istanbul. It is a rare semblance of a “normal” country, where people are free to speak their own languages. A man who has just boarded spots the same paper as he makes his way down the aisle, he makes his presence clear in a louder-than-normal voice.

“I salute you for reading Agos!” he says in Turkish. I can’t begin to explain how much this warms my heart. In Turkey, a man was killed for publishing this paper. But here, aboard a Turkish Airlines Airbus bound for Sweden, such trivial ethnic differences are forgotten. And that might just be the difference between East and West, between “Normal” and “Abnormal” countries.

A couple hours into the flight the man next to me asks me where I’m going and why, anything to pass the minutes. The conversation inevitably turns to football and the ugly conclusion to the Istanbul derby. He is from Bandirma, in Western Turkey, but has lived in Sweden for thirty-one years. I assume he is one of those relics of Turkey’s dark past, those who left the country for political reasons in the wake of the 1980 coup. Regarding my match, he says that in terms of the quality of play “I’ll miss the Turkish second division, but that’s probably all. The government only wants to divide everyone—Kurds, Turks, Jews, Armenians—and now the football fans. In five or ten years, Turkey will be worse than Syria. Mark my words. I’ll never go back.” I feel a twinge of fear, and think back to the previous night. A policeman wielding an AK-47 scolded me for attempting to disembark from my taxi on Taksim Square. Apparently, the car had to move five feet forward to unload passengers. The gun had given him the power to make the rules, ridiculous as they were. I look at the man sitting next to me and, from the bottom of my heart, cannot blame him for abandoning the country of his birth.

The airport shuttle bus from Arlanda to Stockholm’s Centralen Station has Wifi, and the women next to me—aboard a state of the art coach bus—has her seatbelt on. It’s a strange sight; the ride through the green outskirts of Stockholm is peaceful, inducing me to fall into daydreams. Suddenly, I am thrown forward as the bus brakes hard. I look forward, my eyes straining over the seats, to see what the issue is. We have moved into an empty bus lane, breezing by the rush hour traffic. I look at my Blackberry. The Wifi has slowed. And that is my biggest concern upon arriving in Stockholm. I think back to previous arrivals: In Cairo, in Aleppo, in Uzbekistan, in Moldova. No, this is not a concern at all. I throw the phone into my pocket, outside bikers casually ride along a pristine bike path, a normal day in a normal country.

At night I search out a nargile café to sit and write in. I find one; the owners are speaking Turkish. They ask why I’ve come for a football match.  I tell them I go to them, like I went in Istanbul.

“The matches in Turkey are . . . strange. It is as if they’re going to war, just to get their aggression out,” says the man, waxing philosophically.

“Unfortunately, the government wants exactly that,” I add. He is from Bingöl, in eastern Turkey. He says it’s beautiful, and I agree. He is surprised that I have even set foot in Eastern Turkey, since it is miles away in every sense of the term here in downtown Stockholm.

“Its getting better there,” he says.

“But it won’t be better until everyone sees it, especially those living in Western Turkey. Then maybe we in Turkey can live in a normal country, like here. Like Sweden.”

He throws up his arms as his mouth forms a sad, resigned, smile. We both know it is unlikely to happen, while the smoke disappears into the cold northern European night. In front of me, Volvos are stopping ten feet from pedestrian cross walks like clockwork. Like on the east side of Providence, Rhode Island, USA. Like in a normal country . . .

“So your wife isn’t concerned that you’re going to the match?” As I ask it, I can tell that I sound truly shocked. My new friend, Erik, is convinced that I chose one of the best matches to come to. After all, it is the first true “home” game for Djurgardens in the 114 year history of the Stockholm derby.

“Oh, this match is no place for women. Or children. She knows that. Plus, she also knows that before she was in my life, there was AIK. So she knows that she will have to wait at home.”

As I look him over, my mind begins to redefine the concept of a “normal” country. He is well dressed, in the European sense, looking like he has stepped out of the pages of GQ. We stand drinking ten dollar pints of Falcon beer as flares are being lit by the AIK Ultras twenty feet away in the middle of Medborgarplatsen square. Erik catches me looking around.

“This is really going to be an amazing match. It will get interesting—just look at those guys behind us.” I see them. They are built like American football linemen. Some are bald. Many have facial tattoos. One has a chain-link around his neck, like a necklace. Something tells me it is not designed to be worn in that way, but what do I know about European high fashion? I’m just a football fan. I look back at Erik.

“Yeah, they came to fight,” he says, laughing as he sips the exorbitantly priced-beer. I’m nursing mine. He seems comfortable in his well-cut jacket and designer framed eye glasses. I try to feel as comfortable as him, uber-conscious at this point of my “Americanness”. I’m sporting J Crew khakis and Nike Air Max sneakers, with a University of Tennessee hoodie to complete the look. To say I feel out of place is an understatement.

“What are they saying?” I ask, as the black-clad crowd of AIK fans around us break into song.

“’Murder a Djurgarden baby.’ I don’t like this chant—too violent for me. Plus, my second son was born last week!” I nod. Indeed, he is a citizen of a normal country, drawing the line somewhere in the sand. He takes out a tin of Swedish snus, a variation of American dipping tobacco. I stare at the tin in his hands, mainly because I can’t reconcile Erik’s refined look with any form of dipping tobacco. No, we are not in Tennessee, despite my sweatshirt.

“Want some?”

“Sure.” It is actually pretty enjoyable. For one, there is no spitting involved. This is, after all, progressive northern Europe.

“I’m going to go get a beer, want one?”

“Yeah, thanks. I’ll get the next one,” I assure him as he disappears into the crowd of ultras. I’m glad I don’t have to brave the crowds just yet. Behind me I hear a man with a neck tattoo speaking to a long-haired guy that looks like a local drug dealer while a bald man with “Pride and Prejudice” tattooed on the back of his head looks on.

“Well, you see in Bari . . .” starts neck tattoo while Mr. drug dealer cuts him off.

“Look, you can show me all about Italy when we come there. Right now you are here, and our guest. Everything is on me.” He motions for more beer, and almost instantaneously a tray full of beers appears. This is ultra hospitality, I reason—an Italian ultra sharing tactics with a Swedish ultra. Perhaps this is a form of the European integration that the European Union has dreamed of.

It doesn’t surprise me that a man has come from Italy to witness this historic derby.  The Tvillingderbyt—or Twin Derby—has been contested between these two clubs since 1899, when both clubs started playing football, eight years after they were founded three weeks apart in 1891. Djurgardens are based in the north eastern area of Östermalms, a part of town that is has been labled—at least by my guidebook—as upper-class, and boast eleven Swedish Championships as well as four Swedish cups. AIK are based in the northern municipality of Solna and have also won eleven Swedish championships, in addition to eight cup triumphs. AIK have been labled as a working class club while also claiming to have the largest fan base in Sweden—but as so many similar claims in football are debatable I’ll leave that to the fans to decide. Fans like Pride and Prejudice.

I look away, for fear of his menacing look. Two girls, pretty for a football crowd, have appeared to my left. I feel like they’re trying to get my attention, so I make eye contact with the blonde nearest to me—she is definitely more pleasant to look at than the rest of the crowd.

“Where are you from?” she asks. It seems like I really am oozing “Americanness”. Maybe it’s the fact that I wince every time I take a sip of my beer, which is running probably 50 cents a gulp at this point, which has given me away now.

“America.” I state it matter-of-factly, before adding “I enjoy going to derby matches. I was at the Galatasaray-Beşiktaş match on the weekend in Istanbul.” Im hoping that my clarification makes me seem more normal, in her eyes.

“A Turkish match? Then this will seem like a vacation to you I’m sure.” I laugh uncomfortably, wondering where Pride and Prejudice is. She reads my emotions clearly and gives me advice.

“I should warn you though, there is going to be a fight here in two hours. It has been arranged. So I’d get out of here before then, if I were you.”

“Here?”

“Right here. Between the Ultras.” The way she says it is so calm, so normal, that I am lost for words. “Well, enjoy the game!” she says with a smile and disappears into the crowd with her friend, as if she had said only the most trivial things. Indeed, a normal country. Where even the hooliganism is arranged. I finish the final sips of my beer, one American dollar more down the drain, as Erik reappears.

“Man, its crowded in there!” he says, sweat streaming from his forehead. I take my beer from him, wondering what the fight will be like if all the fans here have drank as much as me…what is it by now, four beers?

“So . . . I hear there is going to be a fight here?” I ask it tentatively, trying to pretend that I don’t already know it.

“Oh yes, the ultras love to fight. They are going to march to the stadium at a quarter to six. Then they will fight.”

I look down at my watch. One hour and forty-five minutes to go. It seems that my blonde friend had been right. The clock is ticking, I think, as I try to drink my beer as fast as I can.

“Fighting huh?”

“Yeah, AIK ultras are crazy dude.”

BOOOOOM.

The deafening explosion of a sound bomb echoes through the square, as if to confirm Erik’s statement. I’m glad I don’t have PTSD. He looks at me with a knowing smile.

“I went to an away match in the Europa league once with them, against Napoli. One of them got stabbed!”

You went to an away match?” Again, I can’t reconcile his appearance with a man who travels to away games with ultras.

“Of course—it was really fun. But the craziest I have seen was at Lech Poznan in Poland. Those guys are really crazy.” I’d been to a Polonia Warsaw match in Warsaw once, and knew about Legia Warsaw’s antics as well. But Lech Poznan? I was staring at him and he knew I wanted to hear more.

“Well, you should have seen it. Our guys—” he paused for me to once again take in the scene around us, so as to visualize the scene in Poznan. “—our guys just rushed at the Lech Poznan ultras. A crowd of maybe fifty guys. And the Polish guys just stood there, without flinching. They didn’t even move, didn’t back down, just waited for our guys to reach them. They’re completely insane.” He laughs again, and downs a few more gulps of beer. Its like he isn’t even phased by the sheer craziness of what he is talking about.

“How are sports in America?” He asks. And how can I follow that story?

“Well…they aren’t like this. I mean, I’m still lucky to come from Boston, where the most passionate fans are. The Red Sox, for instance. I love them.”

“You’re a Red Sox fan? Fever Pitch was a great book, but the movie ruined it for me. That isn’t a baseball movie.”

“No, no it isn’t.” I have to agree with him.

“Plus, I’m a big Arsenal fan. Swedish fans don’t like American sports though. Its too boring.”

“Its all about money there man.” I say, and turn back to my beer. Which of our countries is more “normal”? Maybe it’s the beer, but I have to admit—right now, my mind can’t comprehend it. I see smoke rising from the south-west corner of the square. I can see some flares, and the police moving towards them.

“Ultras?” I nod to the direction of the smoke.

“Yes,” he laughs again. I look at my phone. One hour and fifteen minutes. The clock is definitely ticking. “Im going to go grab a whiskey—want one?”

“Sure,” he says uncomfortably, wondering if I’ll be able to brave the crowds. I assure him that it wont be a problem, and I head towards the entrance, descending into a basement that smells of sweat and beer—the smells of derby day. At the corner of the bar I see Mr. Drug dealer doing shots with Neck Tattoo. I make a mental note to

stay away from them, should our paths cross in the coming hours. Twenty minutes and 40 dollars later I have the two whiskeys. I have less than an hour.

“So—you get robbed?”

“How did you know?!” I try to sound as positive as I can.

“Alcohol is so expensive here.”

“All taxes, right?” I try to sound knowledgeable.

“Yep. But my doctor’s visits are cheap, so it comes back to me.”

“So you drink and drink, and when your liver fails its all taken care of. Kind of like an investment, huh?”

“Yeah. But only for those of us who live here. You’re not so lucky.” I’m quite aware of that sad fact as I dig into my Jack Daniels and cola. In Sweden, the whiskey isn’t only gold colored. It is also made of it—at least, that’s what the prices made me feel.

As we continue to drink and talk about football I keep nervously looking at my phone, checking the time like a nervous tick. We’re rapidly reaching zero hour, and Erik knows it.

“You might want to go soon, if you still need to pick up your tickets,” he advises.

He’s right. The bar is rapidly emptying as the ultras head to the street, preparing for the march to the stadium. I thank Erik for the time, and grab a snus packet from him for the road.

“Be safe!” I hear him yell it behind me as I wave, on my own again en route to the Tvillingderbyt.

I decide to meet the main avenue from the other side of the square, following the reporters lugging video cameras. As soon as I turn the corner towards the street I’m met with a wall of smoke, nothing is visible. Luckily, smoking hookah has trained me for these moments, I breathe as little as I can to keep from choking. There is a crowd of thousands of AIK fans, a wall of black, raising flares into the air, making what had been a clear blue day greyer than a New England winter. There are police everywhere, waiting for six o’clock and the scheduled start of the march. I snap a few pictures and head down the street, as normal citizens look on with concerned looks on their faces. They look at me like I’ve lost my mind, and I realize that I must be smiling a little too big.

After heading down a couple blocks I double back, unable to satisfy my curiosity—I pass the news reporters who have set up tripods and delve into the flare wielding crowd. All around me are men with black ski masks, true football hooligans in their derby-day best. One of them gives me a cheeky wave as I weave in and out of the mass of oncoming human flesh. Suddenly, from the corner of my eyes, I notice something coming down from the apartments above us. A flare. I immediately run for cover as various projectiles fall around me—coins, lighters, bottles. Or at least that’s what I assume them to be, since I don’t have time to examine things too closely. Luckily, a lady working at a make-up supply store opens her doors to me and a couple other cameramen—we rush in like flies through an open door in the summer. From the relative safety of the store I can see green flares burning out on the pavement—courtesy, no doubt, of Stockholm’s third team Hammarby—as some ski-masked AIK hooligans are engaged in a demolition job of a bus-stop. So much for curiosity being satisfied, I think. After a minute the coast seems clear enough. The sudden flurry of projectiles seems to have passed and the bus-stop glass lies in shards on the sidewalk as I make it my goal to outrun the march.

I walk at a brisk pace so as not to draw too much attention to myself, passing more and more concerned on-lookers. They must have seen the sudden outburst of violence a few minutes ago. For some reason, I felt it my civic duty to comfort a particularly worried middle-aged woman.

“Football culture!” I say with a smile as I pass her. She doesn’t know how to react, and I don’t blame her.

I start jogging along the highway at a healthy pace, looking like a fool. The crowd is far behind me now, and a few police vans with cracked windshields are arranging themselves on the roadway in preparation for the violence. It feels like what a beach town is in the moments before a hurricane strikes—complete calm in the face of chaos just minutes away. I slow my pace as a girl on a bike passes me, smiling. Her blonde hair streams out from beneath her helmet like the golden tail of a comet as she fades into the distance. ‘Yes, this is a normal country’ I say to myself, trying to forget my escape from possible head injury just a few minutes ago. I take one last look behind me at the crowd, maybe a half-mile away at this point. Smoke is rising behind them, and sound bombs are popping off at random.

I don’t know where exactly I am supposed to go, but I decide to leave the highway I am on and head underneath the railway tracks. Indeed, the path leads me past a suburban station and to a small plaza where . . . the Djurgardens fans are engaged in some pre-match drinking. What else? Here too it is a motley crew: They’re also big, they’re also drunk, and some also have facial tattoos. The only difference is these guys are dressed in the navy and sky blue of Djurgardens IF. They will be here to meet the AIK ultras who, by my watch, are less than ten minutes away. It’s been enough adventure for me, and I’m sweating from my impromptu jog. I decide to find my ticket and recoup in a place of relative safety.

After the requisite security pat-down I go to the ticket office while sound bombs and sirens come from the plaza behind me. From the random sounds I hear, I assume the AIK ultras are currently greeting the Djurgarden ultras. After showing my passport the man behind the glass hands me a white envelope, my name written in cursive on it. It looks like a wedding invitation. Fitting I suppose, even if there is no love lost between these city rivals, it is a certain type of love affair. I decide to head into the stadium for some popcorn and beer, kickoff is an hour away.

‘What the fuck?’ Is all I can think as I feel some liquid fall on my hat. The guy standing next to me, Johan, motions for me to get down and pull my jacket over my face. I do it. I feel something on my back as I crouch like a turtle in front of my seat. When the worst is over I stand up. My jacket and hat are covered with ketchup. I can thank the AIK fans for a hot dog dinner, I guess. Johan next to me just shrugs. Our seats are only twenty feet from the AIK section. That’s what I get for getting the last seats available in the sell-out, I reason, and throw back some beer.

AIK’s fans opened the match with a boisterous pyro flare, bathing the stadium in an eerie red glow, but their celebrations are short lived as Djurgardens grab an early goal at the sixth minute, courtesy of Andreas Johansson. The Djurgardens ultras light their blue flares at the end farthest from me, as I again curse my luck at finding the seats closest to the AIK end. A few rows behind me a small scuffle breaks out, and a man with an AIK scarf is shown to the exits by the security team. I continue my cursing, which also proves to be short lived. AIK equalize just five minutes later through Nabil Bahoui, a 22-year old striker. Bottles rain onto the pitch from the Djurgardens fans in front of me, while Johan offers his two cents.

“I cant explain to you how much we hate each other.” I can feel for him—I’m a football fan too, after all.

The match is fast paced, and a minute after the equalizer a lob by Djurgardens goes off the cross bar in front of me. Johan throws his head back at the missed chance. Five minutes later another Djurgardens chance goes begging as a one on one with the keeper is squandered. The one-way traffic on the pitch has gotten the AIK fans riled up, which I can see clearly, but Johan reassures me.

“At least they aren’t running into our section. At the cup final between Djurgardens and IFK Gothenburg last year the police saved us at the last minute, the fans rushed our section!” I look again at the AIK crowd. Many of them are still wearing ski-masks. I think about the guy wearing a chain link around his neck at the bar. No, at least they aren’t running into our section indeed.

Djurgardens attack, the near miss bringing cheers from the crowd but AIK come back strong and a well-placed back heel by Henok Goitom finds the net in the 27th minute. The AIK fans again light their end up with flares, and Johan looks at them, disgusted. “They think they have the best ultra firm in Europe!” He shakes his head as I take pictures of the show. I’m hoping it doesn’t piss him off.

Six minutes from halftime I win Johan back when Amadou Jawo equalizes, knotting the match at 2-2. I high-five Johan as my section of the crowd goes crazy. AIK’s section is unfazed, they continue to sing. Evidently, they don’t just sing when they’re winning.

“I’m so excited! I’m shaking! I had my first Djurgardens shirt before I could even walk!” I’ve won Johan back indeed. Halftime comes with the score still level, and Johan takes a call.

“My girlfriend was worried. For me, it is three things. My work, my girlfriend, and football.” I am impressed that work comes first.

Before the second half begins, the AIK fans make a show with black flares, an eerily enjoyable sight.

“They think they’re the best firm in Europe huh?” I ask, playfully.

“Well—they are pretty good,” Johan hasn’t lost his sense of humor.

The second half starts but not as eventfully as the first. In the 55th minute AIK’s Alexander Milosevic sees a yellow card for a hard foul, and three minutes later AIK’s Kennedy Igboananike gets the reprisal courtesy of Djurgardens. Whistles rain down from the crowd, and Johan points out that the Nigerian striker is an ex-Djurgardens player. A Benedict Arnold, if you will. The second half continues on with the ball bouncing around the midfield, but with no real chances. Djurgardens have had the better of the second half—as Johan is keen to point out—but have nothing to show for it. In front of us, the AIK fans keep up their support to the tune of a deafening drum show.

“They can’t fucking chant without those drums. Drums are for women. If you bring drums into the Djurgardens section, you will die.” I nod my approval, what am I supposed to say? Johan has turned his focus on the opposition’s fans, and it is clear that neither team will come away with all the points tonight. The match ends at 2-2, with all the goals coming in the first half, oddly enough.

“Be careful when you go home tonight. The ultras are going to fight,” says Johan as we part.

“Even after a draw?”

“Especially after a draw—take care.”

I laugh and shake hands, heading to the exits in the middle of a crowd moving as slow as molasses, singing Djurgardens songs that I can’t understand. Taking baby steps in the crowd I notice women and children, which comforts me. The foreign language songs have lowered my defenses, but I am woken up as suddenly those in front of me turn and run towards me in that all-too-familiar rush of people. I see the whites of old men’s eyes and quickly turn too, taking refuge behind a column from the crush of people. Indeed, the ultras are going to fight. I stand behind the column, hearing only my heavy breathing, as the explosions of sound bombs come intermittently.

I mill around for about fifteen minutes, careful to surround myself with older men and fathers with children—those least likely to engage in post match violence, I reason. Eventually we all brave the exits, and we come upon some fans taking matters into their own hands. They are tearing down the chain link fences lining the stadium grounds. Their effort makes it easier for us to stream into the Stockholm streets—another day, another derby, after all.

The AIK end that I was seated closest to:

IMG_0062

The Djurgardens stands bathed in a red glow during AIK’s pyro show:

IMG_0063

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