The story of Hammarby's long-awaited return to Sweden's Allsvenskan
"I have waited so long for this day, and it's great that it has finally come." How fitting those words were in Stockholm on Saturday, as Hammarby fans celebrated their return to Allsvenskan, Sweden's top division, after five long seasons away.
Those words come from a song titled "Just Idag Ar Jag Stark" ("Today I am strong"), performed by Kenta Gustafsson, which has long been established as the club's anthem. Hammarby fans identify with it completely. It's not uncommon to see the song's lyrics tattooed on supporters.
Kenta, a huge Hammarby fan himself, died in 2003 at the age of 54, but his legacy lives on. The anthem is performed before each and every Hammarby game, sung with passion by the whole crowd in a performance that can easily be compared to "You'll Never Walk Alone" at Anfield. Just listen to the atmosphere at the brand new Tele2 Arena ahead of last season's final fixture against Jonkoping in the video below.
The stadium was full that day, and a stranger would never have guessed that the game took place in Superettan, Sweden's second division. Incredibly, Hammarby attracted higher average attendances than any Swedish top-flight club in 2014. Their average crowd stood at 20,451, compared to 16,446 for city rivals AIK and just 14,090 for champions Malmo.
That sums up Hammarby -- the club is all about supporters, the perfect team for football romantics to fall in love with. Founded 100 years ago, they were only crowned champions once in their history, taking the title against all odds in 2001 under coach Soren Cratz, who became a living legend.
"To this day, that triumph feels strange," Peter Stempel, a fervent Hammarby supporter, told ESPN FC. They are not used to winning, and have adapted to just having fun and enjoying the moment. As their saying goes: "We don't care about the table, Bajen are the best anyway." Nobody knows exactly why they call themselves "Bajen," by the way, but that is the nickname.
Hammarby are the club where Nacka Skoglund, the flair player for whom entertaining was always the most important thing and whose performances caught the imagination of Inter fans in the 1950s, grew up. Hammarby's fans were the first in Sweden to start singing in the stadium in the '70s, inspired by English football. A few years later, they even brought some Brazilian touches to Scandinavia, with a samba orchestra playing in the stands of the old Soderstadion during matches.
The club's fans were also the first to march through the streets of Stockholm on the first day of the season. That tradition carried on for many years and has become something of an attraction. On Saturday, at least 10,000 fans in green and white took part in the walk, as some of the main routes had to be closed to traffic. It was filmed by a curious Stockholm resident, who is not a Hammarby supporter but wanted to witness the event known as Bajentaget.
Hammarby have never been a winning team but are one of the biggest clubs in the country and an integral part of Allsvenskan. That is why their relegation in 2009, mostly due to poor management, was a shock. Unsurprisingly, the fans stayed loyal to the players even when they massively underperformed. It is rare to see a standing ovation to the team that has just gone down, but that is exactly what Bajen fans gave their team after they lost in their last home fixture and finished the season rock bottom.
They were not the first major club to get relegated, but while others like AIK and Malmo returned to the top flight immediately, Hammarby's crisis only deepened after the drop. Lacking a winning mentality was crucial in Superettan as well, and in 2011 disaster loomed as the team went agonisingly close to being relegated yet again.
Hammarby needed to win at promotion-hopefuls Angelholm on the last day of the 2011 season to avoid dropping into the third division, and that proved to be a very tough task. Five minutes into injury time, when all hope was lost, Sebastian Bojassen scored with the last kick of the game. Bajen were saved, Bojassen -- who was forced to retire shortly afterwards with a back injury -- will be fondly remembered forever.
"That Angelholm game provided the worst and the best moments of my entire life," says Gustav Gelin, a Hammarby blogger who used to serve as vice president of the Bajen fans' association.
Then, just when they seemingly reached the lowest point imaginable, their greatest idol returned. Kennedy Bakircioglu, one of the most important players when Hammarby won their title in 2001, had an eventful career that took him to FC Twente and Ajax in the Netherlands and Racing Santander in Spain. In the summer of 2012, the prodigal son came back, and fans climbed on the roof just to have a glimpse of him signing the contract.
Fittingly, it was Kennedy who scored the very last goal at the beloved Soderstadion, which was abandoned in the summer of 2013 in favour of the new stadium that Hammarby now share with Stockholm rivals Djurgarden. That day was extremely emotional for all concerned, but there was also hope in the air. Amusingly, Bajen fans call Tele2 Arena the new Soderstadion, refusing to let the past go, while starting the fresh adventure.
The new home, which enabled more fans to visit home games and significantly increased the club's revenues, highlighted the fact that Hammarby were a sleeping giant. Their potential is massive, and that convinced Nanne Bergstrand, one of the most respected and knowledgeable coaches in Sweden, to take on the challenge of managing the club in the beginning of 2014. Begstrand likes long-term projects, having spent 12 years at Kalmar, where he won a sensational title with the trio of Elm brothers in 2008. Next, the 58-year-old wanted to emulate that success at a much more popular club.
Nanne's arrival brought a lot of optimism to Bajen. The squad was completely overhauled and, driven forward by phenomenal attendances, Hammarby overcame a shaky start to finish top of Superettan in a tight battle. They needed to beat Jonkoping on the last day, and thrashed them 5-0 after a stunning rendition of "Just Idag Ar Jag Stark."
And so, after five painful and eventful years, Bajen are back where they belong. On Saturday, their game was the very first fixture of the new season in Sweden, and they won 2-0 against Hacken. Kennedy, the 34-year-old balding captain, scored the first goal of Allsvenskan in 2015.
There is now cautious optimism that Hammarby could be the surprise package in the top half of the table. They won't win anything, of course, because that is not their habit, but they are certain to entertain.
"Hammarby are a club where love is the most important thing," Kristopher Karlsson, who works for the Aftonbladet newspaper, says. "They like a back-heel pass, a beer and a cheeky chant." But aren't those the most fabulous aspects of the game?
Football is not only about Cristiano Ronaldo breaking scoring records -- it is mostly about fans who support their team through good times and bad. It is about thousands of Bajen supporters going on their annual march, humming the song written by Aapo Saask, a Hammarby supporter, and performed by his friend Kenta, who is dead but immortal.
"I look forward to the glorious times," the lyrics go. Let them be glorious.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin