Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Blatte United - A Swedish Soccer Team That Shines On and Off the Field

Blond and blue-eyed they are not, but they come from Sweden, speak Swedish, love soccer, and are proud of their mixed heritage. In New York they found good jobs, opportunities, and a chance to not stand out as “immigrants.” And there they came together as Blatte United, one of the city’s best amateur soccer teams.

For all the multiculturalism of the intellectual and political circles in Sweden, immigrants and their children find it hard to fit in. They often sense that they stick out because of their parents, the way they look, maybe even a foreign accent. It’s true that Sweden has a generous public policy when it comes to refugees and other immigrants, providing them with housing, education, and the other boons of the welfare state, but it’s still hard to find a qualified job if your name is Ahmed and not Anders. (Some immigrants take more Swedish-sounding names so that their job applications won’t be immediately dismissed.)

The members of Blatte United didn’t “flee” Sweden, but they are all living in New York, some permanently, some temporarily while studying. Most of them didn’t know each other before Medufia “Keke” Kulego and Omino Gardezi met at a Manhattan party, realized that they were both Swedes, and discovered that they both loved soccer. An idea was born, and soon enough, they had formed a team that later was named after the Swedish slang for immigrant: Blatte.

On June 7, Blatte United won Manhattan’s Bowery Cup in Chinatown after defeating Bowery Football Club 2 in the semifinal and Bowery Football Club 1 in the final. These were two incredibly intense matches played under a scorching midday sun with just a short break between. All three teams played to win. They played tough, sometimes rough, but without resorting to dirty tricks.

Four days later I met up with five members of the team at Syrup Inc., a hot ad agency in Manhattan’s TriBeCa district. (Jakob Dashek, son of a Swedish mother and a father of Finnish-Czech descent, and Robert Holzer, an American who once worked at New York Times Digital, founded Syrup eight years ago.)

Selim Adira was born in southern Sweden to parents who had immigrated from Morocco. He moved to the U.S. three years ago to work as restaurant manager for the Swedish restaurant Ulrika, and now runs the official residence for the Swedish UN ambassador Anders Lidén. When Adira lived in Rosengård, a large immigrants’ suburb in outer Malmö, he played soccer with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who later went on to become Sweden’s leading soccer star.

Sebastian Alvarado played soccer on Sweden’s junior national team as well as in Spain’s Division 2. His father came from Chile, his mother from Finland. He arrived in the U.S. five years ago and today is business development manager at Syrup.

Omino Gardezi grew up in Sweden. His father was a diplomat from India and his mother came from Iran. He moved to New York in 1993 and is one of the top managers for Syrup. He also has his own media-consulting firm, S.A.M.

Adel Koubaa is a medical student at Sweden’s in-ternationally renowned research hospital Karolinska Institutet. For the past six months he has done research at Boston University and New York’s Columbia University. Koubaa was born in Sweden to parents from Tunisia.

Medufi a “Keke” Kulego is known to Currents readers, as we introduced him in our banking and finance issue (Winter 2007). He was born in Malmö, Sweden, to parents from Ghana. He grew up in Rosengård and excelled at soccer. Like many of his immigrant friends he dreamed of becoming a pro, but his father insisted that he excel at school too, which he did. He landed a soccer scholarship that took him to St. John’s University on Long Island, where he stayed for four years. When he returned to Sweden with a degree in business marketing and finance, he discovered that the only job he could get was as a physical education teacher at a local high school. Disappointed, he moved back to New York, where he became a hedgefund manager.

Blatte’s passion for soccer is certainly something its players share with other Swedes, as well as with people all over the world (except in the U.S., where American football rules the sports mainstream). But in addition to winning late night and weekend soccer games, they are succeeding in New York City, an ultra-competitive place where you would think that displaying a Swedish mentality in a business setting sounds like a bad joke.

But none of my new Blatte friends would hesitate for a moment to put “Swedish” on their business cards. For them, their Swedish connections and mentality are big plusses. “It’s great to be able to say that you come from Sweden!” Omino Gardezi says. “I definitely say that, even though my dad came from India and my mother from Iran. I’m a Swedish citizen, and my nationality is Swedish.

”The Swedish business mentality has a lot to do with building long-term relationships, while it’s a more short-term thing for Americans,” Gardezi goes on. “Swedes are a bit more cautious and would never want to burn any bridges. They are diplomatic and take their time. I believe we have an advantage as immigrant Swedes. We have the aggressive foreign mentality, but at the same time we’ve acquired the  Swedish mentality from living in Sweden. This is a great combination that’s worked out really well for us all here.” “It’s definitely a good thing to be a Swede in the U.S.,” Sebastian Alvarado agrees. “People have an immediate picture of Sweden — they like it right off the bat. And Sweden has definitely formed us. When Americans hear that you are from Sweden, they assume you’re a hard worker, disciplined, and humble. We are automatically helped by this. In busi-ness, Sweden is known as a  highly developed country with advanced industries. Swedes have a very strong reputation.”

“They have a fantastic reputation, for coming from such a small country,” says Gardezi. “Sports, culture, design, you just name it,” says Alvarado.

“In my field, finance,” says Keke Kulego, “Swedes are very humble and down-to-earth, while Americans are more aggressive in their posture and how they see things. Everything is big. Everything is loud.”

“Swedes’ down-to-earth approach is very non-threatening,” Gardezi says. “Americans are so gung-ho about everything, but they really like the mellow Swedish attitude.”

But as good as the Swedish mentality can be when blended with the Blatte mentality, on its own it can hold you back. When you move to New York, you need to shed some of your Swedishness if you’re going to make it. “We immigrants have that fire in us that the ordinary Swede doesn’t have,” says Kulego.

“The Swedish humility is a positive thing for us, because we know how to balance it.”

“You can tell the difference between somebody who’s been here for a while and someone who’s new,” says Alvarado. “People who’ve been here a few years get a tougher skin and dare to be a little more pushy, while the newcomers act more Swedish.”

"Back home you have a formula to stick to,” says Kulego. “You’re not allowed to be loud and stick out. You’re not allowed to be yourself. If you don’t stick to the formula, you’re seen as crazy and obnoxious. In Sweden, it’s not good to be full of yourself, believe in yourself and talk aloud about it.”

“It’s almost strange, because a lot of Swedes here are completely integrated into American society,” Gardezi says.

“Swedes are very flexible,” Alvarado says, thinking of Swedes abroad. “You can put a Swede almost anywhere and he will adapt well. That’s actually something Swedes are very good at, and they fit in really well into the U.S. Most Swedes love New York and the atmosphere here.

“There is, however, a big difference between us immigrant Swedes and what you call ordinary Swedes,” Alvarado continues. “We’re more aggressive right from the start, more daring. We have a little more of this Zlatan mentality. Maybe you need to be something in between,” he says, displaying the Swede’s typical preference for lagom (“just right.”)

"We have immigrants to Sweden who’ve been very successful here. Just look at Omino, who runs much of this company, and Keke, who works for a hedgefund, and Marcus Samuelsson with his restaurants. Their success has a lot to do with their multicultural background, with the fact that they dared to break the barriers. It has a lot to do with personality, and a Swedish mentality of discipline and hard work, but they would never have made it if they hadn’t dared to go for it,” Alvarado says, pointing to Frans Johansson’s book The Medici Effect (see Currents No. 1, 2005).

Sweden’s famous welfare system leaves our Blattar with mixed feelings. On one hand, they admire Americans for working hard and not complaining about it, whereas Swedes complain about being exhausted after having worked 9 to 5. On the other hand, they feel that Americans work so hard because they don’t know better. “All they’ve ever known is working 10 to 12 hours a day with two weeks of vacation a year. In Sweden you’re aware of alternatives,” says Alvarado. “I like the fact that workers stick to their rights in Sweden. Nobody talks about that or unions here, so you can push workers around more. They can sack you and you’ll be out the next day with two weeks’ pay if you’re lucky. I know many who that’s happened to.”

“I admire that Americans work without complaining so much. Even if they work until 8 in the evening, they can go out and have a drink with friends. People are having more fun. Try that at home,” Selim Adira says, but Alvarado interjects: “Here in New York, many are young and don’t have families and children yet. People come here to make a career and make money, so the tempo is high.” When you leave home you change. For Swedes, it’s as if the Law of Jante (groupthink) loosens its grip abroad. “Swedes at home and Swedes abroad are like two different types,” says Adel Koubaa. “Over here they enjoy being social, while they’re more careful at home. My parents have lived in Sweden for 33 years, and even though they have colleagues at work, they don’t have any close Swedish friends, friends that you can just drop in on. When people meet, it’s for formal dinners.”

“But how many American friends do you have here?” Gardezi asks.

“I have quite a few,” Alvarado says.

“But how many do you see regularly? I’ve lived here since 1993, but I see three, maybe four Americans,” Gardezi says, which brings him back to Blatte United. “You try to connect to people that share your interests. My mother’s best friend comes from Chile. Our group here connects because we come from similar neighborhoods and have similar experiences from school. We have a lot in common.”

“It’s easy for guys to join our group. We work in very different trades, but we all have soccer as our big passion, and we have a similar mentality,” Alvarado says.

”When my dad visited me in New York, he was so surprised at the fact that people talked to us everywhere,” Adira says. “He told me that at home, he takes the bus every day but nobody ever talks to him. Nobody says hi, and they don’t ask how you are  doing, but here people are so warm and friendly. ‘How are you doing?’ people ay when you enter a store. They talk to people they don’t know. People are also very polite and helpful here in New York.”

“And still, they’re much nicer in California and other parts of the country. There they think New Yorkers are unfriendly,” Alvarado comments.

What do other Swedes think when they hear about what the Blatte group is doing here?

“We work with a lot of Swedish companies, and they’re usually completely wowed about everything we’ve done,” says Alvarado. “We’ve worked with big brands and we’ve done this and that. They are always wowed and they ask, ‘How did you do that?’”

“Traditional Swedes are amazed when they see us, but you know, we never got the chance in Sweden. That’s the dilemma,” says Kulego. “They’re impressed, and there is something in them that’s happy we’re Swedes, but there’s also something that can’t believe we’ve reached this stage. And then they say, ‘Wow, you speak Swedish so well,’ and I say, ‘Why shouldn’t I? I was born in Sweden!’ They can’t really grasp that we’re doing well over here, but we could have done well in Sweden if we’d gotten a chance.

Hans Sandberg

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