Well, it appears soccer is now a religion in Sweden.
On Sunday, during the Stockholm club AIK’s season opener against BK Häcken, several dozen of AIK’s most boisterous fans — known as “ultras” — traded their masks for niqabs, the traditionally Muslim face covering that obscures the entire face except the eyes. To really rub it in, AIK’s extremists also unfurled two gigantic banners with a message for Interior Secretary Anders Ygeman, who spearheaded the legislation.
“AIK’s ultras mean well. We’re now wearing masks for religious reasons,” the first banner read.
“Freedom for ultras is the ultimate goal,” the second banner continued. “Thanks, Ygeman, for the loophole.”
The masked ultras then lit up a bunch of flares because with their faces still obscured, it was still business per usual.
Although the law was supposed to land those who wore masks to games in jail for up to sixth months, it appears the only consequence the ultras’ antics earned on Sunday was a good laugh from Ygeman.
“In all honesty I thought the banner was quite funny,” the politician told Swedish sports tabloid Sports Bladet. “It shows that AIK fans have a bit of humor.”
However, the relationship between some of these extremist fans and Muslims living in Sweden hasn’t been a laughing matter. In late January, several AIK ultras, as well as ultras from rival team Djurgården, stormed a train station in Stockholm to attack anyone who looked foreign.
One of the attackers who spoke to the Daily Mail under the protection of anonymity said the attack came in response to what they saw as ineffective policing in the face of growing crime perceived to be committed by migrants.
“We feel the police are not doing their job,” the ultra said. “Our wives, girlfriends and daughters cannot feel safe in the center parts of Stockholm during the night. We feel that this is shameful for a country like Sweden and wanted to make a statement that it is not okay.”
Instead of attacking criminals, however, the group of about 50 people ended up targeting innocent people, many of whom were children, according to one witness.
“Most of the kids who got beaten were just ordinary people born and raised in Sweden,” train station worker Johanna Brixander told the Daily Mail. “Their hair color just happened to not be blonde.”
The stadium mask ban was intended to eliminate this feeling of impunity, but it may have actually complicated matters, as local police warned late last year when the bill was still being debated.
“We think it will be complicated for spectators to know where the line is between what is allowed and what is not,” national police legal director Lars Tonneman said in September (via the Local). “It will make it pointlessly difficult for police on the ground to decide when a masked face is due to religious conviction or when the person is using it as a false pretext.”
Police also worry about having to subject people to religious tests in the stands to figure out who might be taking advantage of the law’s “loophole.”
The chief executive of the Swedish Football League, who supported the passage of the bill earlier this year, isn’t worried the legislation will put anyone’s constitutional rights in danger.
“There has never previously been a problem in identifying the difference between someone who has religious reasons to cover their face and someone who is doing so with the intent of committing criminal acts,” Mats Enquist told the Local last year. “In practice it is very clear what the purpose is.”
Ygeman, meanwhile, said he doesn’t expect to see a “niqab trend” as the country’s soccer season progresses. He told Sport Bladet he thinks Sunday’s protest was a one-time event, and not one directed against migrants, Muslims or any other group, but just him in particular.
“This is just a taunt as I understand it,” the Swedish politician said. “There are still real problems in the stands. People throwing bang snaps and so on. But people poking fun at government officials in the stands? It is not a problem.”
AIK, which drew BK Häcken, 0-0, on Sunday, will face IF Elfsborg on Monday.