[THE PITCH: Blog 3]Late Morning, March 19, 2014
"Bankrutt" is the only word I recognize as I scan Aftonbladet, a larger Swedish daily newspaper, reporting headline news. My club team Tyresö declared bankruptcy and was folding only two days before our Champions League quarterfinal. We step off the field after our best training session of the season when the Twitter notifications begin to buzz on our phones. I look frantically around the locker room trying to understand, but the Swedish mixed with panic confuses me. I knew the club was meeting with the Swedish federal government that day, but I thought it was at 15:00. I check the clock: 11:30. The only thing clear is that the energy that sprung from a post-practice high has quickly depleted. Everyone is as confused and scared as I am.
Then, we receive an email from the club promising that the information reported by all of the major Swedish publications about our demise was, in fact, wrong. Well, it wasn’t the only time these publications had reported false information (I thought you could go to jail for that in Sweden. Darn that Girl With the Dragon Tattoo!).The decision about whether our team would continue via a government bailout -- which in Sweden they call "rekonstruktion" -- or if we fold would, indeed, be made in court, at 15:00. When the manager comes into the locker room a few minutes later, all he can muster is to say, to a team based in one of the least religious countries in the world, “Just go home and pray to God.”
This wasn’t the first message I had received from the club about a “financial crisis.” The first came late last summer. There had been some unexplained mix up, and they had asked all of the players who had a "free car" stipulated in their contract to please pay the car taxes. Taxes, to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars, which they had unknowingly owed for the last three years. We did not pay. Another message came during the end-of-the-year meetings, when many players were asked to accept pay cuts or to agree to play for less than they had already signed for the following year. On payday in February of this year, we were informed that our salaries would be a few days late…and, “Thank you for your patience.” A few days turned into a few weeks and a few more empty promises... Finally, we understood that the club was in debt totaling $1.5 million and filing for "rekonstruktion."
Early Afternoon, March 19, 2014
We must wait three hours before the court settles and seals our fate. I observe how each of us handles stress so differently. Some sit silently, some move and chatter non-stop to distract themselves. Some yell, while others make jokes. I, personally, have been through each of these reactions, but recognizing and accepting the complete loss of control over the situation acts to calm me…
On the drive home from practice, I thought about some of the moments that had passed since joining this club. I remembered the stress I felt before playing the Champions League match against PSG, knowing that if we lost, my time in Sweden would be over. I thought about the fight to continue to play in Sweden in 2014 amid the success of NWSL at home in the USA. I thought about the friends I had made on this team and the ones I had lost as the team continued to shuffle players. I thought about the rumors that circulated the week before that we would not be able to play our Cup match, as the club did not have the money to pay for our one-hour bus ride. And I even had to smile thinking about the fast food from McDonalds we ate after that game to celebrate our 2-0 victory over Eskistuna. Thank you one dollar menu! All of us had reached our personal “limit,” yet we were still all here. Up until that moment, all of the drama seemed to play out in the background, with barely any information or communication coming directly from the club to the players. We acted blissfully unaware, but were consumed with the worry of our suspicions. With what little we did know, we managed to stick together as underfunded players and staff, united in our frustration against a club that was lying to us.
Under the "rekonstruktion" assessment process, however, the media had gained access to a lot of the club’s information, including salaries. There were only a few minutes separating the apology email we received from the club and the tweets with links to articles headlining things such as: Tax Money Goes to Foreign Football Stars. The media attacked from every angle, and our inboxes were inundated with incendiary questions like, "Do you really think you are worth 10x the value of your teammate?” or, “Is your small salary a correct depiction of how much you contribute to the club?” All the while, the publications had released incorrect information that further sensationalized the situation. They published what players were owed in February as if it were their monthly salary, not noting that some players were owed bonuses and reimbursements (spanning back to 2013) and others were owed less because they had reported into camp later, thus working fewer days. That was just another blow, but one that began to break through the thinning flesh of our team.
Late afternoon, March 19, 2014
At 15:18 we receive a group text from our captain: "We are f'ing alive," meaning our dream to continue playing lives on.
Legally, when the federal government accepted "rekonstruktion" it meant that they would provide the club with money to stay afloat through June. The government will pay the players and coaching staff’s salaries at a maximum of 170,000 kronor per person (approximately $30,000) over a four-month period. In June, the club will be required to have the money to repay the government and take over all club costs going forward. If the individual maximum salary is reached before June, then it is the club’s responsibility to pay that player or coach. Before the first government payment had reached our bank accounts for February's past due salaries, Tyresö would need to have enough money to begin taking over the highest paid players' salaries.
We all feel lucky to still have a team. Everyday begins and ends with a question mark, and that makes us uncomfortable as well as gives us perspective. Nothing in life is a given. Still, every time I receive an email from the club, I cringe. Some days, I can see the energy leaking from the team during our long and tedious meetings about finances and logistics, but other days, we laugh together. When we have a great training it feels twice as great because we know we are playing against the odds. As a team, we are winning the biggest game we will ever play: staying united in the face of adversity; staying honest in the midst of corruption; surviving together without greed and without blame. I'm not surprised that our little family is closer than ever.
When I step on the field, I don’t think about the club that wronged and embarrassed us, I think about how proud I am to stand alongside this group of players and staff. Our goals now include the resolve to show up to work each day … mostly with a smile, even without a pay-check ... for each other and for the love of the game.
Champions League Highlights:
We had waited five months for the whistle to blow to commence this quarterfinal match. Just two days before, we thought that our Austrian opponent Neulengbach would have a free pass to the semifinal. But there we were, 11 girls on the pitch, my parents in the stands, everyone grateful for the place in which we stood. Maybe all of the pent up anger and frustration served as fuel, as we shot out like a rocket launched at Cape Canaveral. And after just 35 seconds I found myself relishing the energized embraces of a post goal celebration. It was the first of eight goals we would score that Sunday to all but guarantee a place in the semifinals. During the game we had some brilliant moments, the collective work of a team that loves to play and plays together. But despite the scoreboard and the highlight reel, I left the field knowing it was not a championship winning performance. I cannot suppress the urge to scrutinize and criticize in the exact moment when everything seems great and easy. But as these thoughts transpired in my head, I walked into the locker room with a smile stretched across my face. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t think about money or how on earth I would tell my parents to cancel their travel plans. I was thinking about football. Order was restored and we'd won.