The Sum of Their Parts
The rise and fall of Motala and its football team
My home town, Motala in Sweden, had its heyday in the 1950s. Jobs were plentiful and football was booming. This is the story of how it all came about.
I was no more than a kid, seven or eight years old, when my grandfather took me for walks. He was an old man, past his seventy-fifth birthday, and made careful by angina. So we had ample time to take a long and good look at things. We walked along the canal, usually past the old factory where he had spent more than 50 years working as a carpenter.
Apart from performing his military service on a destroyer at sea, he had spent his whole life in the surroundings. He knew the area like his own pocket and showed me the uniqueness of the dry dock (which emptied itself in one hour), the old cholera hospital (used in 1853), the lumber yard and the thru'penny bridge, a rather new item, made in the 1930s.
Grandpa pointed out the old foundry, located at the centre of the gothic building complex where his own father had spent most of his working life. I knew the man from old photographs. Great-grandpa was a skinny old geezer with a long beard, who once received a gold medal from the King. And he deserved it. I recently looked for him in the archives of the factory: he had started out in the foundry as a boy of 13, and retired an incredible 65 years later. Some stamina. He showed even more of that at home as he got married as late as 46, but still managed to raise seven kids. Four of the boys followed him to the factory. The fifth would have, but died too early. He drowned in the canal aged nine. Grandpa and his two remaining brothers were old men by the time I got to know them. While spending time with them I learnt (or so I thought) that by growing old you got both wise and clever (they could do tricks, you see). For some reason you also seemed to go more or less deaf.
Everything in their lives had circled around the factory and the canal. When the factory needed workers they lived reasonably well. But when times were hard and the plant was shut down — as it had been in 1922 — things got difficult.
"This used to be a place of some importance," Grandpa said with a smile.
Indeed. Motala Mekaniska Verkstad (Motala Mechanical Factory) was the first of its kind in Sweden, founded in 1822 to cater for the digging of a canal across the southern parts of the country. They produced anything related to iron or steel, like spades or steam engines, and later ships, locomotives, bridges, kitchen sinks — you name it.
The first chief engineer was a Scotsman, Daniel Fraser, and the original work force had a core of skilled men from Great Britain. This was, of course, too early for the Brits to bring along footballs. But the factory workers would still play a major part as the sport grew. And the management would stand behind the local football club Motala AIF (MAIF) as it rose to fame during the 1950s.
This takes us to the immediate post-war years, when this sleepy inland town suddenly found its feet and got some attention. The town had grown and developed steadily and beside the old factory now had three other major employers, makers of radios, refrigerators and torpedoes.
Football needed more time to develop. The sport was brought into town in about 1904 or 1905 by young men who returned home from their military service in the larger neighbouring towns of Norrköping and Linköping. The centre-forward Sten Berg (literally Rock Mountain) was the first really great player. He led the attack for nearly 20 years and afterwards continued to keep a close eye on the local footballers as he became manager of the local liquor store, then as now run by the state.
Football needed a local catalyst, someone larger than life itself, to get things going. And this Messiah emerged in the unlikely shape of a brat, the well-to-do youngest son of a local factory owner.
Gösta Löfgren was a spoilt kid who did nothing to impress his teachers at school, although his cronies could rely on him to foot the bill, even if only for coffee and sweet bread at lunch time. He developed a passion for football, playing in the MAIF third team at 15. During the summer breaks immediately before World War II he watched as the big boys faced international opposition. Motala, then a second division side, played host to the Austrian marvels Rapid Vienna (with the legendary goalscorer Franz Binder), the Hungarian side Bocskai of Debrecen (with their World Cup star Imre Markos) and Hungária, with Pál Titkos and the Austrian Heinrich Müller.
These were high calibre international stars. MAIF managed to score twice in those three games, but let in 13 goals. Gösta wasn't too impressed by the senior players standing in his way and in 1940, aged 17, he left the club to answer an SOS call from the local team BK Zeros. These nobodies were on the brink of dissolving due to lack of players, but were saved by an influx of youngsters. Gösta was one of them and he took a regular place at inside-right, with the cheeky Kurt-Ivar Samuelsson as his wing partner. They became close friends. Gösta and Kurt-Ivar ran a rabbit farm in the latter's back yard, as the ongoing war caused food shortages and brought on rationing even in neutral Sweden.
Zeros started at the fifth league level and climbed upwards while MAIF at the same time slipped. After only two years they faced each other in the third division. The young Gösta was a marvel. In 1940-41 he scored 33 goals in 14 games. MAIF wanted him badly. But as Gösta matured he also had to do his duty for his country. He was posted at Eskilstuna and signed for their second-division outfit. Zeros collapsed when he left them and his stay in Eskilstuna was marred by injuries. But when his military service was done he headed back to Motala, and by that stage MAIF was the only option.
As he returned he also faced unexpected responsibilities. His father had worked himself into an early grave but the factory had to remain within the family. Logically Gösta, who was the youngest of four brothers, would have been considered too young to have anything to do with it. But one of the boys was already dead — he had drowned while showing off his new wellingtons on the ice of the canal — and one wasn't interested. Now Gösta and his oldest brother had to take over the business. The year was 1946 and he was still only 23.
Gösta became the top scorer of the team and the club started to function properly after the war years. They employed a coach (one who wasn't just a former first-team player) and did their best to assemble a good team. It took a few more years before they got it right. In 1949-50 they finally managed to win their section of the fourth division. The next season they won the third as well. By now Gösta and Kurt-Ivar, who had gone straight from Zeros to MAIF, were delivering the goods on the right wing.
"I just dribbled. Then I gave it to Gösta so he could do whatever he liked with the ball," Kurt-Ivar said when I talked to him a couple of years ago (he was 89 in May).
Others described their game as a 'perfect understanding'.
The promotion into the second division, in the spring of 1951, came at a time of upheaval in Swedish football. Some of the established top teams had fallen apart in the wake of Swedish successes at London in 1948 (Olympic gold) and in Brazil in 1950 (World Cup bronze). AIK was one example. In 1949 they lost Henry Carlsson to Atlético Madrid. The following year Bror Mellberg (Genoa), Sune Andersson (Roma) and Lennart Skoglund (Internazionale) all left for Italy. Without four national team regulars they simply couldn't cope, and were relegated. In all 25 players left Sweden in as many months. As they became professionals they were no longer eligible to play for Sweden.
But AIK was still a famous name and expected to draw a big crowd when they visited Motala. They certainly did. This town, with about 25,000 inhabitants, mustered a 10,000-strong crowd. Even the Prime Minister had been invited, and shook hands with the players before kick-off.
It was a great show. Never mind the result (the visitors triumphed, 6–1), this game provided an ignition, a sparkle that would last for the rest of that decade, and produce success never imagined.
Gösta Löfgren made an impression on the international selection committee. As the first half of the season drew to a close he was picked for Sweden: a debutant at 28. Sweden faced Italy in Florence and Gösta took care of things in the same way as he did at home. Maybe he missed Kurt-Ivar. But it didn't stop him from scoring the equaliser as Sweden drew 1–1.
The board members of MAIF now felt they had something to offer players from other clubs — the honour of becoming a teammate with Gösta Löfgren. Remember, it was still strictly amateur. When you approached players from other teams you could only offer a job and decent living quarters. If the player accepted he still had to sit out 90 days — of which the winter break only counted for 15 — before he could go into action.
But the MAIF board soon realised there were ways to circumvent the rules. It was easy. You just formed a supporters' club — with no formal connection to the club itself — which would take care of everything that might infringe the rules. As the team kept on fighting to established itself in the second division an unbeatable organisation took shape.
At this time MAIF was a multi sports club, with a general board and separate sections for each sport. The vice president of the general board doubled as director of personnel at the Motala Verkstad. Almost every recruited player was swallowed by the factory, which now had a 2000-strong workforce.
The chairman of the football section doubled as sports editor of the local newspaper. The club could do no wrong and criticism was totally ignored. The coach, Torsten Lindberg, an Olympic gold medallist as a goalkeeper in 1948, doubled as the real estate manager of Motala Verkstad. Apartments for new players were his responsibility. The star player, Gösta Löfgren, doubled as the factory owner and the deputy manager behind his brother. He matured, became a humble family man who rode his bicycle to work every day and did extra training outside of the two or three sessions offered each week by the club.
This way he got the edge needed to dominate on the pitch. At his level of play he excelled like his contemporary Alfredo Di Stéfano at Real Madrid, powered by huge lungs that enabled him to go on forever. The coach Lindberg was fair, because he was mean to everybody — except Gösta, who was untouchable. They all knew it, but never made an issue of it, as he led in the best of ways, by providing an example for the others to follow.
Gösta Löfgren also caught the eye of IFK Norrköping, in those days the best team in Sweden. Their manager called Gösta, who listened politely and then asked what kind of work he had in mind for him. "Well, we need a groundsman here," he said. Gösta of course declined, which he also did when Venezia, new to Serie A, made an offer. In the eyes of the locals he grew immensely in stature with a simple, "No, thanks."
He retained his place in the national team and had a great year in 1955. As usual the national Player of the Year was to be announced in October. A newspaper (Stockholms-Tidningen) held the reins but their committee also took some advice from a popular vote. One man took that very seriously. His name was Egon Rooth. He was 29 years old, and a fan. He was also desperate to secure a prominent place for himself in the supporters' club. What to do? He organised the voting för Gösta, and the result was overwhelming. Gösta, still a second division player, got 34,322 votes. Second on the list was Kurt Hamrin of AIK, with 8,513. Gösta Löfgren got the Golden Ball and it was presented to him before the last game that autumn, against IFK Trelleborg. He was cheered by his teammates, who carried him around the pitch. He celebrated by scoring one goal and modestly laying on a couple for the centre-forward. who got six as MAIF won 8-0.
The supporters' club was run by John Finnby, a brash southerner who had a shoe shop in the town centre. He went on long car trips every weekend around the country to look for new players. Egon Rooth was now qualified as co-driver. With the aid of Finnby the team's composition had changed considerably since 1951. Kurt-Ivar was now semi-retired, occasionally playing with the third team. New players were brought in for trials almost every month. Lindberg, the coach, gave the nod to about one player in three or four. The club also developed some youngsters and slowly a good team took shape.
In the spring of 1957 they finally won their second-division group, thus qualifying for a promotional play-off against Örgryte (ÖIS) of Gothenburg. ÖIS had a tremendous attack, with the youngsters Agne Simonsson and Rune Börjesson supported by the veteran player-coach Gunnar Gren. Gren was 36 years old and had just returned from a great career in Italy, where he had played for AC Milan, Fiorentina and Genoa. Torsten Lindberg, who was a clever tactician, thought long and hard about how best to take care of 'Il Professore', as Gren had been named by the Italians.
The first game was played in Gothenburg. The crowd of more than 30,000 was easily the largest ever to watch MAIF. During the build-up it was feared they would have to play without their tall stopper and skipper Lennart Hemming, who during the previous few weeks had been nursing a hamstring injury. He got over it, though, and lined up to shake hands with Gren.
As the game got under way the crowd soon noticed something peculiar. Gunnar Gren was left alone — but everybody else was marked closely. His team mates were all tied up. The Professor was all dressed up, but had nowhere to go. This was the master stroke of coach Lindberg, who had given his left-half Rolf Ullván orders to abandon Gren and push forward at every opportunity. Ullván, a first-teamer since 1944 and a player who usually took hits to smother the opposing star, enjoyed his new-found role immensely. He led the attack and did his best to try and test the ÖIS goalkeeper with shots from all angles. ÖIS couldn't contain him. After 30 minutes he went forward once again, showing a tremendous force and drive as he advanced. He unleashed a shot from about 25 yards. The keeper misjudged the trajectory and thought it was all clear. But the ball went in close to the crossbar: 1-0.
The tactics obviously worked brilliantly. Nothing could stop them now. Sören Nilsson, a left-winger who had been part of the original 1940s team, made it two with a header. ÖIS were still watching. MAIF led 2–0 at half-time and all was well. Then, early in the second half, Hemming, the stopper, succumbed to cramp. He hadn't been able to work out properly for weeks and couldn't take the strain. He continued at outside-left, the reshuffle causing five other players to assume new positions.
Not even this could trigger ÖIS. Sören Nilsson scored his second goal with yet another header. Then the young outside-right Sten-Arne Lorin, a student who had succeeded Kurt-Ivar, made it 4-0. Finally ÖIS entered the game. Simonsson and Börjesson (twice) made it 4–3. The pressure was on but MAIF were resilient and withstood a heavy bombardment during the last 15 minutes.
The tickets for the return game were released the day after. One man drove home from Gothenburg and promptly parked his car in front of the ticket booth. He slept there and was first in line on the Friday morning. On the Sunday a crowd of 12,863 — a record that still stands — watched as ÖIS once more were torn apart. Nilsson (with another header), Lorin (with a misdirected cross), dear old Gösta (with a thunderbolt from 20 yards) and Lorin again completed a 4–0 rout: a day for the whole town to cherish for the rest of their lives.
Motala AIF had reached Allsvenskan, the summit, and the future looked rosy. A national newspaper carried a story with a photo showing no fewer than 14 club members lined up in front of the factory where they worked, the caption saying that another four were unable to make it in time for the photo.
Maybe I should stop here. The local frenzy was not enough to carry the team. Especially not as Gösta Löfgren was injured. He suffered from a sore Achilles tendon and wasn't able to play in the Allsvenskan opener against IFK Gothenburg. The team still somehow pulled themselves together and got a draw. That was enough to make Egon Rooth happy. Nine months later his wife gave birth to twins, boys who later would reach the first team as teenagers. Also worth noting is that my mother and father met at about that time.
The Swedish FA had decided to change the course of the season, from autumn-spring to calendar year. This meant that 1957-58 was played over three terms, beginning in the autumn of 1957 and continuing through all of 1958. Instead of 22 games MAIF faced the turmoil of 33 rounds. After starting without their only star (Gösta was able to play in 25 games) they never recovered and ended up as the twelfth and last team.
MAIF took about two decades to recover from this blow, or maybe it was just an awakening to the reality. At about the same time Motala Verkstad slipped into serious trouble. They made parts for ship engines and a suspicious Japanese shipbuilder X-rayed a delivery. They found cracks. Soon the factory was struggling to support itself, never mind a football team..
Torsten Lindberg left the club. Gösta Löfgren thought he was in line as successor. He expected to be paid for the job. But the board explained that it had never intended to pay a club member to coach the first team. So, at 37 he finally left the club. He finished off his career with IFK Norrköping, winning three league titles in four seasons. Then he got back to MAIF, by then a third division outfit, to serve two more years as player-coach, finally retiring at the age of 42.
As I approached my teens in the mid-1970s he once again took the reins as coach. With 40 caps to his name he was more or less a god in Motala, but he was also someone who was too busy running his own company to spend time pondering about past times.
Some of his team mates were not so lucky. They became eager clients of Mr Rock Mountain. The goalkeeper, Egon Bengtsson, was sacked from the factory as the work force shrank drastically from 2000 to a paltry 200, and was later found dead in his apartment. Rolf Ullván was a teacher at my school. He was loved by his pupils but he had the habit of turning up in sunglasses at eight o'clock in the morning. He smiled in disbelief as I asked politely for his autograph.
I had the chance to talk to some of the surviving players when the club had its centenary celebrations in 2007. Gösta, who had died the year before, was still revered by everyone. Sten-Arne Lorin, the successful young winger from the qualifiers, told me in great detail how both of them stayed behind after training. Gösta explained the finer points of the game to his young winger, so he knew when to make a dash along the line or simply cut inside to create space for Gösta, who would take the ball down the line and then hit a short pass backwards.
Berth Johansson, the right-footed left-back, told me how it really was. "When I broke up an attack outside our penalty area I immediately looked for Gösta," he said. "He was usually hovering somewhere in the centre circle. Our eyes met as he started running towards me, shadowed by his marking wing half. Then he pointed the way for me, with his thumb over his shoulder. I was expecting it and hit a long ball as Gösta turned sharply, leaving his marker behind."
That's how we like to remember him, in full stride heading for goal. Pity I only saw him play in a veterans' game when he was about 55. As I write this I am preparing to go down from Stockholm to Motala to watch the home opener of the season, remarkably against our old foes Örgryte. It's a third division game at the old stadium. It will be watched by at most 600 people.
Egon Rooth will probably be there. Still a fanatic, selling lottery tickets. None the wiser after all these years, but definitely slightly deaf.