The Royal League: A reflection on Scandinavia’s curious and fleeting UEFA alternative

royal league

In football, as in life, everyone wants their shot at glory. For younger players, this often means merely playing football, while proven athletes search for corporeal accolades that competitions like the Champions League bring.

Through the years, however, how glory is measured has changed. Avaricious organisation’s growing involvement in the sport has ushered it down a precarious path into the impression that money correlates to success.

One such example is the whisperings of a European Super League, which would see the financial powerhouse clubs on the continent take precedence over less fortunate ones.

Thankfully, the fans took the affair into their own hands in 2021 to stop the greed that threatens football, leading Florentino Pérez, Real Madrid’s president and the competition’s founding father, to stare down the barrel and see just how difficult it would be to sway the sport’s adoring fans to believe in his philosophy.

However, although the European Super League fiasco misfired and quickly failed, money is still the number one driving force in the modern game. Multi-billionaire ownerships from the middle east get a friendlier welcome each season in the Premier League, and the true meaning behind football has never been more at cross purposes.

Embed from Getty Images

More competitions lead to more games which promise more revenue and more thirst. But the curious and fleeting lifespan of Scandinavia’s Royal League, a UEFA alternative, was a tournament that contradicted the idea that all owners seek deep pockets alone.

There have been plenty of spin-off failures in the past. These included such delights as the Texaco Cup, involving teams from England, Scotland and Ireland, the self-explanatory Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Italian Cups, and the Setanta Cup, involving teams from both sides of the Irish border.

However, none were as interesting and promising as the Royal League.

What was it?

The Royal League was an annual football tournament held between teams from the three Scandinavian monarchies: Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The four best-placed teams in each of the countries entered, and it hosted its first-ever match in November 2004.

Each qualified team was placed in one of three divided groups. In the league’s first season, the two top teams from the first tournament progressed to a second group phase. The two group winners then played each other in the final. In the second and third seasons – the second group phase was replaced with a knockout contest. So the two best third-placed teams joined the first and second-placed sides.

On the surface, it presented viewers with the chance to see the sparkling dexterities of Scandinavian football. A region that rarely boasts much luck in Europe, the Royal League offered the likes of FF Malmö, IFK Göteborg, Brøndby IF, København, and Rosenborg BK an opportunity to acquire notoriety without competing against the dynasties of Spain, Germany, Italy and England.

Embed from Getty Images

It only made sense that the Danish, Swedish and Nordic hotbeds for talent were flaunted on a continental stage. In the past, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Freddie Ljungberg, Peter Schmeichel, Michael Laudrup, Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Erling Haaland have all passed through their youth bubbles.

Not as recognised as the youth football played in Portugal and the Netherlands, the Royal League was a tantalizing prospect for Scandinavian football to navigate their way into the big time. But while anticipation grew over its inauguration, with Frank Grønlund, the sporting director at Lillestrøm in Norway, envious that his team had not qualified for the first edition, claiming “The Royal League looks very exciting,” it wasn’t meant to be.

For all the reasons you’d imagine a modern knock-off tournament would fail, the Royal League experienced. Although a brilliant idea, it fell apart after three seasons.

How did it go?

The origins behind the competition are up for debate. What we do know, though, is that Rosenborg’s sporting director Rune Bratseth was heavily involved in the initial talks between ex-players and businessmen regarding its creation. This gave the opinion that the clubs may not have had much of a say themselves.

Regardless, before the first of its kind, cracks already began to appear.

Firstly, the Royal League was placed in jeopardy of even starting in the first place as sponsorship and TV rights were harder to come by than expected. Secondly, after these issues were resolved in time for all 12 teams to participate on the opening day, the timing of the competition was problematic, too.

Brann’s first game came just days after winning the Norwegian Cup, while the Swedish teams, including Brann’s first opponents Halmstads, started the competition just weeks after their domestic league had finished.

This, of course, led club managers to believe it was a bad idea. For them, keeping their players fit took priority. More games in the fixture list are something today’s coaches, namely Jürgen Klopp, have qualms about, and it was no different back then. It’s the reason the Nations League is used more as a pre-season runaround than a sought-after trophy.

Furthermore, unlike the other two countries, Denmark’s domestic league is not a summer one, meaning they weren’t even halfway through their season yet and were represented by teams selected based on last season’s league positions.

Embed from Getty Images

In the first final, the prize money stood at £400,000 – a respectable fee that was worth playing for despite fitness concerns. It was contested between FC København of Denmark and IFK Göteborg of Sweden in the Ullevi Stadium in May 2005.

Played to an attendance of little over 10,000 people, the Danish side came out on top after a 1-1 draw led to FC København winning 12-11 on penalties. Organisers had hoped it was the first of many finals that would become adverts for their nation’s brand of football.

Unfortunately, poor attendance plagued the first competition and the following two editions failed to take off any higher than the debut year. The highest match attendance was 21,763 for one of the two Copenhagen derbies proved to be an anomaly.

272 turned up to watch Brann against Denmark’s Odense, and the latter’s tie against Halmstads fared even worse, with only 86 people present. Other attendances included 811 between Trømso and Bröndby, 1,459 between Malmö and Rosenborg, and 1,813 between Brann and Göteborg.

Nevertheless, those ex-footballers and businessmen backed their horses and took a plunge into the second tournament.

In its sophomore edition, Danish side Midtjylland opened Group One with a thumping 4-0 of Vålerenga and finished top with three wins and three draws. Hammarby finished second while Vålerenga in third also qualified for the next round as one of the two best third-placed teams.

Group Two finished in similar fettle to the previous year, with København dominating proceedings, including taking four points from two games against city rivals Brøndby. A twist in the tale also saw Brøndby’s final day draw knock them out of the competition behind Lillestrøm.

In Group Three, Djurgårdens and Norway’s Lyn finished first and second to qualify for the quarter-finals.

Embed from Getty Images

In the two-legged quarter-finals, the first knockout stage, Midtjylland beat Lyn 4-1 over two legs, Djurgårdens progressed with a 5-2 aggregate victory over Vålerenga, and, after a 0-0 draw in the first leg, Lillestrøm beat IFK Göteborg 2-0 at home in the second.

The fourth and final tie saw København face Hammarby, and the first leg at the Parken Stadion saw the hosts win 2-0. A dramatic finale to the second leg saw two goals in the last three minutes give Hammarby a 2-0 win. Although high in confidence on the night, they missed out on progression by a penalty shootout.

København easily progressed to a second final with a 7-1 aggregate win over Midtjylland. Their opposition in the final would be Lillestrøm, who defeated Djurgårdens 5-1 over the two legs.

As victors of the previous year, Parken Stadium was home to the 2006 Royal League final.

Just like the first one, the finale turned out to be a boring one. It took until the 89th minute before a goal broke the deadlock. Razak Pimpong scored and subsequently got sent off for a second yellow, flinging his shirt off in celebration.

Such emphatic revelries would have looked impressive for the watchful eye if it hadn’t been for the 13,000 fans watching on – an attendance well below the domestic league average. Instead, concerns about its existence were boiling behind closed doors, and the third installment would be its last.

Embed from Getty Images

There was only a limited improvement in attendance for the third year of the competition, and as the tournament progressed, it became apparent that finding an all-important TV deal to bring in much-needed revenue was proving rather difficult.

You know how we said money is the number one driving force in the modern game? Yeah, well it wasn’t too different back then either. Nevertheless, the Royal League embarked on a final hoorah in 2006/07.

The group stages saw three of the four Danish teams progress to the knockout rounds. Odense topped Group One, followed by Brann, while third-placed Helsingborgs of Sweden lost their final game, knowing they had already qualified. 

Group Two saw city rivals København and Brøndby drawn together once more. The first meeting between the two saw a 1-0 Brøndby away win, whilst the reverse fixture was a 3-1 København victory. The win qualified them for the next round, with a third-place finish behind Lillestrøm and Brøndby.

Vålerenga topped Group Three and Elfsborg finished second, blowing away AIK and Viborg FF, who played each other in the final fixture with nothing on the line as they took an early bath from the competition.

The third and final knockout stage saw the format change once more when two-legged ties were replaced with singular fixtures. It was a successful alteration as more excitement was brought with it.

In the quarter-finals, Brøndby beat Brann 3-0, Odense went all the way in their clash against Lillestrøm to win on penalties after a 2-2 draw that saw extra time played for the first time in the Royal League, København won 2-1 away at Elfsborg, and Swedish club Helsinborgs triumphed in the same result over Vålerenga.

The penultimate round saw Brøndby come from behind to beat Odense 2-1 after extra time, setting up an all-Danish final with city rivals København, who had beaten Helsingborgs 3-1 that same day.

Embed from Getty Images

Looking to win their third Royal League in a row, København played out a heated derby day encounter at hosts Brøndby. As 17,914 fans pushed and shoved for ninety minutes, it was in the stands, for once, where the action lay – but again, it wasn’t difficult as another insipid match was the antithesis to organiser’s hopes of providing an advert for their sport.

At 38 minutes, Norwegian referee Tom Henning Øvrebø pointed to the spot when København’s Jesper Grønkjær pulled down Brøndby’s English centre-back Mark Howard. Pending Swedish superstar Martin Ericsson took the penalty and found the net. It turned out to be the only goal of the game and the last of the Royal League.

What went wrong?

Rumours already circled the 2007 final that the next tournament would be postponed. A better attendance to witness Brøndby’s success softened the blow, but financial issues proved too much of a downfall to ignore.

“If we don’t find a way forward and negotiate a new TV deal it doesn’t look good for the Royal League”, the winner’s chairman Per Bjerregaard told the media ahead of its inaugural season. Just three years later, his predictions became non-fiction.

As finances were void, several teams were unwilling to participate until a TV deal was secured, the main reason for the following season’s competition being cancelled. It was suggested that all problems could eventually be resolved and many were confident of a tournament taking place in the 2008/09 season.

But this never came. When 2008 arrived, the proposal of a renewed competition called the Royal Cup came to the fore, this time with Icelandic and Finnish competitors, but on an agreement front, things went silent.

Now in 2023, there are no signs of a return to such competition. Though a tantalizing prospect to bolster the already-deep pool of youth that seeps through the Scandinavian youth systems and guide them to a better position to compete with Europe’s finest.

It is a shame it never took off. But rarely is a new competition ever viewed in the same way as ones that have existed since the beginning of the sport. Winning the Royal League was much like lifting the Nations League – hey, at least the intentions were good!