Michael Kallbäck was working as an obscure agent in Scandinavian football when, in November 2014, he became a father for the first time. He describes the birth of his daughter, Charlie, as “an epiphany” that transformed his life. In addition to inspiring him to work in women’s football, where he is now an influential agent, the arrival of his daughter encouraged him to uncover the secrets of his extraordinary past.
Nadia Nadim, the first soccer player to work with him, is still his closest client. Playing for Paris Saint-Germain and Denmark, Nadim is one of the world’s great footballers whose life transcends sport. Nadim fled Afghanistan at the age of 11, after the Taliban assassinated his father, and fell in love with soccer in a Danish refugee camp. She is close to becoming a surgeon while continuing to shine at PSG.
“My own story can’t match Nadia’s, but who can?” Kallbäck says with a wry smile before recounting the details of his life as an orphan from Sri Lanka who was brought to Sweden when he was two months old. However, Kallbäck, who is 35, only began to probe her touching personal story six years ago, after hugging her daughter.
Kallbäck leans forward in his office in Stockholm. “I asked myself, ‘What if my daughter is as interested in soccer as I am? She will ask, ‘Why does dad only work with men?’ That really got me thinking. I had barely seen the women’s game before, but that’s very bad. Soccer is soccer no matter who plays.
“At the same time I had this epiphany. Charlie’s mother is white and blonde and I thought that when my daughter grew up she would ask why her father is dark. She will ask, ‘Where is dad from? Why does it look different? So I spoke to Frida, my fiancée, and I said, ‘I need to find the truth. I need to go to Sri Lanka. ‘ So I went looking for my mother. “
Before getting to the heart of his story, Kallbäck wants to highlight how he has been galvanized by women’s football. Kallbäck represents three of the United States women’s team that won the 2019 World Cup and highlights that Megan Rapinoe, who is not one of his clients, stands alongside Nadim as one of the most important characters in world sport. “Rapinoe is important to the world for her social conscience. Nadia is the same. People appreciate them because everyone can see their struggles and because they fight for everyone. “
The fact that Rapinoe was named Athlete of the Year by Time magazine in 2019 was a sign of how much the women’s game has grown since Kallbäck was mocked after she shifted her focus to female footballers. “This well-known soccer agent said he was crazy. He said that women should wear bikinis instead of playing soccer. This was only six years ago, but this same agent now represents women who play international soccer. “
Around 40% of Kallbäck’s client list are women, but they aim to have a 50% split. Much less money can be made in women’s football and Kallbäck explains that: “I do not accept any commission from the players when they play in Scandinavia. Most of my clients are Scandinavian and they play here, so I don’t win anything from them. “
He earns his commission when clients move abroad and, in addition to Nadim at PSG, he has many other high profile players. Sofia Jakobsson, who was shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or last year, is at Real Madrid while Hanna Glas, her partner from Sweden, plays for Bayern Munich. Lotta Ökvist is with Manchester United.
Provides information on enhanced contracts earned by elite soccer players. “The best players in the world earn around € 500,000 (£ 451,000) a year from salaries alone. If you are in a major club in Europe as a soccer player, you are very competitive with other business areas. It’s like a director’s salary. “
The salaries of the best female footballers continue to be dwarfed by the salaries of their male counterparts, while there is a dramatic drop for female players at the medium and low levels. “I don’t think it’s going to change too much,” adds Kallbäck. “I’m realist. I don’t think female players ever earn the same amount as men. Everything should be the same but, in reality, we will not succeed. “
Do you speak differently to female players than to footballers? “At first I did it exactly the same way. But sometimes I need to think before I speak. Hanna Glas didn’t like her giving her opinion when Sweden played Thailand in the World Cup. They won 5-1 but the United States crushed Thailand 13-0. I was like, ‘Do you see the difference? Have you conceded a goal against Thailand and are you satisfied?
“He barely spoke to me in two days, but since we’re also very good friends, he was able to tell me, ‘I didn’t appreciate what you said.’ In the end they won bronze and she had a fantastic tournament. Hanna accepts now that I try to always tell her the truth. Hanna is probably the highest paid Swedish player right now. When she left PSG I told Bayern that I consider her the best right-back in the world after Lucy Bronze ”.
Kallbäck’s desire to help female footballers has been shaped by his personal history and his return to Sri Lanka for the first time since his adoption 29 years earlier. He arrived in Colombo with only his mother’s birth certificate and a small photo as links to his past. He hired a taxi driver to drive him around a huge, crowded city while showing strangers his mother’s photograph. No one knew her and he was about to give up when he returned to Gampola, 80 miles away, and to the orphanage where his Swedish parents adopted him.
A nun seemed to recognize her mother but was unable to offer her much practical help. So before flying back to Sweden, Kallbäck drove up into the hills above Gampola to check into a hotel “so that I can at least see the area where my mother is from. They needed my passport. I opened it and I dropped the photo. This guy picks it up and says, ‘I know her. But there was an incident 25 years ago and she left the country. ‘ That incident was about the birth of a baby. I told him everything and he said: ‘A woman lives in the house who is probably your grandmother. Relax, I’ll take you tomorrow.
“We go there and we find a very old woman. There’s a huge wedding photo on the wall and I wonder if it’s my mother. The man says, in Sinhalese: “This could be your grandson.” The old woman shakes her head: “You came to the wrong place.” But then her eyes filled with tears. She did this [touching his face] and said, ‘Take care’. I didn’t reflect on that because I was so disappointed. “
At the airport, Kallbäck checked his messages on social media. “On my company’s Facebook page, I see that a strange name has made a comment about the photo that I had published of my mother. So I pressed that and saw the woman in the wedding photo at my grandmother’s house. She wrote, ‘I’m so proud of you.’
Kallbäck’s voice is full of emotion. He called the man at the hotel, who confirmed that he knew the old woman had lied and therefore handed him Kallbäck’s business card. She was Kallbäck’s grandmother and had called her daughter to explain that she was looking for her. Kallbäck’s mother lived in Qatar, coincidentally where he flew to capture their connection.
“My grandmother asked my mother if she had told her new husband about me. This was the first man she had known since she had me. She said, ‘I haven’t, but I will now. So when I got to Doha, I went to the lounge and started texting him. She tells me what she’s been through. It was heartbreaking but at the same time I felt, ‘Wow, you’re alive and I’ll meet you.’
“When she was at home in Sri Lanka a few months later, I met her again. She was only 13 when she had me and her people kicked her out. So he took me to the orphanage and the nuns helped organize my adoption in Sweden. Then someone tricked her into going to Asia where there was some kind of traffic and she was almost killed. Years later he worked for a Swedish family in Qatar. She went with them to visit Gothenburg and the whole time she was looking for someone who could be me. “
How did it feel to meet your biological mother? “It was a brilliant moment and an experience that I never thought I would have. It was very special. “Kallbäck remains closer to his Swedish adoptive parents who raised him. But he smiles when he says,” When my youngest daughter turns five, and is now two, I will bring my family to meet my mother in Sri Lanka. It will help everyone understand where I come from. “
Kallbäck provides opportunities for women after they betrayed him when his mother had no other choice. As the past, present and future merge, she suggests: “I want to say: ‘I was part of the change and did something good in women’s football.’
“I hope that strong voices like Nadia Nadim and Megan Rapinoe continue to fight as we create a better environment for the next generation of footballers.”
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.