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” which transformed his life. Apart from inspiring him to work in women’s football, where he is now an influential agent, the arrival of his daughter encouraged him to discover the secrets of his own extraordinary past.
Nadia Nadim, the first female footballer to work with him, remains the client to whom he is closest. Playing for Paris Saint-Germain and Denmark, Nadim is one of the world’s great footballers whose life transcends sport. Nadim escaped Afghanistan at the age of 11, after the Taliban murdered her father, and fell in love with football 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 whose can?” Kallbäck says with a wry smile before he recounts the details of his life as a Sri Lanka orphan who was taken to Sweden when he was two months old. Yet Kallbäck, who is 35, only began to probe his moving personal history six years ago, after he held his baby daughter.
Kallbäck leans forward in his office in Stockholm. “I asked myself: ‘What if my daughter becomes as interested in football as I am? She will ask: ‘Why does daddy only work with men?’ That really made me think. I had barely watched the women’s game before but that’s so wrong. Football is football no matter who is playing.
“At the same time I had this epiphany. Charlie’s mother is white and blonde and I thought when my daughter grows up she will ask why her dad is dark. She will ask: ‘Where is Dad from? Why does he look different?’ So I spoke to Frida, my fiancee, and said: ‘I need to find the truth. I need to go to Sri Lanka.’ So I went to find my mother.”
Before we reach the heart of his story, Kallbäck is keen to highlight how women’s football has galvanised him. Kallbäck represents three of the US women’s team that won the 2019 World Cup and he stresses that Megan Rapinoe, who is not one of his clients, stands alongside Nadim as one of the most significant characters in world sport. “Rapinoe’s important for the world because of her social conscience. Nadia is the same. People appreciate them because everyone can see their struggles and that they fight for everyone.”
Rapinoe being named Time magazine’s Athlete of the Year in 2019 was a sign of how much the women’s game has grown since Kallbäck was mocked after he shifted his focus to female footballers. “This quite well-known football agent said I was crazy. He said women should wear bikinis rather than play football. This was only six years ago but this same agent now represents women who play international football.”
Around 40% of Kallbäck’s client list are women but his aim is to have a 50-50 split. There is far less money to be made in the women’s game and Kallbäck explains that: “I do not take any commission from players when they play in Scandinavia. The majority of my clients are Scandinavian playing over here and so I earn zero from them.”
He earns his commission when clients move abroad and, apart from Nadim at PSG, he has numerous other high-profile players. Sofia Jakobsson, who was shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or last year, is at Real Madrid while Hanna Glas, her Sweden teammate, plays for Bayern Munich. Lotta Ökvist is with Manchester United.
He offers insight into the improved contracts earned by elite women footballers. “The top players in the world are earning around €500,000 (£451,000) a year on salaries only. If you’re at a top club in Europe as a female football player you are highly competitive with other areas of business. It’s like a director’s salary.”
I hope the strong voices like Nadia Nadim and Megan Rapinoe continue to fight
Salaries for the best women footballers are still dwarfed by their male counterparts’ wages, while there is a dramatic fall for female players in the middle and lower tiers. “I don’t think it will change too much,” Kallbäck adds. “I’m a realist. I don’t think female players will ever earn the same amount as men. Everything should be equal but, in reality, we won’t get that.”
Does he talk differently to female players than to male footballers? “In the beginning I did it the exact same way. But sometimes I need to think before I speak. Hanna Glas didn’t appreciate me giving her feedback when Sweden played Thailand in the World Cup. They won 5-1 but the US smashed Thailand 13-0. I was like: ‘See the difference? You conceded a goal against Thailand and you’re satisfied?’
“She barely spoke to me in two days but as we are also very good friends she could then tell me: ‘I didn’t appreciate what you said.’ In the end they won the bronze and she had a fantastic tournament. Hanna accepts now that I try and always speak the truth to her. Hanna is probably the best-paid Swedish player now. When she left PSG I told Bayern 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 a 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 take him all over a vast and teeming city as he showed 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 the orphanage from where his Swedish parents adopted him.
A nun seemed to recognise his mother but she could not offer much practical help. So, before flying home to Sweden, Kallbäck drove into the hills above Gampola to check into a hotel “so at least I can see the area where my mother is from. They needed my passport. I opened it and out drops 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 a baby being born. I told him everything and he said: ‘A woman who is probably your grandmother lives in the house. Relax, I’m taking you tomorrow.’
“We go there and find a very old woman. There is a huge wedding photo on the wall and I wonder if it is my mother. The man says, in Sinhala: ‘This could be your grandson.’ The old lady 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 it because I was so disappointed.”
At the airport, Kallbäck checked his social media messages. “On my company’s Facebook page I see a strange name has made a comment on the photo I had posted of my mother. So I pressed that and see the woman from the wedding photo at my grandmother’s house. She wrote: ‘I’m so proud of you.’”
Kallbäck’s voice is thick with emotion. He called the man at the hotel who confirmed that he knew the old lady had lied and so he had given Kallbäck’s business card to her. She was Kallbäck’s grandmother and had called her daughter to explain he was searching for her. Kallbäck’s mother was living in Qatar – coincidentally where he was flying to catch his connection.
“My grandmother asked my mother if she had told her new husband about me. This was the first man she had met since she’d had me. She was like: ‘I haven’t, but I will now.’ So when I came to Doha I went to the lounge and started texting with her. She tells me what she’s been through. It was heartbreaking but at the same time I felt: ‘Wow, you’re alive and I will meet you.’
“When she was home in Sri Lanka a few months later I went back to meet her. She was only 13 when she had me and her village pushed her out. So she took me to the orphanage and the nuns helped arrange my adoption to Sweden. Then somebody tricked her into going to Asia where there was some kind of trafficking and they almost killed her. Years later she worked for a Swedish family in Qatar. She went with them for a visit to Gothenburg and all the time she was looking for somebody that could be me.”
How did it feel to meet his biological mother? “It was a sparkling moment and an experience I never thought I’d have. It was very special.” Kallbäck remains closer to his adoptive Swedish parents who brought him up. But he smiles when he says: “When my youngest daughter turns five, and she’s two now, I will bring my family to meet my mother in Sri Lanka. It will help everyone understand where I came from.”
Kallbäck provides opportunities for women after he was given away when his mother had no option. As the past, present and future merge, he suggests: “I want to say: ‘I was part of the change and did something good in women’s football.’
“I hope the strong voices, like Nadia Nadim and Megan Rapinoe, continue to fight as we create a better environment for the next generation of female footballers.”