While government officials may be expected to have pictures of political leaders or inspirational artwork in their place of work, Ardalan Shekarabi’s office in Stockholm is a little different.
On the wall above the Sweden’s Minister for Social Security’s desk hangs a Manchester United shirt.
The Manchester United shirt not only represents his favourite football team, but also pays homage to his family history – and the place of his birth.
“Both of my parents are Iranian but I was born in Manchester in 1978,” Mr Shekarabi, 42, tells the Manchester Evening News .
“My mother moved to Manchester in 1977 to study English. Me, my mum and my older brother lived together in a house on Goulden Road in West Didsbury.”
Just a couple of months after he was born, the comfortable life in Manchester had to be swapped for a return back to his native country.
“My father would send my mother money while she was in Manchester but then the Iranian Revolution resulted in the conditions all changing,” Mr Shekarabi explains.
“You required a new permit to live in the UK so we had to leave Manchester and come back to Iran.”
The Shekarabi family lived in Iran for another ten years before they decided to move to Sweden in order to be closer to relatives who were living near Stockholm.
But, Mr Shekarabi’s connection to Manchester stayed strong.
“During those early years in Iran, my mother spoke a lot about her time in Manchester and how beautiful it was,” he says.
“I had a very positive picture of life in Manchester and then when I was around nine or ten, I started to become interested in football and that’s when I realised that Manchester United were one of the best clubs.
“I started to avidly follow United at the end of the 80s and that, alongside pictures from my family, definitely helped to paint a picture of what Manchester was like.”
The Manchester United shirt in Mr Shekarabi’s office has helped build up a ‘friendly rivalry’ between him and Sweden’s Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven.
“He is a very big Tottenham supporter,” Mr Shekarabi confesses.
“Besides politics and all the decisions we make, we also discuss football and whenever there’s a match between Tottenham and Manchester United, I’m always quite nervous before that cabinet meeting.
“But I’m very proud to showcase that I’m a United fan – it’s a big part of my identity.”
In fact, Mr Shekarabi’s two children are now also big Manchester United supporters.
“My oldest son, who is ten, has become a very hardcore United fan,” he laughs.
“The Manchester Evening News is actually the first English text he read. He’ll find stories on Manchester United and use a dictionary to translate it into Swedish in order to give me all the latest news.
“He is already becoming a bigger fan than me but it’s great to have a common interest with your children – it’s beautiful.”
Mr Shekarabi and his family, who now live in Knivsta, regularly visit Manchester and on a trip a few years ago, decided to visit his birthplace.
“I found the house we used to live at and I knocked on the door but there was no-one there at the time,” he explains.
“But it was a very special feeling being where my mother lived when I was born. It was 35 years since we had left that house and since then, there had been a revolution, a war and we had migrated to Sweden – it was quite emotional.
“We visited Old Trafford, Withington Hospital where I was born, and explored the Didsbury area.
“I would love to live there for a period of time – it’s a very urban city but Didsbury is very green and quite close to nature, I like that combination.”
Mr Shekarabi first became interested in politics while at school in Sweden when a visitor did a talk on being politically active.
Not long after that, he became a member of the youth organisation for the Social Democratic Party.
In 2007, at the age of 29, he attended Uppsala University to study for a masters in law. Three years after getting his qualification, he was teaching law at the same university.
But politics was always a firm interest of his and in 2013 he joined the Riksdag, the highest decision-making assembly in Sweden, before becoming the Minister for Public Administration in 2014.
In 2019, he became the Minister for Social Security.
While he says the pandemic has come up with a whole host of new challenges to his role, which includes overseeing gambling policies, the premium pension system and social insurance, he says it’s a role he absolutely enjoys.
“I feel honoured to be a member of the Swedish cabinet to do what I can to contribute towards a better society in Sweden,” he explains.
“It’s a really important opportunity to fight for the values and ideas here.”
Despite being an active member of Swedish government, Mr Shekarabi continues to stay in the loop on what is happening in his British birthplace.
He remains updated through newsletters from his favourite British pub: The Metropolitan in West Didsbury.
“When I was last in Manchester, I signed up to their newsletter and I’ve seen how much they are struggling with the restrictions and aren’t able to serve food and alcohol,” he says.
“Here in Sweden, most of our restaurants and pubs have been able to stay open but with limited gatherings and social distancing.”
And, once the pandemic eases, Mr Shekarabi says he’s eager to visit Manchester again.
“When the restrictions go, one of the first things we will do is try to come to Manchester and visit Old Trafford,” he adds.
“The children really want to come see the football and we were planning on visiting last year but we weren’t able to.”
When asked about how Brexit might affect relations between Sweden and the UK, Mr Shekarabi says he hopes the similarities between the two countries will be enough to maintain a good relationship.
“A lot of Swedes felt a real sense of sorrow when the UK left the EU,” he explains.
“There will be a lot of new obstacles but we see the UK as one of our allies – not only politically but culturally.
“The cultural similarities are the strongest, Swedes are very interested in the UK, the football, culture, British film and music. We’re quite a UK-orientated country.”
And with that in mind, Mr Shekarabi says he is trying to remain positive about the changes.
“The UK and Sweden go far back to at least the 16th century so I think there’s a strong connection there that will definitely survive Brexit,” he explains.
“We felt sad when the UK left the EU but we will still have strong ties and a strong cooperation with the British government no matter the consequences of Brexit.”