Nordic Football News

Football in Finland now has a plush new home over at Nordic Football News. You’ll still get your Veikkausliiga fix, as me and Juha will be running the Finland section there, which will have all the stuff we’ve been posting here and more. The new site will have all kinds of interesting stuff, covering Allsvenskan, Norwegian Tippeliga, international and women’s football across the Nordic countries and some football photography.

Veikkausliiga transfer update

The new year has seen a flurry of confirmed transfers, as well as a few trials that might lead to permanent moves. Some clubs are busier than others, with one in particular seemingly in the business of fire-fighting rather than planning for the future right now. Tampere United have seen chairman Jari Viita depart, after a season in which they lost around €200,000. Viita’s company lost €2.7m last year, and he is not in a great position to bail out TamU.

Winter recruitment has therefore been a painful process for TamU, with 17 year-olds Johannes Mononen and Juha Pirinen joining the club from Jippo and Haka respectively, and Aleksei Kangaskolkka signing from MyPa. While the chance for youth to shine is welcome, the somewhat frantic efforts to offload TamU’s saleable assets point to a less settled strategy.

Tomi Petrescu has signed for Ascoli on a loan until the 15th of April, with the option to make the move permanent at that point, while Henri Myntti is bewilderingly spoilt for choice as he ponders which club to sign for. Myntti is a freakishly tall player, who used to be a blunder-prone centre back but was converted last season into a Veikkausliiga goal machine, playing up front for TamU and heading everything that came his way and bagging 13 goals in 23 league games.

Myntti went to FC Saturn on trial at the end of last season, signed an improved contract with TamU, and is now on trial at Hansa Rostock after apparently turning down a move to Romania. More on the fun and games at Ratina Stadium later in the week.

HJK full back Jukka Raitala is on trial at Newcastle United. Raitala had a good season with HJK, playing 23 games and impressing with Finland’s successful under-21 side, and has attracted attention from Greece as well as West Bromich Albion, where he had a trial in the autumn.

Other current trials include FF Jaro’s central defender Jonas Portin, who is currently at NEC Nijmegen, and Brazilian midfielder Luiz Vanderlei, who MyPa are looking over. Vanderlei has been at Tornio club TP-47 for the past two years and adds a touch of class to teams in need of a playmaker.

Tomi Jalo 1958-2009

This week ended with a sad piece of news from Turun Sanomat, saying that Tomi Jalo had died on Wednesday at the age of 50.

Jalo was one of the few Finnish footballers to take part in the olympic games, being a part of the Finnish team in Moscow 1980.
Jalo played two games for Finland’s senior team and 11 games for the national youth teams.

The midfielder was an integral part of TPS for years. He played 309 games in the Finnish top flight between 1976-1989 and helped his team finish league runners-up of the three times. TPS also finished third on two occasions during Jalo’s career. Jalo’s most famous achievement, however, was captaining the TPS team that upset the odds at Inter with a 1-0 away win in 1987.

After ending his career, Jalo stayed in the game. He started as TPS head coach in the middle of season 1993 and helped the relegation-threatened team stay clear. He was unable to do the same with Inter in 1997, but he remained at the helm and led his team back to Veikkausliiga for season 1999. Jalo spent his last few years coaching TPS’ youth teams.

Tomi played most of his career in the same team with his brother Timo. His big brother Juha-Pekka played one game for Finland’s youth team, but had to end his career prematurely due to back problems. J-P is well-known as a commentator.

Jalo is survived by three sons.

Yrjö Asikainen, 1928-2008

Yrjö Asikainen was a strong, bustling forward who scored vital goals for Finland in their first important victories after the Second World War. A 2-0 win over Denmark in Copenhagen on 11 September 1949 was greeted with gleeful disbelief back home in Finland, where Asikainen got a memorable reception in his adopted home town of Tampere.

I got off the train and walked down Hämeenkatu,” Asikainen told me when I interviewed him in 2007. “People stopped and looked at me, and slowly people began clapping because of what we’d achieved in the match.”

In 1950 Asikainen scored in a 4-1 win over Holland and a 3-2 victory against Yugoslavia, and he looked set to become a fixture in the national team for years to come. His football career had begun in his birthplace, Vyborg, where he played for ViipurinIlves up until the outbreak of the Second World War. He volunteered to help defend the town at the age of sixteen, serving in an anti-aircraft battery before being evacuated in the early summer of 1944.

Life as an evacuee was precarious, with a spell living in Jyväskylä before Asikainen reunited with his former ViipurinIlves team mates in Tampere. The team, now called IlvesKissat, was to win the Finnish championship in 1950 with nine Karelian evacuees in the starting line-up. Asikainen was their figurehead, winning the golden boot with 20 goals in 1949, and again with 15 goals in 1950..

Like most evacuees, Asikainen found life outside Karelia hard. The attitude of the host population was indifferent and occasionally hostile, but sport offered a way for them to integrate and gain acceptance. Asikainen described IlvesKissat’s championship as “our gift to Tampere”, and it was an important event for a town that had not previously won a football championship.

Asikainen became a single father in the early fifties with the death of his wife, and money matters became more pressing for him. Despite trials at Arsenal and Werder Bremen, injury prevented him from moving abroad like his friend and strike partner in the national team, Aulis Rytkönen, but he still had to earn a living in an era when professionalism was still frowned upon, and “shamateurism” flourished.

Rytkönen was not selected for the national team during his time at French club Toulouse FC, and Asikainen had to make do with banknotes stuffed in his boots in the changing room when he returned to football with Helsinki club Kiffen. Even when he started playing in Vyborg, he received cinema tickets as an incentive to sign for one club over another, a practice that now seems rather quaint in modern football, where 16 year old Finns can earn hundreds of thousands of euros by moving abroad.

Despite winning a championship with Kiffen in 1955, he never moved to Helsinki and played only two seasons for the club, but was nevertheless one of the most celebrated players when Kiffen celebrated their centenary last autumn.

In later years he became a coach for IlvessKissat and the junior national teams, and a journalist for Aamulehti and the Swedish-language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet, where his upbringing in multilingual Vyborg proved helpful. He returned to his birthplace every year after travel became possible, usually with former players, officials, fans and family members of IlvesKissat.

Asikainen will be remembered as a legend of Finnish football with a phenomenal success rate, a man who only played five seasons in the Finnish top flight but was top scorer in three of them, a striker who only played nine internationals but scored five goals for Finland. He died at the beginning of last month at his home in Ylöjärvi.

FAO footballers who want to move to Finland

We’ve had a massive increase in the number of people posting comments here trying to get attract the attention of clubs or agents. This has happened since the blog started, but it is getting to the point where they are taking over the site and I’ve decided to do something about it. The comments don’t have any effect really, nobody scouts for players using my blog so agents are not going to contact anyone who posts a comment here.

I suspect that the comments only open the commenter to exploitation, so from now on comments that try to advertise anything (including the services of a footballer) will be deleted. If you want to contact me, you can do so via footballinfinland ‘at’ gmail ‘dot’ com. I am not an agent and will not assist any player trying to move, but if there is an angle to your story I might decide to write about it.

Popovitch moves in at retirement home

Valeri Popovotch has ended the on-off transfer saga of the winter by signing a one-year contract with HJK Helsinki. The Russian veteran will join his former Haka team-mate Cheyne Fowler in moving to Töölö, but Popovitch’s move has raised many more questions than Fowler’s. He occupies an iconic status in Finnish football, having moved to Finland in 1992 from Spartak Moscow.

Russia was one of the few places in worse economic shape than Finland at that time, and the young Popovitch was grateful for the security provided first at TPV, where he scored 26 goals in 48 games, then briefly at Ilves, where he got 3 in 12, and finally, famously, at FC Haka, where he spent his best years, played 323 games and scored a massive 170 goals.

It’s important to point out just how unique this makes Popovitch. Lots of foreign players have come to Finland, including some excellent players, but they have mostly moved on when it became clear they could make more money abroad. Popovitch never did, apart from brief loan spells at Heerenveen and Ikast FS, and Finnish football fans recognise how special this makes him.

Veikkausliiga has just lost its player of the year and defender of the year because Sweden offers more money, but Popovitch stayed loyal to Haka and showed his class over fourteen years, during which Haka won five championships. He is a legend, and until the last year it seemed as though he would be at Haka for the rest of his career and beyond, taking on coaching duties with the academy and generally turning into an elder statesman.

Unfortunately, the last year has seen that plan fall apart. Popovitch has not been nearly as influential recently as he was during the 2007 season, when he won them a lot of games by doing things lesser players wouldn’t even think of attempting. His excellent technique and cool decision-making around the penalty area was a joy to watch, with chipped goals a particular speciality. He only showed glimpses of that in 2008, and at 38 years of age Haka could be forgiven for thinking that loss of form was permanent.

There were other possible reasons for his discontent. Haka filled a big hole in their budget by involving Sedu Koskinen, a nightclub owner from nearby Pälkäne. Sedu had different ideas about how to run a football club, demanding prettier players to attract women to games, and foreign signings and celebrities to create a ‘buzz’. In a factory town of 17,000 people, the small potential benefits and crushing incongruity of such a strategy became quickly apparent, and rumours were rife that Haka’s established players were envious of the contracts awarded to fairly nondescript foreign players.

Mainstays of the team have moved on, with Fowler quickly signing for HJK and Lehtinen moving to Levadiakos, and it quickly became apparent that Popovitch was not going to accept a pay cut for more work. He left Haka in a bit of a huff, stating that he didn’t want a testimonial and his 14 years with Haka were now history.

There followed a period of speculation about which club would sign him, but the HJK move blindsided quite a few people. Markku Kanerva told FIF that he would like more young players to get a chance, but it seems that HJK may be moving in the opposite direction. The tension between making maximum use of the resources available, and ensuring the club can compete for medals, has led them once again to sign a veteran who acknowledges himself that he isn’t the future of Finnish football.

“I’d like to thank HJK for giving me the opportunity, next season will probably be my last in Veikkausliiga,” Popovitch told Hufvudstadsbladet. “The biggest challenge for me will be to stay healthy the whole season. HJK is a club that should be in the reckoning for both the league and cup.”

Markku Kanerva interview

FINLAND’S UNDER-21 team became the first Finnish national side to qualify for a major tournament this Autumn. They upset the odds, beating a strong Denmark team and a physical Scotland (Perparim Hetemaj refused to play in Scotland after having broken his leg there in a B international, although the Scottish team was quite different in composition for the under-21 game), before overcoming an arrogant but skilful Austria in a dramatic play-off.

The team had caused some excitement even before they qualified, as most of them play in Veikkausliiga for clubs that have nascent, small, but active fan groups. When the ‘little eagle owls’ played at home, the national team’s supporters club SMJK organised buses and flags so that the squad would be well-supported in their bid to make history. This would be unremarkable in many countries, but in Finland it has been unthinkable for football teams until relatively recently.

Not a single Finnish club had a European tie televised in Finland this year, but the under-21 side were shown twice. Finns like to see their team winning, and if that team is playing football, then they will watch football. So, under-21 manager Markku Kanerva, how does it feel to be the first manager to lead a Finnish national team to a final tournament?

We made a little bit of history, and I hope that this event has some influence on our football culture,” Kanerva told me last week. “I hope it won’t be the first and last time we qualify for a finals. Personally it feels great, for the players and the coaches it’s amazing, and now we’re really looking forward to this final tournament.”

The presence or absence of football culture is an enduring theme in Finland, and Kanerva has obviously internalised his role in its development. Every Finnish success has to be set against the background of the future development of the sport, with the caveat that Finland is learning about football culture and will – one day – begin to have something it can call a Finnish way of playing, watching and supporting the game.

The under-21 success undeniably played a part in fostering that culture, and Kanerva knows that his team have generated a lot of enthusiasm among Finnish football fans..

It’s really nice to see, and we need the fans to support our players. It was very nice to see that huge support even in the Denmark game when we qualified for the playoffs. Then the Austria game was fantastic, the support was amazing then. I hope there will be thousands in Halmstad next June.”

“I also want to see that kind of support in our league games. That’s the big difference between Finnish league games and English games. We don’t have that kind of enthusiasm in our league games, maybe because of the lack of a football culture. Of course we have some small fan groups, for instance Forza HJK in Helsinki, but we need thousands of them, with everyone cheering. Maybe it will come, and maybe we can help that by doing well in the final tournament.”

The draw for the finals was not kind to Finland, landing them in a group with traditional powerhouses England, Spain and Germany. With a squad of players currently playing in the lesser leagues of Europe, including a majority still based in Finland, Kanerva knows the challenges and opportunities of playing against players from the three biggest leagues in Europe, but is keen to play down the significance of the draw.

“It’s a dream and a nightmare at the same time! There are quality teams and quality players, and it’s very tough. But it’s a great opportunity for us to show how good we are as a team and individually for the players to show how they can deal with those players.”

“I don’t think it’s so different to play against Serbia and Italy. Of course there are more famous players playing for England, Germany and Spain, you can watch them every week on cable TV, and some of them play Champions League too. But still, I think Serbia is underestimated in this competition, they have an excellent team.”

It’s a very challenging group, but like I said, if we keep on going we have a chance. One of our slogans is “the sky is the limit when your heart is in it”, and that has worked very well. These lads have wanted to win every game. It doesn’t matter if we are playing against Bundesliga players, or whatever, they really think we can achieve something in this final tournament.”

THERE HAS been some excitement this autumn about the form of Teemu Pukki, an 18 year old striker who is playing for Sevilla Atletico in Spain’s Segunda Division. He has impressed enough to be called up to the full Sevilla squad for their 4-3 win away at Real Madrid, although he didn’t make it onto the pitch that time.

His progress through the Finnish age group teams has been slower. Pukki is still playing for Finland under 19s, although he did train with the under-21s before the home match against Scotland in 2007. Speculation has been rife about his elevation to the under-21 or even the senior squad, but with Finland reasonably well-stocked for strikers, Kanerva is cautious about his future.

We have quite a lot of options up front – Jami Puustinen, Jarno Parikka, Berat Sadik, Timo Furuholm. Pukki was selected for the home match against Scotland, but didn’t play in that game, and now I have the chance to look a little bit closer at him when we go to Japan in January with the A national team. That will be a young squad, and we’ll take a look at a lot of possible players for the finals.”

At the moment he is a key player for the under-19 team, and they have a round of qualification games in May. Of course, he has to show that he is good enough to play at the next level which in this case is under-21, or maybe even the senior team. I don’t believe he’s good enough to make the step up to the senior team right away, and we have to be patient and give him time to develop.

I think he’s not physically ready yet to play so many games for the senior team. Maybe for the under-21s, but as I said there are many options up front for us. It doesn’t follow that he sits on the bench for Sevilla and he is then automatically selected for the under-21s. He has to show his skills with my team, or with the under-19 team, or with the senior team, but of course he’s a very talented player with a lot of potential.”

IT SEEMS quite timid to be talking in those terms about a player who is only 18 but is playing at a high level, has played a full season for his home-town club and is generally considered one of the brighter stars of Finnish football. The chemistry of the squad has been key to Finland’s success, with close games against Scotland, Austria and Denmark decided by Finland keeping their nerve at the death. Kanerva understandably wants to preserve the atmosphere in the squad, and adding players to the squad is something that must be done carefully.

As a coach I think that everything starts from the team spirit, from the atmosphere in the team, and you have to build that up with your staff. That’s the basic thing. Every player has to feel at home when they come to the national team, and they have to feel that they can show their best when they play for Finland, without too much pressure.”

Of course in every game they have some pressure, but it’s very important that they have that self-confidence in the Finnish team, that trust in the team, and that they know that they can win something with this Finnish team. With a positive atmosphere you can achieve those little miracles.”

Of the other possible additions to the squad, Roman Eremenko would add the most star quality. Playing regularly for Dinamo Kiev after a disjointed spell with Udinese, the former FF Jaro midfielder is a mainstay of the national team’s midfield and adds a vision and composure that could make the difference when Finland come up against difficult opponents.

“He is a senior national team player, and I have to discuss with him about whether he is willing to join us. It depends how well he plays for Dinamo Kiev and how well he plays for the national team. It’s not so simple that I just take him. I have to discuss with Stuart Baxter and with Roman Eremenko. It would have to be good for him and good for our team. Of course he is a quality player and with his qualities he can help our team.”

I have no doubt that he would fit into the team, but it depends what he thinks. He has to be 100% sure that he wants to join us, and that he can adjust to the squad. That should not be so difficult. There is not such a big difference in the way we play and the way the full national team plays. In any case I would like to see him with the team before I make my decision.”

THE IDEA that players should take their time, learn the game, and play with their contemporaries is deeply ingrained here, and Kanerva is reluctant to endorse the Welsh approach of rapid promotion through the age groups. John Toshak did away with the practice of separate age group coaches, making everyone except under-21 manager Bryan Flynn part time. Flynn then had the remit and authority to promote players as quickly as possible to test the young players at the highest level possible. The Finnish way is somewhat more hierarchical, but Kanerva is keen not to dismiss the Welsh model outright.

“It always depends on the players. If players are good enough they should go to the senior team. Our goal is to produce players for the senior national team, and when they are ready, of course they go to the senior team. We have done that during autumn too, we played in Dallas against Mexico with an Olympic team, and half of that team was composed of my players.”

“If you see a really good talent, who would be useful for the senior team, then why not? But of course it depends on the player. Is he mentally ready, is he physically ready, is he skilful enough to play in the senior team?”

“I’ve looked at the Wales team, and I was surprised that they had such young players in the senior team, but they are ready and they are playing. If they are playing in the English Premier League then of course it’s not such a big step to move into the Welsh national team, but if our players are in academy teams or even reserve teams, like Teemu Pukki, then there are a couple of steps before they are ready to play for the senior team, or to be involved in that squad.”

How do you see this year’s Veikkausliiga in terms of young players getting chances and responsibility with the top two clubs?

“HJK did it a couple of years ago, they had to do that because they had some economical cuts. In a way it’s a bit of a shame (that they are not picking so many youngsters), but I don’t want to criticise them. Of course I want those young players to get a chance to play in the league, and to test themselves, in many league games. Young players can play one good game, one bad game, one good game and so on. I want to see which players can play a lot of good games in a row, who have a stable level of their performances.

“That’s why I’m happy to see those Honka players and Inter players getting a lot of games. Of course Jukka Raitala and Jarno Parikka played a lot more than a year ago, and I can get some kind of feeling for how they are doing when they play five games in a row. Maybe some clubs have to use young players for financial reasons, but it is good to see them get a chance all the same.”

Do you think HJK will give more responsibility to players like Akseli Pelvas next year?

“Antti Muurinen is the head coach and he makes the decisions…….Of course, they have had some quality players this season, Mäkelä, Roiha, Parikka, and it’s tough for Akseli Pelvas, but at some stage they have to think about his future and give him some responsibility in the team. Okay, he’s not so young any more, he’s 20 next year, he’s not a junior any more. I’m not sure what they plan for him next year, but I hope that he will get some time to play.”

“It’s not my job to criticise or tell people how to do their jobs. I can hope for something, and I want all the young players to get some responsibility for their club teams. That helps our national team, that they have played some tough games. If they’ve only played some junior games then the step up to international football is quite huge. So that’s why I hope clubs trust their younger players.”

“Of course, it depends on the goals that the club has. If they want to play for medals then they are probably a little bit afraid to use younger players, they prefer to use older, more experienced players. But I think Honka and Inter have shown that you can be successful and win something using young players, just like HJK did a couple of years ago when they got silver with a lot of young players, and of course I like the good example.”

ANOTHER issue for Finnish coaches is the seemingly inexorable drain of players to academy teams in other countries. Lauri Dalla Valle is currently the flavour of the month among Liverpool fans who monitor their club’s academy, and among Finnish fans who keep tabs on prospects for their national team. He recently signed a contract that will last until 2011, and is now occasionally training with the Liverpool reserves, but that is a long way short of ‘making it’.

The list of Finnish players who have failed to make the grade in foreign academies is quite long, and the list of successes is short to non-existent. It’s common for those players to come back to Finland to rebuild their careers, a path followed by Tomi Petrescu with some success.

Would you prefer that a young player played for a Veikkausliiga club for a couple of years, or went abroad to an academy at a really big club?

“It depends on the player and the environment. If the environment is suitable for the player, then of course, it would be fine. If he’s ready, mentally and physically, why not. But if he’s a little bit doubtful, and if he has a good role in a Finnish league team, then why not stay here for a couple of years, go to the army and finish his schooling, and then leave when he is ready to concentrate solely on football?”

“There are many examples of players who have done things that way, like Teemu Tainio and Sami Hyypiä for instance, they played a couple of years in the Finnish league and were then ready to go abroad after military service and high school.”

“I’m still waiting for the first young talents to become a real star by taking that early way by going to the foreign academies. I haven’t seen that yet. Maybe Teemu Pukki will be the first one, or Lauri Dalla Valle. Okay, Tomi Petrescu has been in England with Leicester’s academy, but he didn’t quite break through and came back to Finland.”

“It’s always useful for players to go abroad and see the professional life and what is needed, how hard it is to be a real pro. Maybe it opens players’ eyes to see that. The best way depends on the player, but still I’m waiting for the first one to come through the academies. Playing in the Finnish league for a couple of years, in a big role, has been a good route for players.”

If you go to Manchester United, like Jami Puustinen did, it’s quite a challenge to succeed at a big club like that. Would it be better to stay here and play in the Finnish league with coaches who are really working hard on your development? It’s hard to say which is the best way, but if you think historically then playing in the Finnish league for a couple of years has made our guys readier as players. Maybe mentally as well, they’re a little bit older, and they have still developed as a player to the level where foreign clubs are interested in them.”