Back to Tammela

There’s a story in this morning’s Aamulehti, about the status of football in Finland and how Veikkausliiga boss Jan Walden wants it to be Finland’s biggest sport. That’s not as far fetched as it sounds. When teams are doing well they can attract big crowds, bigger than most ice hockey sides get. We’re talking 5-6,000. I met former Finland captain Yrjö Asikainen a week ago (story to follow, there’s a lot to write up), and he was telling me about IlvesKissat games in the 50s. They used to play at Pyynikki, and drew crowds of 7-8,000 for the biggest games. This at a place with only around 1000 seats-people stood on the grass banks, climbed trees and generally did what they could to watch a successful side.

So it’s perfectly possible for football to capture the imagination of Finnish people. It’s happened before and it will again. But to become the ‘number one sports brand’ as Walden envisages, they’re going to need to deal with a few things. I’ve covered this a little before but as I’ve been looking at the marketing for Veikkausliiga I’d like to add that angle to my ‘back to Tammela’ campaign.

People go to football for the experience. I’ve talked about the attitude prevalent among some clubs before, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what Veikkausliiga is aiming for. They want big crowds, lots of families, exciting football and more active fans.

Ratina is the worst possible way to aim for this in Tampere. On Thursday night it felt empty and windswept. 3,000 people in a stadium that big just does not work. It makes you feel like you shouldn’t be paying to get in, that this is a pub team’s game you’ve stumbled across. Both sets of fans did their best to create some atmosphere, but they were over a hundred yards apart, and the Kotka fans especially must have felt like they were as far from the action as it is possible to be. Because they were.

There are two price bands at Ratina. If you turn up on the day it costs 15 euro to sit in the main side, and 8 to go on the ‘sunny side’. Given the demographics of football’s audience-youthful, independent minded-it’s unsurprising that the sunnyside usually has more people than the main stand. But everyone could fit into the main stand when the crowd is so small, so why not have all tickets the same price and encourage some interaction? It surely wouldn’t lose any money, and would encourage more of a big match ‘event’ atmosphere.

You see, I was talking to a friend last night. He is pretty much Veikkausliiga’s dream demographic, and if they’re to achieve their aims he’s the kind of person they have to attract. He’s in the 25-34 age group, has a good disposable income, and he likes football enough to go to every Finland home game. He should be going to Veikkausliiga, but he can take it or leave it. I asked him why.

‘I used to live in Tammela in the mid-90s, close to the stadium. When there was a goal I could hear the roar if I was at home. TPV were getting 5-6,000 crowds and it always felt like a big match to go there. You just don’t have that at Ratina-unless there are 8-9,000 people there it feels empty.’

‘I went to a Honka game last year when there were 3,500 people there, and it felt like there were too many. The atmosphere was fantastic. When I go to HJK I like to sit near Forza HJK because they create a good atmosphere.’

I can see his point. On Thursday I looked across from the Sunnyside at the main stand. Apart from the block containing Sinikaarti, the main stand looked at best half full probably less. It’s a bit of a sorry sight. Now at Tammela, a couple of hundred home fans singing and 50 or so KTP supporters would have made a decent noise. At Ratina they got lost.

It is obvious to anybody that Ratina does not meet the needs of Tampere United, and that Tampere needs and deserves a football stadium. Tammela is probably unique in Finnish football, being in a residential area, central to the city and built especially for football. It’s an absolute jewel for a stadium nerd like me-night matches there are special, with the floodlights visible round corners as you approach, then suddenly bang! you’re right next to the stadium. It’s like an English ground in that respect. It’s such a waste that it isn’t the prime footballing facility for the city.

Perkele! This is good football!

I’ve been a bit quieter recently, and one reason is the amount of writing I’ve been doing for other places. This is one that might interest Finnish readers, so I’ll post it here as Six Degrees probably slips under the radar of many Finns. Nothing you won’t know already, but a great quote from Sami Verno in there….

Two games in

Bit calmer now, apologies for the rant. I love stewards really.

So, everyone’s played two games now, and the league’s looking a bit clearer. TPS have defied my fat jibes and are now third with 4 points, along with HJK and Tampere United. FC Haka are top with a 100% record, having won in Pietersaari yesterday. The results from yesterday are here:

FF Jaro 1 – 2 Haka Valkeakoski (EDIT-copypasted from livescore.com. admirable geographical accuracy, but I’m sure they don’t like it)
HJK Helsinki 0 – 0 AC Oulu
IFK Mariehamn 0 – 0 FC Lahti
Inter Turku 5 – 0 VPS Vaasa
MyPa 0 – 2 TPS Turku
Tampere United 2 – 1 KooTeePee

Viikingit have just beaten Honka 3-2 in what sounds like a belting Helsinki (area) derby, to join the bunch of teams on four points. You can see the goals here.

Now I’ve only seen the Tampere games so far. That will change when I go to Haka-Lahti on Thursday, but anyway. I think it’s another Veikkausliiga season of topsy-turvy ups and downs-whether this is due to the strength or weakness of the league I’m not really sure. The good results Oulu and viikingit have achieved show that. Then there’s the battle of the big spenders in Anjalankoski-Armand One scored, and Kuami Agboh didn’t. If they beat HJK next week, TPS will be confident about the rest of the season.

Tampere United were competent against a young Kotka team, who put up a good fight. I missed some of the match by remonstrating with stewards, but Wiss definitely helped. I think he’s what they call a ‘calming influence’. That sounds a bit patronising, but he seems to have a noticeable effect on the other members of the team. Kujala was much better than at VPS, and Pohja’s through ball for the goal was the kind of thing he was signed for. Defensive frailties are a bit of a worry though, teams will have noticed the effect Kuoppala’s absence is having.

A word for the Kotka fans-a full busload of them were there, and it’s a long way from Kotka to tampere. And this was a ‘school night’, too. They were in fine voice and a credit to their team. It’s just a shame I couldn’t have spoken to them at the match…. I got a text from someone going to HJK-Oulu yesterday (sorry Willie, I’ve no credit on my phone right now-if you read this can you email me? I’m in Helsinki next week and we should have a pint or something), saying he doubted there’d be any Oulu fans there. Were there? Kärpät seemed to take huge numbers to Jokerit the other week, and HJK must be one of the easier away games to get to (better rail and air links). plus there are all the ‘exiles’ that habitually inflate the crowd for most clubs visiting the bigger cities.

I’m rambling now, so I’d better stop. A word on the lower divisions first though. KooVee have signed Petri Heinanen, and there can’t be many internationals in Kakkonen. I’ll try and get there, but I have some, er, domestic responsibilities that may preclude my attendance. If you’re at a loose end in Tampere tomorrow though, get down to Tammela-it’s a great stadium, and KooVee are one of the old traditional multisport clubs. they have an ice hockey championship to their name and if you’re in Tampere for any length of time you’re almost guaranteed to see somebody wearing their colours.

There are Kakkonen games all over the place tomorrow, use the link to your right to find them. The alphabet soup is a geographical minefield I’m afraid-I aim to blog something about this at some point, but in the meantime the excellent footiemap.com is your friend.

On Sunday Ykkonen starts, and there are games in Hämeenlinna, Joensuu, Kokkola, Helsinki, Kuopio and Tampere. I’m not sure where PK-35 play, but they’re at home to TP-47. I’m sure there’s a reason for their names, maybe someone will enlighten me….

Rules are rules!

So, Tampere United won’t let me speak to away fans. Or rather they will, but only across a fence. What the hell do they think is going to happen? Am I going to go across there and batter all 50 KTP fans to a bloodied pulp? Does this happen at ice hocket games? I think the answer to both questions is no.

After the game, in O’Connells, Sinikaarti and KTP fans met up and chatted, discussing the national team, the game we’d just seen and the state of Finnish football. It’s possible someone was stabbed to death, but I have to say that I missed it.

So why do the stewards at Ratina say ‘rules are rules’ when I ask to go and say hello to the kotka fans? It’s ridiculous. There were maybe 3,500 fans at Ratina, and nobody wanted a fight. Except the steward. She seemed to be itching for a rumble. I denied her the pleasure, though.

Seriously though-what does Finnish football expect to achieve when they treat their fans like criminals?

I’ll write some more about the first two rounds when I’m less drunk and less pissed off.

Start as you mean to go on

I’m massively hungover today so can’t write too much, but it was a good start for Tampere United yesterday. They drew 1-1 at VPS, which is a decent result given their record at Hietalahti and the players they were missing. HJK won 3-1 at KTP, an impressive result, and the new boys drew 1-1 at Castren.

I’ve just seen Armand One miss a header from a metre out (no, he didn’t have to jump) on Urheliuruutu, and I think I’ve discovered what TPS are doing with the missing million-it seems to be stuffed down their players’ shorts. They must be strong contendeers for fattest team in the league even at this early stage. Mixu Paatelainen will have some running planned for them, surely. Even if it’s only down the shops to get some more makkara.

You can see highlights of yesterday’s games here-keep checking back because todays matches should be up soon. Lahti seem to be living up to my predictions-a 4-1 defeat at home to Jaro today. MyPa went down 2-1 at Honka despite Saku Puhukainen’s best efforts, and TPS drew 0-0 with Mariehamn.

To bet or not to bet?

In the spirit of my predictions, I’ve decided to place a few bets on the games this weekend. Finns will know all about the match fixing scandal involving Allianssi and a Chinese-Belgian coalition of gamblers and coaches. And the scandal is probably one of the only things that non-Finns know about Finnish football.

Now in that case, the Chinese guys were betting in the far east and the Belgian coach made sure his team did what was required. Betting in Finland is run by a monopoly, just as selling alcohol is. But the betting takes place in newsagents and bars, not in the single use-only betting shops where British gamblers congregate.

The range of sports to bet on is OK, but I can’t be the only Brit to be disappointed with the horse racing they have here. Trotting is like chariot racing without the weaponry, like horse racing without the excitement. I know the Grand National isn’t great for animal welfare, but if you were a horse would you rather meet your end at Becher’s Brook or in a sausage factory?

Anyway, back to football. The odds are sometimes a little strange, and not just because they’re always decimal. For instance Tampere United are 1.70 to win tomorrow at VPS, who beat them home and away last year. The draw is 3.35 and a VPS win is a mighty 4.00. Very tempting when you consider that Tampere will probably be without Kaven, Kuoppala, Wiss and Niemi. Not that i think they’ll lose, just that they’re underpriced-if I was to bet impartially on this match it would be on VPS or the draw.

I’ve had a little look at Ladbrokes’ odds for the coming round of games (isn’t globalisation wonderful?), and for every match there is a difference in one of the odds, always in favour of the customer.

I can’t help thinking this is another nice little cashcow for the Finnish state, just like Alko. There has been a lot of propaganda about raising alcohol taxes recently, because last time they were cut there was a big rise in alcohol related health problems. The fact that they reduced the taxes on hard liquor (made in Finland) rather than beer (foreign muck) apparently had nothing to do with it.

Once again, the Finnish consumer gets a raw deal. And people will accept it, because gamblers and alcoholics are scum, aren’t they?

I don’t know what the law says about gambling on the internet in Finland so I hesitate to advocate it. But anybody thinking about betting on football here should check out Ladbrokes, William Hill, Coral, Paddy Power or any number of other sites to see what a great deal foreign gamblers get in comparison.

Counting those beans

In England you often have to wait up to a year after the season finishes to find out how much each team has spent. Not so in Finland. Here we have the annual accounts for all the teams in advance of the season, a helpful development given the temptation to overstretch-an extra 100,000 euros goes a lot further here than it does in many countries.

So, those who may have been mystified by Paatelainen’s return to Finland can worry no more. TPS are the moneybags of Veikkausliiga, with EUR2.5m for this season. Seppo Sairanen is their benefactor and he evidently has deep pockets. Next are HJK, some way behind on EUR1.75m. Then you have Tampere United, MyPa and Honka. The lowest spenders are unsurprisingly FC Viikingit, who seem to play in a forest somewhere on the eastern edge of Helsinki. They will have to make do with just EUR 530,000.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is the discrepancy between total budgets and playing budgets. TPS have a whopping EUR1.5m on top of their playing budget. Where’s it all going? I hope their non-football investments are wise, the last thing the game here needs is another bankruptcy.

No club has a wage bill of more than EUR1m, giving the impression of massive contingency funds-TPS apparently allocate 60% of their season’s money for unplanned expenses, whereas Viikingit have just 20%. Unsurprisingly it’s the poorer clubs that are least prepared for hard times.

The Veikkausliiga website also includes a table of what are apparently break even attendances for all the clubs. Tampere United can realistically hope to get 4,100 and have a good chance of milking the corporate market, but that option is not so well exploited by other clubs. Here are the figures:

Total budget for 2007

2,500,000 TPS
1,750,000 HJK
1,547,000 Tampere United
1,400,000 MyPa
1,400,000 FC Honka
1,170,000 FC Haka
937,000 VPS
931,000 FC Inter
850,000 FC Lahti
840,000 AC Oulu
784,000 IFK Mariehamn
742,000 FC KooTeePee
741,972 FF Jaro
530,000 FC Viikingit

Playing budget for 2007

1,000,000 TPS
1,000,000 HJK
900,000 FC Honka
886,900 Tampere United
860,000 MyPa
746,500 FC Haka
550,000 FC Lahti
550,000 AC Oulu
514.300 VPS
497,100 FF Jaro
490,000 FC Inter
452,000 IFK Mariehamn
420,000 FC Viikingit
400,000 FC KooTeePee

Average attendance target

6000 HJK
4500 FC Honka
4100 Tampere United
4000 TPS
3350 AC Oulu
3300 FC Inter
3000 FC KooTeePee
2900 VPS
2600 FF Jaro
2500 FC Lahti
2375 FC Haka
2300 FC Viikingit
2100 MyPa
2000 IFK Mariehamn

The big kick-off

Season starts on Saturday, and I reckon it’s about time I made some predictions.

Champions: Tampere United
UEFA Cup: HJK
Intertoto: Inter Turku

Relegated: Lahti, Viikingit

Suomen Cup: Atlantis

One to watch: TPS (I’m genuinely fascinated by their money, manager, owner and fans. Who are most certainly not a group of sissies)

Ykkönen:
I honestly don’t know enough to make any predictions here, but I hope both Tampere clubs do well, Atlantis and KuPs get promoted and JJK at least stay up.

Kakkonen:
I know even less here, so personal favour dictates I wish good luck to Musan Salama and Gnistan.

So you’d better run down the bookies right now!

Globalised

The Finnish League Cup is a pre-season tournament played largely indoors between February and April. The Veikkausliiga clubs are divided into two groups, this year one was roughly south eastern, the other roughly north western. The games are played indoors on full size pitches, often with a decent crowd. Pirkkahalli in Tampere is a good facility with several halls, and Botniahalli in Vaasa is a very impressive place. It has a running track and an outdoor pitch, as well as seating for spectators.

England has nothing like these facilities, despite the terrible condition of most British pitches in January and February. Sunday Leagues are bedevilled by the Sunday morning ring-round, when you find out that you won’t be playing again this week. Then in April you start playing 3 games a week to catch up. What indoor facilities there are belong to the professional clubs, and women, young players and kids teams don’t get a look in. This may have something to do with our extraordinary obesity problem.

The teams are organised into two groups and then go into the knockout phase. Tampere United were impressive in both games I saw, beating TPS 4-0 and controlling the game up at Vaasa despite lacking several key players. However, the tournament has little credibility and doesn’t even offer a European place, unlike its English equivalent. I now know that Jarkko Wiss can catch the ball after it hits the ceiling, but there was little of use in gauging Veikkausliiga strength.

Last years winners were KuPs, who were relegated. The year before it was Allianssi, who went bankrupt. So winning the League Cup is something of a poisoned chalice, and the final contested last night by FC Lahti and Inter Turku reflected the ambiguity of the honour. It finished 0-0 and Lahti won on penalties. On this basis I predict them to be relegated this year.

Anyway, I didn’t watch it. I did a bit of Friday night manwhoring instead. I went to the pub, found a punter (championship football this time, but I’m not picky) and had my wicked way.

The players on display included internationals from Jamaica, Scotland, Northern Ireland, USA, Denmark, Ireland, Hungary, Slovenia and Senegal. This was all in the second tier of English football, and freely available throughout the world-I know of Wednesday fans who watched it in New Zealand, Italy, Romania, Pakistan and Australia.

Now how can Veikkausliiga compete with that? Most obviously by avoiding the competition, and playing in the summer. But still, the first month and closing three months are overshadowed for many Finns by the action they can watch from the rest of Europe. If you make direct comparisons, it’s extremely unflattering to Finland, but I don’t think direct comparisons are particularly useful.

In the next few weeks I’ll be following Wednesday and hoping they keep up their incredible run, but nothing beats a day at the football. So next week it’s a trip to Vaasa and VPS-Tampere United, with text updates on Wednesday-Birmingham. I wish more Finns would enjoy the real lived football experience, as well as the televisual one.

Baku from the brink, part two

As promised, a report on Finland’s game in Azerbaijan. IK is a member of Suomifanit, the official Finland supporters group. I hope writing this has been therapeutic for him:

The mother of all cock ups?

As you will see, this is not a proper match report. I think that’s only fair, since the 90 minutes of sado masochism we had to endure didn’t really resemble a football match.

Now, following Finland has never been for gluryhunters. But before our last match the chances of us making it to Euro 2008 looked decent enough, and the overall mood amongst everybody even remotely interested in football was actually quite cheerful.

The optimism did endure a few bumps and bruises even before the ‘match’. The Soviet style bureaucracy at the airport coupled with the ‘we’ve got all night’ attitude of the Azeri border guards was quite an experience.

Eventually, after queuing for a few hours and then paying 60 euros to a handlebar moustachioed official for the joy of entering Azerbaijan we finally set out to find our lodgings.

Our digs were situated a 15 minute walk from the city centre. The apartment was quite spacious and comfortable enough but rather chilly as there was a draft and the heating left a lot to desired. That didn’t really matter though, since we only really spent the night there.

For a hopelessly spoiled and ignorant westerner like me Baku offered little to see, the city seemed to be a combination of Soviet architecture and office buildings, new skyscrapers built with oil money, a few modern hotels, crumbling old houses, kebab shops & ex-pat pubs. I didn’t bother to cultivate myself by going to the local opera or ballet, visiting the ‘eternal fire memorial’ or trying the cruise around the Baku harbour though, so what do I know?

I did however meet quite a few interesting characters, some new faces from our travelling support and a few ex-pats who all made up a great bunch. There was hardly a dull moment in Baku or in our favourite haunt ‘The Corner’, which shall always be my favourite bar in the southern Caucasus (nazdrovje Misha!).

After a few days of sight seeing (it was quite a large bar), the match day loomed. Around 100 Finns were present at the bizarre looking Tofik Bakhramov Stadium, most of whom had made the trip with Air Baltic. In addition, there was a group of Finns resident in Azerbaijan (why anyone in their right mind would even contemplate that is beyond me).

Then of course there were the four guys who had covered the journey in a mark 1990 Lada from Oulu to Baku (as you do). In the end, they clocked around 16,600 kilometres through the former Soviet Union.

Now really, that was no small feat. In Azerbaijan alone, the word ‘traffic’ seemed to be a synonym for suicide. For me, the surreal taxi ride from the city centre to the stadium was enough; traffic lights and speed limits were there to be ignored and it also seemed perfectly kosher to drive the wrong way down a one way street. Amazingly enough we made it to the stadium with no lives lost or major injuries.

Now, as I mentioned earlier the Tofik Bakhramov is not your average football ground, in fact it looked more like the setting of Ben Hur or some other 1950s Hollywood sword and sandal spectacle. The pitch certainly looked like Spartacus and the lads had played horse polo on it.

The Finnish support had slowly made its way to their section, surrounded by hordes of coppers. As our boys started their warm up, singing and chanting soon began. Little did we know then, that our lads wouldn’t bother to break much sweat after running those few laps and playing the odd game of ‘piggy in the middle’.

I shall refrain from uttering out loud my feelings about the ‘game’ itself. I’ll merely point out that blind, over 80 year old Eskimos with artificial limbs could have done a better job then ‘Roy’s boys’ did that night.

What happened to the guys who beat Poland away last September and followed that feat by almost beating Portugal, the 4th best team in the last World Cup?

Was it another case of the Finnish fear to win, à la Finland vs. Hungary 1997?

When everything looks fine and dandy, let’s just make a right mess of it so we can concentrate on acting out the stereotype of the average Finn; being a sad miserable bastard and drowning your sorrows in a bottle of Koskenkorva while contemplating topping yourself?

Quite a few questions. However the most important is whether we can get over the debacle in Baku and still mount a serious challenge to make it to our first ever major tournament.

Come June we shall have the answer.