A short hagiography of politics in Finnish football

I’ve been reading a book recently. It’s called A Concise History of Finland, it was written by David Kirby and it is very, very good. Thought I’d better mention that at the start of what will probably be a long and plagiaristic article about politics and football in Finland. It’s Kirby’s fault, anyway.

It’s something Finns are usually aware of but don’t talk too much about, and often affects things in unexpected ways. People talk about ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’ clubs, when Finland looks such a harmonious country with almost everyone part of the middle class and even the poorest having a decent standard of living in comparison to their counterparts in the UK.

There is a consensus in favour of a broadly liberal economic outlook, with a strong social safety net and generally free education up to university level. The new ‘right wing’ government announced proudly on taking office that its first act would be to raise student benefits. The word most often used to describe this government is ‘porvari’, or ‘bourgeois’, because it contains a right wing party.

In England that would probably mean they had an excellent selection of balsamic vinegar and fill their house with minimalist furniture. And even then, I don’t think anybody would seriously use the word ‘bourgeois’ to describe a political party, especially when every other party seems to be similarly ‘bourgeois’ in their taste, employment profile and membership.

The reason they are ‘porvari’ is that they and their political antescendants are the representatives of what Kirby calls ‘white Finland’. Finland’s independence struggle coincided with the Russian revolution, and this split is what defined the first half of the century in Finland rather than the more obvious splits between Finnish speakers and Swedish speakers, east and west, coast and interior and Old Finn and New Finn. Broadly speaking the Old Finns usually sought an accommodation with Imperial Russia that would protect Finnish laws and customs, whereas the New Finns were more aggressive in pursuit of autonomy.

The Russian revolution and subsequent Finnish civil war ensured that no Finnish right winger could look towards Russia for a political lead anymore. Given that the Social Democrats and Communists had dominated parliament before the war, this caused huge divisions and meant that large numbers of Finns detested each other. Most Reds were in concentration camps, if they were lucky enough to avoid this they (and their children) still suffered huge social stigma.

The big project for the government after the war was to establish White Finland’s hegemony, and sport was one way of doing this. After the Civil war many clubs and individuals were expelled from the Finnish athletics union, the SVUL. As a result they formed a workers association, the TUL. Kirby points out that those athletes who participated in the interwar Olympics were representing White Finland, as socialists should have gone to any one of the ‘Red Spartakiades’ and ‘Socialist Olympics’ that took place around Europe in those years.

It was in this period that a lot of Finnish football clubs were formed. Kotka Workers Ball club (KTP) came into being in 1927, for instance. The ‘right wing’ clubs are less obvious in their affiliations these days. FC Haka were supported by the paper mill from the start, and in Valkeakoski there is still another club that carries the worker’s mantle, albeit in the fifth division.

In some towns the division is still strong. In Forssa there are two basketball clubs with an intense rivalry. As a town of only 22,000 people, you’d think they would have just the one, but no. Fokopo is the right wing club, Alku represents the left. A friend of mine grew up playing basketball in the town and says the rivalry in the 90s was still bitter, but with time it has healed. It helped that he and his mates played for different clubs and didn’t really understand why they couldn’t play together. Now they have a deal whereby the best male players go to Fokopo and the best women play for Alku.

In Tampere the left wing club is TPV, and this had consequences when a merger was discussed. TPV got cold feet at the last minute and pulled out, apparently worried that their identity would not survive in the merged club. It often happens like this, as red wing clubs have historically defined themselves in opposition to something and if they then become part of the organisation they were opposing, it gives them a problem.

I suppose one TPV fan sums up the problem. I was talking to him about football in a bar, and it turned out he was a TPV fan, ‘because they are the workers club’. Nothing wrong with that, strong identities are often good for clubs. But his identity is not so strong as to lead him to attend many matches. TPV draw crowds of around 400-500 and will probably not challenge TamU, who are the dominant club in the country now. TPV games remind me in many ways of the Labour Party functions of 1980s Sheffield, lots of fat bearded men, barbecues and children running around. They are too sober though – standard bearers of the British working class would rather vote Tory than organise a dry barbecue.

Finns have something like a pact of forgetting along Spanish lines, but it’s more a pact of getting on with things and not talking too much about it, really. Which is a workable solution, but it doesn’t explain why there are so many football clubs here. I hope Mr Kirby has been of help in that regard.


12 Responses

  1. TPV got cold feet at the last minute and pulled out, apparently worried that their identity would not survive in the merged club.

    That is possibly one part of the story, but I have a feeling that a famous football person called Miika Juntunen – not really your archtype of a working class hero, so to speak – may have played role too. Maybe someone from Tampere could provide local insight?

    Also considering mergers in general, I reckon that personalities and egos matter probably quite a lot. Never mind the lack of success, but damn how good it is to have your own little sandbox where to play and express your great leadership skills. It happens in every type of organisations – mostly for the same reason Finland still has so very many municipalities – and I don’t think that sport clubs are any different.

    Finns have something like a pact of forgetting along Spanish lines, but it’s more a pact of getting on with things and not talking too much about it, really.

    As for this then, I wouldn’t really compare our historical taciturnity to the Spanish practice. It may be because of pragmatism, but myself I’d rather point that as the Reds and the Whites have already had their conciliation, so there’s no need to dwell on the past anymore.

    It all happened 90 years ago and during those years we never became a junta. Instead, former reds got their stake in society – just compare SKDL with Kokoomus during the Cold War; the former could participate in coalition governments, the latter couldn’t.

    Under the Northern Star, one of the most loved books/films in this country, tells of the war from the perspective of the defeated, and the first part of it was printed already in 1959.

  2. All of which is true, and is very similar to the Spanish experience. In fact, because most of the Spanish republicans knew very well what the Soviet Union would be like and steared clear of it, the Spanish loser’s history began to be told very soon after the end of the way.

    I’m thinking more of the large numbers of people who died after the Finnish conflict, as this is the most contentious issue and probably the cause of the political divisions in Finnish sport.

    You don’t need a junta to require ideological loyalty, and that is the process Finnish sport went through, according to Kirby. There was a time when Reds were stigmatised, victimised and killed for their political beliefs, and the divisions in Finnish sport stem from this. Of course they now have a stake in society, but there’s a very real division there that stems from the time when they didn’t.

  3. Aye, valid points. It’s just that pact of forgetting or of staying silent idea, that I don’t really recognise. In school you get more than an extensive summation of who did to whom and why, and how you should call it. And whatever you may then call it, it’s been covered pretty well in art and research as well.

    Most people don’t talk about their views in everyday conversations for the very same reason they don’t talk about any other things political, or about religion – they’re considered private matters. (Unless you can be certain that the other person agrees with you.)

    What is rather new then, is the revisited perception of to which extent the aftermath terror was organised. Once there was indeed a tacit consent on the fact that most of the killings were carried out more or less randomly, by groups of local lunatics – something which has quite recently changed then.

    The Whites found the psycho factor convenient because they got away with many bad things, and the Reds because of coping, i.e. because they often shared the same village or neighbourhood with people who had committed bad things.

    But in regard to the topic, sport clubs surely provided a safe sort of mental vent to release and deal with this stuff.

  4. I just want to say, that I like your blog. Keep up the good work.

  5. I find this kind of political sociology of football to be extremely interesting, and was completely ignorant of the Finnish context until you mentioned it in passing in another forum we frequent. This post, and aapo’s comments, are really a great introduction to the subject for me, and I thank each of you.

    The parallel example that it evokes for me is that between “lay” and “clerical” clubs in provincial towns in France, which have their roots in the parallel but distinctly separate social networks set up by the two contending forces more than 100 years ago in the wake of the “victory” of the “lay” forces in the context of the French educational system.

    You may or may not have wondered why Auxerre’s ground (the Abbe Deschamps) is named after a priest (I’m not sure he was technically an “abbot”, but he was a senior cleric), but the reason is that AJA (the Youth Association of Auxerre) was the clerical club in town; there still is another club in the deep nether regions of the French pyramid that is the lay club.

    The distinctions are no longer as sharp as they still seem to be in Finland, most likely because more time has passed, but in the days when I was living in France and/or reading France Football religiously (heh), about once every other year one would read of tension over a proposed merger of two clubs in a town of 20,000 or less (Auxerre is only 40,000).

  6. As one of the fat bearded 1980s Sheffield Labour activists, I just want to say that I recognize the parallels.

    And down with dry barbecues.

  7. Ursus, I never had a clue about lay vs secular divide in French football. Thanks for a very interesting contribution.

    Thinking on it now, my political football/Spain analogy falls down somewhat when you look at Spanish football. I know you’re fairly sceptical of the mas que un club ethos of the blaugrana (not the JJK variety), but that’s pretty much the only example I can think of, off the top of my head. The regional splits are more important, with the Basque clubs and FCB in particular representing their regions to the rest of the country, but I can’t think of a specifically ‘left wing’ or worker’s club that survived with that identity.

    Obviously I know very little about Spanish football, and you may very well be able to tell me about a leftie club somewhere.

  8. Actually, I can’t think of a “lefty” Spanish club off the top of my head.

    Barca are now clearly as bourgeois as you can get, and Espan[y]ol were originally even more socially exclusive. I think that Atleti have more “street cred” than Real Madrid, but wouldn’t call them lefty either. Rayo Vallecano was originally formed as the team of the electricity workers (thus the lightning bolt on the badge), but have long since become the plaything of a series of Spanish presidents of the usual sort.

    Betis definitely have a “working class” image as compared to Sevilla’s “elite”, but they too are owned by a rapacious megalomaniacal nutter. I would

    I wouldn’t be surprised if you need to go considerably further down the Spanish pryamid to find a club with more political credibility.

    The French leftie club par excellence is Red Star, who not only play in a dilapidated ground “filled” by a very multi-culti crowd in the heart of one of Paris’s traditional working class suburbs, but also have long standing ties with the French Communist Party. Though those have weakened recently (just like the PCF), the club is still subidised by the local council, which is resolutely leftist. The council’s support is why the club changed its name to Red Star 93 (93 being the administrative number of Seine St. Denis).

    BTW, the book arrived on Saturday. Really too kind of you, especially as my knoweledge of Finland is grievously weak.

  9. Ah, the least I could do after the Severighni package. Schatz is a real celebrity here, having learnt Finnish and made a career on the TV – along with Keith Armstrong he provided the ‘exotic glamour’ in the Finnish version of Strictly Come Dancing.

    I vaguely remember Michael Robinson talking in an interview about Cadiz being a socialist club, or located in a socialist town. This was in the context of an anecdote about the star striker getting stoned on the beach before matches and having to be fetched at 14:40 (or whenever the equivalent Spanish time is) by the physio, so it’s probably not indicative of serious political leanings in the same way as Red Star or the various Finnish Tyoväen Palloliijat’s.

  10. Miika Juntunen had nothing to do in preventing the merger. The thing is TPV as a club were never willing to merge. It was the then chairman and a couple of others who has negotiated everything behind other people’s backs.

    The original post says TUL finished in 1991 but in fact they still exist. However, their role have changed considerably. Nowadays the divide between bourgeois and workers clubs is insignificant and only some old people feel it matters. But as a historical aspect it is interesting.

    Most Tampere clubs are TUL-clubs. Not only TPV but PP-70 and TKT are too. TPV won the TUL championships this year whereas PP-70 won it three years ago I think. The championship tournament is not important though, but more of a pre-season training event.

  11. Thank you, the post has been edited to remove the 1991 reference. What’s happened with TKT btw? They were in Ykkonen last year, I seem to remember, but have now disappeared…

  12. TKT were in Kakkonen as were TPV last year. TPV were promoted, TKT relegated.

    This season they are playing in Kolmonen and not doing well at all. I think they have made a mistake in building too young a side that is truely struggling to make an impact.

    You can see the Kolmonen results and table here: http://www.tampere.palloliitto.fi/kilp/A3D.htm

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