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.