Helsinki Times: Veikkausliiga preview

When Tampere United got to the Third Qualifying Round of the Champions League in 2007, it should have been a big step towards confirming the improvements made in the Finnish game. The national team was having one of it’s best ever qualification campaigns, the Under 21s were looking good for the 2009 European Championships, and now the champions had beaten Bulgarian giants Levski Sofia to set up a Nordic derby against Rosenborg for the right to play in the money spinning group stages of the Champions league.

In the end, the progression resulted in an ugly row about a game against TPS Turku, a match that ended up being played in the wrong stadium in front 1,800 people, less than half the number of tickets that had been sold. United were hammered by Rosenborg, and despite a spirited showing against Bordeaux in the first round of the UEFA Cup, their attempts to appear professional were dealt a massive blow by the lack of fairly basic facilities.

It would be difficult to imagine either of Tampere’s ice hockey clubs being forced into this compromise, yet Tampere United’s desire to postpone a game to avoid another defensive injury, combined with a Toto concert at Ratina Stadium, forced them to play the TPS game at the run down and neglected Tammela ground. Ratina is not much better – the undersoil heating doesn’t work, and most spectators are forced to sit in the open and use portakabin toilets – but at least they can fit a big crowd in, and offer decent dressing rooms. Neither is possible at Tammela.

On the eve of a new season, it would be good for Finnish football to learn the lessons of this affair. The team with the best finances is TPS, unsurprisingly, as they also have by far the best stadium in Veikkausliiga. According to Nelonen’s sports news, TPS will have a 2008 budget of €2.3m, and city rivals Inter (who share the stadium) will spend €931,000. While small in international comparison, these figures represent the first and eighth biggest budgets in Finnish football, making Turku about as close to a football city as Finland gets.

TPS have parted company with their manager, Mixu Paatelainen, who left to join Hibs and reunite with his family, who have settled in Scotland. He had ruffled a few feathers and created a side that took no prisoners, but he was unable to beat the champions, losing 3-0 and 3-1 to Tampere and finishing the season in fourth place. While this qualified them for the 2008-09 Intertoto Cup, more is expected by the TPS hierarchy.

In his stead Martti Kuusela has taken the reins and achieved some eye-catching results in pre-season, notably a 2-1 win over Swedish giants Hammarby. Kuusela has made few changes to his team of bruisers, but the fear is that they may be over-reliant on their French centre forward Armand Oné. Hammarby were impressed with his physical prowess, but in the final of the pre-season League Cup against Turku rivals Inter they badly missed his presence and link-up play, going down to a 1-0 defeat.

Inter have some excellent young players, and in the League Cup final showed they have built a tidy team under coach Job Dragtsma. Built around the excellent centre half pairing of Jos Hooiveld and Diego Corpache, Inter are a resilient side who can cause problems for clubs with much bigger resources. Along with the composed Nigerian midfielder Dominic Chatto, Hooiveld and Corpache will attract attention from bigger sides, but if they hang around and stay fit and in form, Inter could do a lot better than last season’s ninth place.

The champions, Tampere United, are making big adjustments on the pitch. After selling Juska Savolainen to Norwegian club Rosenborg for €350,000, and moving Jarkko Wiss upstairs to become team manager, the champions’ midfield is going to look very different this year. Vili Savolainen has come in to replace his brother, and at different points during pre-season he has been partnered by Antti Ojanperä, Jussi Kujala and Chris James. If coach Ari Hjelm can conjure a winning combination yet again, he will surely cement his reputation as the best Finnish coach.

TamU have the second biggest budget in the league, but they may find it hard to maintain the momentum of their European run and back to back championships unless they find a stadium with better facilities for their spectators. At present their sub-5,000 crowds have limited protection from the generally appalling Finnish weather, and rattle around the 16,000 capacity Ratina athletics ground. A renovated Tammela would massively improve their chances of competing with the bigger Nordic clubs.

This is a common theme for Veikkausliiga teams. Rovaniemi‘s finest, RoPs, were unsure of their place in this year’s top flight until the Veikkausliiga committee gave their approval to a plan of improvements to facilities for players and spectators at their home ground, which will take place over the summer and hopefully be completed by August. If they don’t implement the deadlines for improvements, they will be fined – €20,000 if there are not proper toilets for spectators by the 30th of April, and €75,000 if the floodlights are not upgraded by the 24th of August.

They have already had an eventful year, sacking Belgian coach Tom Saintfielt before a ball had been kicked as he failed to win the respect of the players. With Zambian veteran Zeddy Saileti and 37 year old Finnish midfielder Mika Nurmela in the squad, they will not lack leadership, especially as Saileti takes on new coaching duties this year after 14 years and 343 games with the Laplanders since joining the club from Nkana in 1994.

RoPs will be ecstatic if they avoid relegation, as will KuPs Kuopio, the other promoted club. With budgets of €650,000 for RoPs, and €853,000 for KuPs, they are at the bottom end of Veikkausliiga wage structures.

At the top of the table TPS, Tampere United and Haka will fight it out with Antti Muurinen‘s HJK. The former national team manager’s squad includes the well travelled Paulus Roiha, back in Finland after a few years abroad, the soon-to-be Finnish Medo, whose citizenship application is pending, and Jukka Sauso, Miika Multaharju and Petri Oravainen, all returning to Finland after stints in Europe.

After a few barren years for HJK, it would be foolish to bet against them coming back to win the title this season. They have a good coach, a football-specific stadium, a talented squad and the support that comes from being Finland’s most successful club. With Tampere United in transition they could be well placed to take advantage, particularly as they don’t have the distraction of playing in Europe this year. If they mess it up again – and with Roiha already injured, there is a chance that they will – the rest of Finland will laugh heartily.

2008 Veikkausliiga budgets

Nelonen news have dug out the budgets for this coming season, and once again TPS are right at the top. Here are the figures for the total club budgets:

TPS 2 300 000
Tampere United 1 963 000
HJK 1 880 000
FC Honka 1 820 000
MyPa 1 200 000
VPS 1 083 000
FC Haka 1 080 000
FC Inter 931 000
IFK Mariehamn 920 000
FC Lahti 869 000
KuPS 853 000
FF Jaro 851 000
FC KooTeePee 746 000
RoPS 650 000

And here are the playing and coaching budgets for each side:

TPS 1 300 000
Tampere United 1 025 000
HJK 1 000 000
FC Honka 1 000 000
MyPa 720 000
FC Haka 700 000
VPS 632 000
FF Jaro 625 000
IFK Mariehamn 535 000
FC Lahti 520 000
FC Inter 490 000
FC KooTeePee 413 000
RoPS 400 000
KuPS 375 000

No massive surprises there, but it’s interesting that things look a lot tighter at the bottom this year. Haka are a bit low, but it’s to be expected as UPM gradually reduce their commitment there. VPS would have to be the worst value for money, based on last season, but Tepsi might run them close….

Waste of time

FC Inter won the Sami Hyypiä Award (or whatever it is called), the trophy given out to the Liigacup winner. That is basically all there is left to say about the game, because the game was just horrible. TPS could do nothing at all and Inter had a couple of chances, making them deserved victors. However, it was quite fitting that the only goal of the game was scored by Diego Corpache following a set piece.

Not once have I seen such a poor performance from TPS under Martti Kuusela’s reign. In a pre-match TV interview, centre back Jarno Heinikangas told that the idea is to get through the Inter midfield simply by playing the ball all the way up to the strikers. In simple English that means long balls, and there was no way it was going to work with the only target player, Armand One missing and the opposition having the best pair of central defenders in Finland.

Inter manager Job Dragtsma tactically outclassed Martti Kuusela. Inter simply stuck to what they have, an excellent defence in Corpache and Jos Hooiveld (who was named man of the match) and a good playmaker, Dominic Chatto. His TPS counterpart, Riku Riski quite rarely had a decent touch to the ball and Simo Valakari and Chris Cleaver could not do much to keep Chatto away from causing trouble. Furthermore, TPS were sub-standard at both flanks. Mika Ääritalo was not having an easy day as the left midfielder, and Sami Rähmönen was definitely not having the best of nights, either.

That is not to say Inter were good, though. I would say – and I guess most Inter fans with some sense of objectivity to them will agree with me – that Inter won not because they were the best team, but because they were not the worst team. (I would say that with the performance TPS put in, being worse than them would have been against all the laws of nature).

The much-anticipated derby spirit was there, with some 60 Inter supporters cheering for the team in black and blue, and 150 or so TPS fans chanting for their club. The supporters were by far the best thing out there. Other than that, the game was a most horrible – and falsified – example of Finnish football to be shown to those who are not regular visitors at the Veikkausliiga stadia. The football was awful and I really do not think there was a four-digit number of people watching (even if the official amount somehow ended up being almost 2000).

Inter, both fans and players, seemed to enjoy winning the tournament, though. And why wouldn’t they, since this is the first time that the senior squad has got silverware to bring home in the club’s 17-year history. And the fact that TPS was so bad does not decrease the value of their achievement at all.

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Inter celebrate. The photo is from Seppo, via the Finnish Football pool

What does decrease the value of the victory, however, is the fact that it was just Liigacup. I am not saying this through bitterness, being a TPS supporter and having lost the derby final. Seriously, something should be done about the competition that allows five subsitutions and trial players. That something, in my opinion, would be forgetting about the competition altogether. The final seemed to me like neither of the teams had real passion for winning the Liigacup title, and I am not surprised. Winning the competition just means nothing, except an indifferent 20 000 euros. The group stages are played in whatever pitches the teams happen to have at their disposal, and the pre-final stages are played in a small indoor football hall. That does not make Liigacup worthy of the reputation of a “national competition”.

It is not just me saying this, but supporters from several clubs. Liigacup seems to be there so the Veikkausliiga crew can brag about saying that “the competitional football season lasts 9 months”. Liigacup is not much of a competition, though.

Inter Turku v TPS League Cup final preview

Even if Liigacup is not that popular a competition, a final is always a final so I think taking a look at the match is in order.

Because it’s a derby, both teams will be desperate not to lose. They both have a good defence, but Inter might have a slight edge in this department. They have probably the best central defenders in the league in Diego Corpache and Jos Hooiveld.

However, Hooiveld, even if he is probably the best defender in the league could even be benched because it seems he was caught drunk-driving. I am not sure whether Inter will do anything, but I would not be surprised if disciplinary actions were taken.

Left back and captain Henri Lehtonen is probably missing. It will be a big blow for Inter, but I think their defence is still good enough – provided Hooiveld will play.

The TPS defence cannot be underestimated either, although they will be missing the injured central defender Kiko. Ville Lehtonen has been getting better all the time though, and Jarno Heinikangas is also a top 5 defender in the league. Janne Vellamo will most probably play right back and either Estonian international Urmas Rooba or Jani Sarajärvi will be occupying a spot as left back, so the TPS defence is quite OK.
Both teams have excellent goalkeepers. TPS’ Jukka Lehtovaara is already one of the best keepers in the league and so is Patrick Bantamoi at the other end of the pitch.

TPS have a slightly better midfield. Hamza Aït Ouamar will not be playing due to a clash between TPS and his former club about his contract. Kasper Hämäläinen could be missing due to injury. It is not as bad as you could imagine, though. The young Riku Riski will most likely play the attacking role. Simo Valakari, obviously, will play defensive midfield. Chris Cleaver, I think, will also be in the starting XI and do his usual box-to-box type thing.

The Inter midfield is quite dependent on Dominic Chatto. TPS have been quite aggressive, and Inter will be much weaker if TPS get the best of Chatto. Teemu Turunen, who seems to be returning after an injury might also cause problems, but Chatto will be the player to look at.

Ats Purje will probably play on the left wing, because he scored twice as a sub in the semi final against Honka.

Inter’s main problem is the lack of a good scorer. They scored 22 goals in the group stage, but they played in the group that was considered “easier” of the two. They scored four times against Honka, but Honka played their worst game of the season so far (a fact that, of course, does not lower the value of Inter’s achievement at all). Timo Furuholm scored once against Honka, but I heard he also missed too many chances in the game.

The TPS attack has been in lethal form during the pre-season. Armand One will be missing, however, due to a suspension. Mikko Paatelainen should be the striker and he will cause problems, especially because he’s given backup by the dangerous left winger Mika Ääritalo. Sami Rähmönen has played right wing recently and if Kasper Hämäläinen is missing, I see no reason for him not occupying that position.

Odds are slightly against Inter, but they will be up for an upset. The derby spirit might do wonders.
The Veikkaus odds are 2,10 for TPS, 3,10 for a draw after 90 minutes and 2,95 for Inter.

TPS have 184 traveling fans, plus a few coaches full of those who are not so loud supporters. The Inter supporters have collected some 60 names on their list.

The game will air on Urheilukanava, starting at 7 PM Finnish time. A stream should be available here.

Medo turns Finnish?

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Will HJK’s Medo get another blue and white shirt to wear soon?

This week’s issue of IS Veikkaaja had an interesting piece of news. It seems like Medo, the 20-year-old midfielder currently playing for HJK Helsinki is applying for Finnish citizenship.

Medo, or Mohamed Kamara as he is known to his mother, was a member of the Sierra Leone U-17 team, or Sierra Stars that made the trip to Finland in 2003 to play in the U-17 World Cup. Some members of the team snuck out from their hotel in Lahti with the intention of avoiding the return trip to Sierra Leone, since things were and are not too good down there. Some players of the team have left Finland already, while the likes of Patrick Bantamoi (KuPS, FC Inter) and John Keister (HJK & Klubi 04, JIPPO, trial with KuPS in March 2008) have tried making a living playing football in Finland.

While there may well be personal reasons behind Medo’s decision to apply for citizenship – such as the fact that moving to Europe should be easier when you are a member of an EU country – Finnish football might just end up winning in the process.

Medo has played for several Sierra Leonean youth teams without having dual citizenship, but FIFA might grant him a permission to play for Finland if he wanted to, since he came to the country as a refugee. He would be exactly the kind of player Finland need: a quick, skillful and creative midfielder. With the exception of Jari Litmanen and the Eremenko brothers, the team does not really have such players. I am not saying that Medo will develop into a new Litmanen, but he would probably strengthen the team.

However, in order for Medo to have a chance of playing for Finland, he would need to be a citizen of Finland before his 21st birthday on the 16th of November this year, because FIFA only grants exceptions for players who are under 21 years old. Luckily, HJK chairman Tuomo Saarnio said the club are helping Medo with the paperwork to speed up the process. It remains to be seen whether Medo wants to play for Finland, although he has spoken highly of Finland in interviews.

Cup confusion

The Finnish Cup has already started! Nearly a month before the league season begins, teams in Kolmonen and below are beginning their campaigns to get to Finnair Stadium and win a place in the 2009-10 UEFA Cup. Whether many people turn up to the final is an open question – less than 2,000 attended last year to see a storming game between Honka and TamU, with TamU running out winners on penalties.

One thing that is quite odd about the cup in Finland is that a huge number of teams don’t even enter. The biggest is IFK Mariehamn, who have pretty high travelling costs and very long journeys, but also missing out are KäPä, VIFK, GrIFK and FC Hämeenlinna from Ykkönen, and a whopping 14 clubs – one third of the total – in Kakkonen.

Those sides have the smallest resources, and an extra game a long way away, with a small crowd and tired players doesn’t much appeal. Money also plays a part – an OPS official remarked that ‘Miika (Juntunen) counts every penny’, when i asked about his clubs’ decision. Juntunen is the team manager at OPS these days, an empire he can call his own after personality clashes have seen him depart from many other, bigger clubs.

Given this lethargy about the cup, it seems somehow appropriate that I failed to get out of bed in time to see Härmä-Toip 49 on Saturday, and will therefore miss out on my round-by-round Finnish cup adventure. I’m going to England on Sunday, so will miss the second round, and therefore will not even be able to follow Toip against FC Teivo away. I have no clue why Teivo got a bye in the first round, my research indicates that Toip are a bigger club (they have a website, Teivo don’t).

So, er, if anyone knows of a second round cup match taking place within easy reach of Tampere, before Sunday, then do let me know. If not, never mind, I will take a Juntunenesque hard-headed pragmatist’s view of this year’s competition.

Svenskfinland

Because I recently pondered why there weren’t so many Finnish-Swedish blogs about, I feel I should publicise a couple that have come to my attention. Svensk Finland is a welcome addition to the Finnish blogosphere, giving a view on current affairs from a Finnish-Swedish perspective. Not much about football there, but it’s well worth a look anyway and as an added bonus, is written in English. There are lots of sources on Finland in English, but new ones written by Finns are especially welcome.

Green Mean Machine has an excellent blog about football, and I heartily recommend it. It’s written by the IFK Mariehamn supporter’s group, but covers other stuff too.