Helsinki Times: Turku football boom

It is exactly one year since the first English language weekly newspaper in Finland began publication. To celebrate there are a lot of extra features, including this article on Turku’s football boom. If you haven’t seen the paper yet, I recommend buying a copy this week. Here’s the article:

9th May 2008

DURING the first half, one of the TPS fans behind the press box made a comment that his team’s midfielder Chris Cleaver was like toilet paper. A strange analogy, but one that has some foundation. Not the most exciting thing in the world, but vital, willing to do the dirty work and if you invite a load of people round and don’t have it, you’re going to be embarrassed.

Unfortunately for TPS, Cleaver – the battling midfielder that usually gives his team-mates time and space to play – was injured after ten minutes in the derby against Inter on May 4. He overstretched himself trying to tackle Inter’s Nigerian midfielder Dominic Chatto, and despite attempts to run off his injury he was replaced by 19 year old starlet Riku Riski. Riski is a highly regarded prospect, but this was too big a game and too difficult a role for his style of play.

And what a game it was. There were some tickets left on the morning of the match, but these had gone with hours to spare and a capacity crowd of 8,937 filled Veritas Stadium, widely regarded as the best ground in Veikkausliiga. The ground has a capacity suited to the teams that play there, stands close to the pitch, and facilities for lucrative corporate hospitality. It’s no surprise that Turku is experiencing what the local media has dubbed a ‘football boom’, with two sides in Veikkausliiga and an excellent ground to watch them in.

TPS fans

The two clubs have contrasting backgrounds. TPS have the backing of Seppo Sairanen, an investment banker. Their budget is big by Finnish standards, and they are investing for the future rather than blowing everything on players’ salaries. They heavily subsidise ticket prices, for example, and are reaping the rewards with two active, growing fan groups: Young Boys Turku and Sissi Ryhmä. Their plan is to break even by 2011, after running fairly heavy losses, but the Chief Executive Petri Jakonen has a few issues to sort out first.

First and foremost, he is clear that success on the field is the most important pre-condition to all the plans he has put in place. Without a team fighting it out at the top of the league, the plans for expansion and growth will come to nothing, and as such he was very worried by the performance against Inter.

“It was our worst day ever,” said an exasperated Jakonen. “It’s absolutely clear that we have to be top three in this league before we can think about anything else, and that’s why Sunday was so bad for us.”

He can say that again. Without Cleaver, TPS allowed Chatto the freedom to pick his pass, and the first unchallenged long ball he hit picked out Mika Mäkitalo. He turned, looked up, crossed the ball for Ats Purje, and a simple header was all it took to put Inter 1-0 ahead. It looked easy and, for Inter, it was. Their coach Job Dragtsma had prepared his team to take advantage of the somewhat brittle nature of the TPS defence, and with quick passing and movement Inter opened them up again and again.

In the stands things were not going well for the “home” team. “On what day did God create this team and couldn’t he have rested on that day too?” asked a crestfallen TPS fan. The two TPS fan groups turned their backs on the action and their banners upside down, and began chanting at the back of the Olympic Stand while steadfastly ignoring their team’s efforts for most of the second half.

“ I’m surprised by just how bad TPS have been,” said Inter’s goalkeeping coach, Jani Meriläinen. “Cleaver is very important for them, the kind of player you don’t notice too much but really miss when he’s not playing.”

Inter wrapped up the win with an excellent curling strike from Mäkitalo and two close range finishes by former Musan Salama player Timo Furuholm, while Riski and Armand One missed excellent chances for TPS. The big Frenchman found it tough, and often had to come back towards midfield to collect the ball. That’s not his natural game, and it was difficult to see the tactics TPS were trying to apply. In the post-match press conference, the first question for the former Finland manager was “your system didn’t seem to work. Was there one?”.

In the circumstances, it was understandable that the TPS people did not want to dwell on the game. Jakonen was keen to talk about the success of his organisation in selling out the stadium and creating the ‘football boom’ in Turku.

“In Finland football clubs don’t tend to have homes,” says the former Reipas, TPS, HJK and MyPa goalkeeper. “I mean what is a football club’s identity? For me it is the colours, the badge, the team – and the ground. In ice hockey every club has a home, so why not in football?”

“There is only one place in the world where two clubs successfully share the same stadium, and that is in Milan. And those clubs have a lot of history together. Of course we are pleased to have such a good stadium, and we are happy to be here, but if we are to progress we need to do something about the match day revenues.”

Jakonen divides football revenues into three parts: match day revenue, sponsorship money, and TV rights fees. TV coverage of Veikkausliiga is in its infancy right now, and TPS have – according to Jakonen – a level of sponsorship that is comparable to other Nordic clubs and even some sides in the UK; but they lag far, far behind in match day revenues, which at present consist only of ticket sales. Refreshment, revenue and merchandising are all run by Veritas, and TPS want a larger slice of that pie.

Veritas Stadium, main stand

Veritas is owned by Kiinteistöyhtiö Kupittaan Stadion, whose board contains FC Inter’s chairman Stefan Håkans but no representative from TPS. They did not have the money to join the company when the new main stand was built in 2003. As a result there is considerable overlap between the Inter and Veritas organisations, and since Sairanen’s largesse began to raise TPS attendances much higher than Inter’s, disquiet has been voiced about the arrangements for merchandise and refreshment stands.

TPS want to keep at least some of the money their fans spend on beer and hotdogs, but according to Jakonen that has never been on the table. According to Håkans, TPS never asked. They could of course both be right – it is clear that TPS are irritated by what they perceive as Håkans’s high handed manner, and think he should be working hard to keep them as tenants, whereas he probably wants them to ask a lot more nicely. Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact is that Turku has two teams attracting good crowds, a great stadium, and an enthusiastic local media. Surely that can’t be turned into a problem?


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