Helsinki Times: Zeddy’s back!

SOMETIMES interviews take a different course to that envisaged beforehand. Zambian striker Zeddy Saileti’s meeting with the Helsinki Times is one such occasion, because when we meet Saileti is not a happy man. His team, RoPS, have lost 5-0 to Tampere United, and Saileti knows who to blame: the referee.

“The referee destroyed the game today. It’s very difficult for us to play away games at big clubs, because the referees don’t give us any protection,” says the Zambian. “You could see that. And they give so much respect to the other teams, but we are not a bad team: we drew 0-0 with Honka in Espoo, and Honka are a very good team.”

The Luanshy-born international clearly feels the pain of defeat just as much as the fans who made the long trip down from Lapland, and it takes a lengthy discussion of the referees various mistakes before the game is sufficiently dealt with and we can move on to Saileti’s earlier career.

The main problem Saileti perceived was the penalty awarded just before half-time, when Stephen Kunda was sent off for a foul on Henri Myntti. That ended the game as a contest, and a concise summation of our discussion of the game would be that RoPS were hard done by, and that is not a rare occurrence.

After promotion via the play-offs last year, RoPS’s licence to play in the top flight was not granted immediately because their stadium did not meet Veikkausliiga ground requirements. The solution involved promises from Rovaniemi City Council to build the required toilet block and floodlights by the end of August, or a fine will be levied. This creative solution is typical of the club, who have often done things a little bit differently to other Finnish teams.

RoPS began looking for African players after the World Cup in 1990, when 38 year-old Cameroonian Roger Mila starred in a team that showed African players could perform at the top level. RoPS were impressed, and CEO Jouko Kiistala looking for African players to bring to Finland. He made contact with a London-based Zambian in 1994, and ended up bringing Saileti and his compatriot Emmanuel Siwale to the Arctic circle.

When I first came here I knew nothing, really nothing,” remembers Saileti. “I arrived in January – there was a lot of snow and we only played indoor games. It was quite difficult to play indoors at first, and the outdoor pitches we used were often sand. Now we have artificial pitches and things are much better, but can you imagine: playing a Veikkausliiga game on a sand pitch!”

The far north of Finland has an inhospitable climate, and RoPS have sometimes gone to extraordinary lengths to get games played. In the 1987-88 Cup Winners’ Cup their Second Round tie with Albanian side Villaznia was played in Rovaniemi at noon, because there were no proper floodlights, and 8,000 people turned up to see a 1-0 win for the home side. They had to play their Quarter Final home leg against Olympique Marseille in Southern Italy, and the lack of home advantage hurt as the Finns went out 4-0 on aggregate.

After 14 years with the club, Saileti has acclimatised to the weather in Lapland. “I used to go home and play with Zambian clubs in the winter, but now I am much more settled here. Rovaniemi is like a second home for me, I know the people here, and my life is quite easy here.”

RoPS had an interesting start to the season when Belgian coach Tom Saintfiet was sacked before even taking charge of a competitive game for the club. He lost the confidence of his players and the RoPS board moved quickly, bringing in the Estonian Valeri Bondarenko two weeks before the season started. Coaching is the next logical step for Saileti, and to that end he is in the process of getting the right qualifications. He has already shown a keen eye for talent, having recommended the 4 Zambians currently at the club.

They are like younger brothers for me,” laughs Saileti, before turning serious again. “Maybe we will have to sign some more players, too. We have a very small squad, and “Drogba” (prolific 24 year-old striker Nchimunya Mweetwa) is injured, so we might need to look at getting in a new forward.”

After 14 years’ service, 355 games and a club record 89 goals, Saileti has established himself as a RoPS legend and a respected figure in Finnish football. . His club will be tapping the Zambian transfer market for some time to come.

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