Suomen Cup Final Preview

The women’s cup final between Lahti club Kuusysi and HJK Helsinki will be an attacking game, according to Kuusysi coach Jukka Makelä. “The pressure is on HJK, they are the leading cup team in Finland. Challenges are nice and we’ve played the whole season with the attitude that we don’t play for a draw. We know that the game won’t be easy, but at the same time we believe we can win.”

“We tried during the season to change our play a little bit, so that we defended slightly further forward. Th idea is that we attack and try and score goals, and then try to stay together in defence as well. We’re not going to change anything for this game, as it has worked. We trust our own game.”

Kuusysi finished sixth in this year’s Naisten Liiga, whereas HJK came second to runaway champions Honka. The winning margin was 13 points, and this year’s Cup will not provide HJK with a route into Europe unless Honka manage to win the UEFA Women’s Cup, since only one club qualifies for that tournament from each country.

HJK changed coaches in August, after Jarmo Österlund and Maria Virolainen’s stint in charge failed to dislodge Honka from the top of the table, and the new boss is Gary Williams. And Englishman who played for Chelsea’s academy before attaining his UEFA B and C licences and coaching in the USA, Williams was in charge of HJK’s under-15 girls before being handed the top job.

Antti Muurinen’s men will take on Honka three and a half hours after HJK’s women kick-off against Kuusysi. TV coverage of the finals starts on YLE 2 at 14:50 Finnish time, and you can watch a stream of the men’s final at least here.

“We hope that we can continue in the same style we showed against VPS. But that will be harder because now the opponent is much tought,” said Jarno Parikka. We lost third place in the last match against FC Lahti but then we showed what we are made of against VPS.”

Haapala is injured for HJK, but Aho and Mattila might play. Otaru is out for Honka. If the crowd is above 1,500 I will be very surprised, but if you fancy a day out in Töölö there are plenty of tickets available at Finnair Stadium. HJK-Kuusysi starts at 11:30 am, while HJK-Honka kicks off at 15:00.

Advertisements

Who cares about the Cup?

The two semi finals were played last night, and to be honest I was embarassed for all four teams, everyone that went to watch them, and the competition itself. The game I saw was Haka v Honka, and finished 1-0 to the Espoo side, but it was a travesty of a match.

First the positives: Rasmus Schuller, a 17 year old midfielder with a calm head, played his third game for Honka. He did not look out of place, he was composed, and I think he will play a much bigger role for Honka next season. Jaakko Lepola also played, and his quick feet and brain will stand Honka’s midfield in very good stead over the next few years. That’s it for the positives, sorry.

Playing for Haka were Toni Lehtinen – rumoured to be on his way to Honka for next season – and Cheyne Fowler, who will be wearing a HJK shirt in 2009.

I did wonder whether Lehtinen was likely to do his best to score against possible future team mates, and when he inexplicably missed the target in a one on one during the first half, eyebrows were metaphorically raised in the Haka stands. If you can call a shout of ‘fuck off Lehtinen’ a ‘ metaphorically raised eyebrow’.

Fowler put in a decent performance, but you can understand why he might not want to put himself about too much. When he got a knock late in the game he went off straight away, presumably so as to avoid jeopardising his HJK contract.

There was another dimension to Fowler’s game. A Honka victory means that their opponents in the final will qualify automatically for the UEFA Cup, as Honka already qualified through league position. That means HJK, Fowler’s new club. It’s quite a dilemma for a player, if losing a game can guarantee he plays in Europe for his new team.

This kind of thing is unavoidable to an extent, as the final is the last game of the season and players will always agree to move before it is played. But the semi finals should be done and dusted a long way before, in order to avoid the farcical situation we had last night. Haka put in a performance very similar to many others this season, but the ability to calculate European qualification at the Semi Final or even quarter final stage (TamU and Honka played theirs last week) should not be available to teams, players, agents and managers.

This is a scheduling issue, and it will only get worse next year. The Under 21 European Championships will necessitate a break in the domestic schedule, as Finland qualified, and the UEFA Europa League will have 48 teams in the group stages, a big expansion on the current 40. Tampere United and FC Honka have both come close to qualifying for the UEFA Cup in recent years, and Honka will be aiming to get there this time. If they do, the Finnish Cup will probably not be played until the following March.

It looks like the 2009 Veikkausliiga will once again have all the rythmn of Mohamed Al Fayed. Two games a week will be played in May, there will be a month long break, and then the final rounds of the Cup will be played once everyone knows the final league table.

2008 Veikkausliiga – the changing of the guard

The biggest disappointment this year has been HJK Helsinki. They started with high hopes, big signings, and a fluent attacking style, but things have fallen apart for them since the 3-2 win over Inter that seemed to renew their title hopes back in August. Their strategy – big money signings combined with the cream of Finnish youngsters – has failed, as they finished fourth in this year’s Veikkausliiga and will now rely on the Finnish Cup to qualify for Europe.

The cream of Finnish youngsters is a particularly wasteful part of the strategy, as Finland is full of ex-HJK players. Not just the pros, but amateurs who played for a while and then left the club as juniors, along with guys like Antonio Inutile who never really got a chance there.

Whereas Inter’s policy is that young players need a chance in the first team as soon as possible, because otherwise you will never know what they could have achieved, HJK’s seems to be that a place in their line-up needs to be earned, and can’t be wasted on just anyone.

Next year’s bright young hope for HJK is Akseli Pelvas, who moved to HJK from EsPa when he was 14. Pelvas has impressed, scoring 24 goals for HJK’s farm club Klubi 04 in Kakkonen this season. He was shipped out to IFK Mariehamn on loan to get a taste of Veikkausliiga, and then scored twice for HJK to give them a 3-2 win at FC Haka last week, but the 19 year old is going to have to compete with Paulus Roiha, Jarno Parikka and probably one new signing in 2009.

They have annoyed a lot of people in other Helsinki clubs with their magpie-like transfer policy, and I get the feeling that whichever Helsinki club manages to identify itself as the anti-HJK will get a lot of support and have a good chance of establishing themselves.

Compare that to Inter, who spent a large part of the summer without proper strikers after Timo Furuholm got injured. They eventually signed Gulliano Grot and Domagoj Abramovic, but the coach needed to demonstrate the desperate need, and potential rewards, before he was given the go-ahead to offer them contracts.

There’s been some disappointment about the drop in attendances for Veikkausliiga games this year. The average for Veikkausliiga this season was 2,631, down from 2,976 in 2007. I don’t really share the pessimism, as Veikkausliiga is not the only thing in Finnish football, and further down the pyramid there are some small rumblings of change.

Quality not quantity is what matters, and the big away followings and developing rivalries are what will make Veikkausliiga stronger in the long term. I’ve seen or heard about away followings of at least 100 fans from Inter, HJK, TPS, Viikingit, Honka, Tampere United, Lahti, PoPa and HIFK this season. Those are a lot of clubs to have taken so many people away, the kind of followings that usually only occur when there is something big to play for.

Once you get that many people travelling and chanting, then people will want to go to see the fans and the rivalry, as they have been doing at Turku derbies, and so people should maybe worry a little bit less about KooTeePee getting 1,700 rather than 2,200 people.

It’s a slow process, but as PoPa, HIFK, and whichever of the Oulu clubs comes out on top get their act together, the long term trend is upwards. Last season’s Veikkausliiga figures were most likely inflated anyway, as everybody talks about phantom spectators in Finnish football (the phenomenon of clubs picking a number and doubling it rather than counting the number of people through the turnstiles), but this season there was a bit of an attempt by the league to clamp down on the practice.

The great thing about 2008 is that Finland has three new ‘medal winners’ (that doesn’t make much sense in English, but it’s a very common phrase here) this year, and they all have reasons to be cheerful. Lahti finally showed their town a reason to support them, and took a huge, 500+ following to HJK for their final game. That is the kind of support that matters, not an extra few hundred juniors getting pisswet through and hating every minute of a home game they didn’t pay to see. They also have Jari Litmanen, who will surely finish his career there now and is just about the best marketing tool any Finnish club can hope for.

Inter have the best young players of any Finnish club, they own the best stadium, and they will compete in the Champions League next year. Job Dragtsma is hopeful that they would keep Dominic Chatto, which would be a major coup for the club. With Joni Aho, Mika Ojala and possibly Chatto as well, they will again be at the top of Veikkausliiga. Europe is another thing, but their style of play might help them there.

Honka did well in Europe this year, but their victory over Viking Stavanger and narrow defeat to Santander just failed to get them into the UEFA Cup group stages. Vasara and Kokko have been very good, but the middling playerslike Weckström, Peltonen and Kokko have been the real revelations this year. Nobody expected much from them, indeed Kokko was rejected by TamU when he was at their farm club, but Mika Lehkosuo has really gotten the best out of them. That’s a trick HJK have not yet mastered.

They really need a new stadium, and I was worried by the councillors I spoke to in Espoo talking about ‘private finance’ for it. That might be difficult to find in the coming recession, during which building costs will be cheaper and the owners of the ground will be able to get more for their money. We’ll see what Espoo council comes up with.

The biggest fiasco of the season has been Tampere United. That deserves a post of its own, and even then  you could only scratch the surface of what has gone wrong since the double win last year. Speaking to a member of their fan group a couple of weeks ago, the only source of pride he could come up with was that his group had fewer glory hunters, as their numbers have held up pretty well no matter how shit the team has played. And the team has played, very, very shit at times this season.

Inter Turku 2 FF Jaro 0 FT – Inter are 2008 Veikkausliiga Champions!

Watch the match from YLE’s stream here(click the link)

Full time: Inter win the league, and Mika Mäkitalo does a tremendous sliding tackle on Stefan Håkans, Inter owner who always stands next to the bench. Celebrations in full swing now, I need that hot rum to warm my frozen fingers….

88 mins: Ojala tried twice to throw his shirt into the crowd, and failed, swinging it behind him onto the pitch. People are celebrating now, with the people behind me banging their tables and pint glasses. I’m going to get myself a drink.

87 mins: Timo Furuholm is about to come on, after warming up for the entire second half. He celebrated the goal wwell, maybe that’s what persuaded Dragtsma to bring him on. Ojala to come off.

85 mins: Abramovic cuts in from the left, and scores in the bottom left corner with his right foot. Cool finish, and it looks to be all over now, surely?

82 mins: Inter are still looking for the clincher, and Ojala floats in a free kick that just whistles over the top.

77 mins: portin is booked for a late challenge on Chatto, and Ojala blasts the free kick out of the ground. Inter are getting stretched at times by jaro. At the moment Hooiveld and Corpache are coping well, but it only takes one clearance into a puddle for Jaro to get a chance, and they are well capable of taking it.

74 mins: Roiko misses the target from ten yards out. Grot gets the ball in space down the other end but his shot is then deflected for a corner.

72 mins: My fingers are falling off here, it’s freezing. Might have to go get a hot rum. Lahti are now leading HJK 1-0 in Helsinki, which would mean they finish third and push HJk out of the european places.

68 mins: Mannström limps off, but he will surely stay on and stand still rather then reduce his side to ten men. Ojala puts in a good shot but it’s straight at the keeper. Inter need another goal before they can really relax here.

62 mins: It’s not so much a swamp now, as an extension of the Baltic sea. Hyyrynen decks it and water sprays everywhere. It’s not football, it’s a slid tackle contest.

61 mins: Another correction, Roiko came on for Koivisto, and the new keeper is Koljander. WLAN is playing up a bit now too, so updates might become more sporadic.

59 mins: Correction, it was Mäkitalo who slid into Karnio, not Ojala.

57 mins: And Karnio no comes off for Roiko. It was always going to happen, lets just hope he’s not seriously injured.

55 mins: Jaro fans don’t often sing in Finnish, but they prefer to let the referee know in his own language (rather than Swedish) that he should give a red card when Ojala goes in hard on the keeper Karnio. Bantamoi has changed into a nice clean shirt at half time, the prima donna. Substitution for Jaro, Tuomanen off for Kosela.

52 mins: Grot plays in Mäkitalo, who overruns the ball for the first time in the game. Hyyrynen grins a bit when he’s heckled from the stands, but I don’t think he is fooled by the advice that ‘the goal is in the corner’.

50 mins: It’s 2-2 in Mariehamn – this one ain’t over yet.

48 mins: Karnio is quick out of his goal to take the ball off Ojala’s toes, but Inter waste the throw in.

Finnish people really don’t know how to behave in crowds. If you bump into someone, you should say *something* – it doesn’t have to be ‘sorry’, but some acknowledgement that you didn’t intend to barge them out of the way is only polite. I am always saying ‘anteeksi’ at big matches, and no other fucker does…. The teams are back out and we’re about to get underway. I expect Furuholm to come on for Grot soon.

Half time: Good performance from both teams, in the circumstances. I’m still amazed that the game is taking place, and would not like the championship to turn on the ball stopping dead in a puddle, but Inter seem to be doing the job so far.

44 mins: Anbramovic is showing good strength in neotiating the swamp outside the box, but his shot after a one-on-one is saved. Inter will be glad to attack the other, less marsh-like half after the break.

42 mins: Paajanen turns his man, but can only chip his cross-shot over the bar. It is still absolutely pissing it down.

38 mins: This really is utterly ridiculous. Grot wins the ball in a puddle-based scrum, goes forward, but slips and falls on the edge of the D. Mannström then has a shot from the corner of Inter’s box, forcing a brilliant save from Bantamoi, and from the resulting corner Inter clear off the line.

36 mins: IFK go 2-1 up in Mariehamn!

34 mins: Ojala goes down clutching his right knee after a heavy challenge, but no booking is given. Paajanen does the same, and Chatto has also been kicked a bit.

31 mins: Jaro seem to be making a better fist of playing in these conditions, with Seba Manströmm in particular causing problems down the left. Bantamoi is is usual eccentric self, with sometimes erratic distribution combining with great saves.

21 mins: Jaro are having a good little spell, aided by the difficulty Inter are having clearing the ball along the ground. Grot demonstrates this with a move that breaks down when the ball stops dead in a puddle, as the announcer lets everyone know that Honka have equalised.

20 mins: I think so, ralf, yes, but I will check and report back.

15 mins: The referee seems to bottle a penalty decision as Ojala gets fouled in the box, giving a free kick right on the edge instead. Ojala leathers it in, and it skids out for a corner. It’s still pissing it down, and I would like to reiterate my concern that one of these players (including some of Finland’s brightest young talents, on both sides), might get injured because the referee decided to play in unsafe conditions. It’s not football, and I’ve seen games on better pitches postponed, as had coaches from Inter and Jaro before the game.

12 mins: IFK go 1-0 up against Honka.

8 mins: MyPa lead TamU 1-0 with a goal from Neemelo. Abramovic seems unsure what to do with the ball down the left, but eventually wins a corner. ojala to take, but it is eventually cleared by Hyyrynen.

6 mins: Goal for Inter! paajanen heads in from Ojala’s cross.

4 mins: Hyyrynen beats Sanevuori and fizzes the ball across goal, but there’s nobody there. It’s impossible to pass the ball out of defence, so hoofing it will be necessary.

1 min: This is farcical. Players are slipping and sliding all over the place, and the ball just does not move along the ground. If anyone gets an injury today, the referee of the year might face a lawsuit.

16:00: We’re ready to kick off, but the referee is waiting for a signal from YLE that the shipping forecast (or something) has finished. And they’re off. Inter kick left to right as the ball skids out of play in the corner with Ojala chasing.

15:59: The pre-match presentations include an anti-racism demonstration and awards for Ojala, Hooiveld, Bantamoi and Chatto. Inter really should win the title this year, given how well they’ve played up to now. As the Inter team has a photo taken the photographer – who looks like a fisherman lost in a storm – makes them turn round so they’re not in front of the Olympic Stand.

15:58: Here in Turku the players are entering the field, while there is momentous news from Åland – Aleksandr Kokko starts on the bench for Honka, leaving the field clear for Henri Myntti to take this year’s golden boot…

15:55: The Veikkausliiga anthem starts up, and the weird looking Inter mascot is waiting for the teams to come out. There is a decent crowd standing behind the goal to my left, and a great turnout from Jaro in the Olympic Stand. It takes some dedication to turn out for a game like this, as you’re very likely to get piss wet through, and I hope the numerous children behind that goal are not put off Veikkausliiga football for life.

15:50: There seem to be big queues at the ticket office, but they are unlikely to delay the start to ensure everyone gets in. The Olympic Stand looks about one third full, and for some reason the dugouts are on the near side – Inter have had them on the opposite side every other time I’ve been here. It looks a bit weird…

15:30: It’s still raining here. I’m thinking it could be very embarrassing if the title is decided by the ball stopping in a puddle in the penalty area, or the referee has to call it off halfway through. The Inter team are warming up in the wetter half of the pitch, and occasionally kicking at the puddles, and they seem to be acclimatising to the conditions. The Inter fans shouted something about ‘bad pitches’ when they came in, but have since settled down and sung a few more positive songs….

The teams are in:

Inter Turku: Bantamoi, Aho, Sanevuori, Corpache, Hooiveld, Chatto, Mäkitalo, Ojala, Paajanen, Abramovic, Grot.

FF Jaro: karnio, Storbacka, Kullström, Tuomanen, Matrone, Koivisto, Laurikainen, Simpson, Hyyrynen, Mannström, Jonas Portin.

15:00: When I had my first look at the pitch today, I didn’t actually walk on it, just dipped my toe into a puddle from the running track round the edge. Job Dragtsma wanted to make sure I saw just how crap it was though, and led me back out to show the huge areas covered in standing water. He’s been pacing around on and off ever since then, and just now showed Jos Hooiveld some areas at the ice rink end that he should be particularly wary of.

Everyone says it will be difficult to play football on this, indeed Inter people are saying that ‘it won’t be football’, and it was amusing to see the officials trying to find an area where the ball would roll rather than stopping dead during the pitch inspection. I’m not sure quite what would be necessary to get the game postponed, but it will certainly be a memorable occasion.

14:25: Pitch inspection completed, the game will be played. The standing water will be brushed off the pitch and they will cross their fingers it stops raining. Inter coaching staff are not too happy with the decision.

14:00: I just arrived at the ground, and the pitch looks a state. There is standing water, and the referee is about to make a pitch inspection.

Veikkausliiga last day

I’ll do a live blog of Veikkausliiga’s last day tomorrow. It will begin a couple of hours before the games start, as I’m a bit too tipsy to write a preview now. I’ll be in Turku watching Inter v Jaro, which is hopefully not going to be postponed, while Honka travel to Åland to take on the already safe IFK Mariehamn.

Political Football

There are local elections taking place tomorrow, and Football in Finland has nailed its Tampere colours firmly to Jussi Kahola’s mast. He is candidate number 610, and I really hope you vote for him if you can.

There are a lot of candidates who claim to care about football when elections come around, but you never know just how important it really is to them, or what they are going to do about it.

With Finland using the D’Hondt system for local elections, even voting for a football obsessed candidate could mean giving your support to someone who hates the sport, as votes cast for a party’s candidates are added together and all of them go to the top ranked candidate. The second ranked candidate gets half, the third a quarter, and so on and on down the list.

This means that all parties try to have as many candidates as possible, and attempt to exploit social networks and individual popularity as well as ensuring that at least someone on their list seems ‘a bit like me’. Parties use all kinds of campaigning methods, the weirdest for me being the Centre party’s offer of free carrots:

Keskusta Carrots

I was sceptical about voting for anyone in the established parties, as they have done nothing to get a heated outdoor pitch for Tampere, or renovate Tammela Stadium, or provide proper, civilised conditions for people to watch Veikkausliiga football in Tampere. Something new was needed.

Jussi is standing almost solely on a football platform. He plays Fifth division football for Lappro, and has a clear understanding that more pitches will mean more people get to play more often, and that will have beneficial effects for social and health issues. He also loves Tammela, which is the most important thing.

His final campaigning event was today, and involved playing football in Keskustori (Central Square), where all parties have their main campaigning activities. The idea was to drive home the point that there are not enough facilities to play football in Tampere, and we need more.

Eye on the ball

A sunny day in Tampere

Interruptions

After a while we decided to ask some politcians other than Jussi to come and join out game. Only two accepted, Imdat Uludag from Keskusta and Tiina Elovaara from Perusuomalaiset, but they both put in good performances. Uludag was a deep-lying sweeper, the kind of player who dominated Italia 90 but has fallen out of fashion since. He is also a magistrate and teacher, and his candidate number is 57. He would like to see more football pitches in Tampere too, and jumped at the chance to play with us when we asked.

Elovaara was more of a playmaker in midfield, threading through balls to the strikers and putting in strong tackles when necessary. Perusuomalaiset (‘True Finns’) have a reputation as a populist nationalist party, and Elovaara was keen to explain that her themes are social exclusion and mental health. She said the party in general attempts to look after ‘those who don’t have so much’. They have had racists among their candidates, but they are being weeded out as the party gains more support and comes under closer scrutiny – euro-scepticism and improved social services are their favoured themes these days, and Elovaara was keen to emphasise how she would like more football fields to help integration.

But then, she was talking to a foreigner who wants better football facilities, so she would say that wouldn’t she? Sorry to be cynical, but if football is the most important thing in the elction for you, then voting for Jussi Kahola is the best thing you can do. Tiina and Imdat are both nice people, and I hope they get elected, but they and the rest of the council could really do with a football man asking the right questions and prompting them to make the right decisions.

Veikkausliiga players of the year

The Veikkausliiga players of the year have been announced. The players union choices are as follows:

Player of the year: Dominic Chatto (FC Inter)
Newcomer of the year: Aleksandr Kokko (FC Honka)
Referee of the year: Tero Nieminen

And Veikkausliiga selected:

Goalkeeper of the year: Patrick Bantamoi (FC Inter)
Defender of the year: Jos Hooiveld (FC Inter)
Midfielder of the year: Mika Ojala (FC Inter)
Forward of the year: Aleksandr Kokko (FC Honka)

At least Chatto and Hooiveld will almost certainly leave the country after this weekend. Big Swedish clubs are interested in them, and they have nothing left to prove in Finland. Hooiveld was defnder of the year in 2007 as well, and his career is very firmly back on track after considering retirement after his spell playing in Austria.

It’s good that Ojala is likely to stay. He is only 18 and has a lot to learn, and can become a very influential player in the next year or two. With Joni Aho staying at Inter as well, and presumably taking on a bit more responsibility in the absence of Hooiveld and Chatto, they have a reasonable chance at defending the title and having a crack at Europe.

Of course, this strategy is much easier when your senior players are in their early to mid 20s, and both Honka and Inter have exciting talents that they hope to keep in Veikkausliiga next year. It’s much better for the league to have star players who could sign for a big club at any moment than to have ageing stars who could retire at any moment.