HBL Volt article

Every year at least one Finnish club has what could be termed a ‘big tie’ against European opposition. Last year Tampere United played Rosenborg for a place in the Champions League group stage, and this year it was Honka’s turn to hog the national limelight with their UEFA Cup First round game against Racing Santander.

Unfortunately the home leg of the Racing tie was scheduled for the same day as HIFK and Jokerit were playing at home, so Finnish TV had more important things to show than UEFA Cup football. Worse than that, Honka can not play European games in Espoo because Tapiola Stadium is not up to UEFA standards, so the Santander match was played at HJK’s home ground and Honka’s fans had to travel that bit further to attend their ‘home’ match.

The game attracted football fans from other clubs though, which partly made up for the difficulties in travelling from Espoo. Mathias, a HJK fan supping lager on Urheilukatu before the game, was strident in his dislike of Finland’s national sport. A member of HJK’s fan group Sakilaiset, he bridled at the suggestion he might prefer to be at Hartwall Arena to see Jokerit play against Pittsburgh Penguins.

“We hate ice hockey, it’s a stupid sport,” he said, warming to his theme. “We call it ‘Kendo’ because it’s just about fighting. By 2020 football will be bigger than hockey, but for most Finns this is the third biggest sporting event taking place this evening, and that’s why it’s the only one not covered on Finnish TV.”

This is a bugbear for Finnish football fans. They can follow football from every corner of the globe via streaming websites, but watching a Finnish club play the biggest match of the season is fiendishly difficult. The Honka fan group, HK 05, was heavily outnumbered and outsung by Santander fans, with the majority of Finns sitting quietly until the referee made a decision they didn’t like. Then they would stand up, whistle, scream and shout – before sitting back down again to leaf through the programme.

Fan groups are a relatively new phenomenon in Finland, and they don’t have anything like the profile of groups in Sweden and Denmark. Finns still don’t feel that going to a football match is quite the social event it evidently is for the Santander fans, whose club was playing its first European tie in 93 years.

They sang and chanted for 90 minutes, something that only a small percentage of Finnish football followers feel comfortable doing. Looking after the paying customer has never been one of Finnish football’s strong points, but Honka at least seem aware of the difficulties and are trying to do something about them.

“Our target attendance was 8,000, and we got more than that,” said Honka’s CEO Jouko Pakarinen after the game. “It’s a shame we could not play in Espoo, but hopefully in a few years’ time we will have a stadium that is fit for Veikkausliiga and European games. Espoo council already have the plans for a new stadium, and they understand the need for us to play in the town. It will be a football stadium without an athletics track, that is very important.”

Soccer-specific stadia are not in plentiful supply in Finland. There are football grounds, and some of them are pretty big, but of all Veikkausliiga stadia probably only Kuppittaa in Turku and tehtaan Kenttä in Valkeakoski have all the things that a football fan wants from a stadium: proximity to the pitch, a roof, and usable toilets.

“We want to do that, it should be like that, but we are years, maybe decades from achieving it,” says Markku Korhonen from Veikkausliiga in response to a question about soccer-specific stadia. “We have to play in September and October and there is nothing we can do about the weather.”

The soccer-specific stadia that have been built in Finland are not all that great. Finnair stadium is quite small by international standards, with a capacity of just 10,770, but it somehow manages to make fans feel very remote from the game. The best football grounds are intimate, atmospheric and occasionally intimidating, like Söderstadion in Stockholm or Hillsborough in Sheffield. When the ground is full and the crowd involved in the game, the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and you feel like those in the stands can and do influence the result of the game..

Despite many visits for football matches, that has never happened to me at Finnair Stadium. The wind whistles round the ground, spectators get cold, and the crowd noise drifts off into the Töölö sky. The only place that feels warm, cosy, and within a reasonable distance of the pitch is the lower tier of the main stand, where the ‘platinum’ seats are.

This is an example of one of the biggest problems afflicting the game in Finland. The VIPs and sponsors are prioritised at the expense of everyone else, because they bring in more money than the rest.

This is a trend common to football in most European countries, but in Finland it goes much further, even extending to plastering the team shirts with advertising that can destroy any kind of affinity that supporters might feel for the shirt. For most football fans the team shirt is almost sacred, with changes to the design debated endlessly and sponsors only barely tolerated now, 20 years after they became commonplace.

In Finland the surface area of any one shirt is barely 50%, with the rest covered in adverts for local restaurants, mechanics and shops. This is the sign of a successful Finnish club, because clubs believe that fans cannot be relied on to provide sufficient income and you have to milk the corporate sector instead.

This could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as ordinary fans are turned off by the poor facilities available to them, while sponsors hoover up ‘free’ tickets to reward disinterested clients and bored employees. It takes bravery to challenge the dominant business model, but Pakarinen at least is clear in his desire to have an enthusiastic, knowledgeable crowd, not dominated by freeloading sponsor’s guests.

“People pay to get into ballet and opera, so why not football? The players are artists, and they deserve to be respected for this.”

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4 Responses

  1. I think finnish football will rise. Just see at you´re U-21, they are better than Denmark and Scotland for example! Some years ago Finland had more players in the Champions League than Sweden and Danmark. You just need some luck to go through in International cups!

    Looking to the supporters you have much to learn of my country
    Sweden.

    Here some tibits ;), enjoy it! :

  2. Yeah, Finland need luck, but maybe if they finally qualify that would take all the fun out of their dramatic last minute fuck-ups…..

    Nice blog you have there, btw.

  3. stunning videos from sweden…. i never realized !
    its about as far from finnish football as the earth is from the sun . screw the san siro ,,im gona catch a stockholm derby !

  4. Yeah, Sweden’s amazing. I used to watch GIF Sundsvall semi-regularly, which was alright, but then I went to Hammarby-AIK this year and it was something else. Even though it was a Hammarby ‘home’ game in Solna.

    If you want to follow Swedish football in English, I recommened Karl’s excellent blog, http://swedishfootball.wordpress.com/.

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