Popovitch moves in at retirement home

Valeri Popovotch has ended the on-off transfer saga of the winter by signing a one-year contract with HJK Helsinki. The Russian veteran will join his former Haka team-mate Cheyne Fowler in moving to Töölö, but Popovitch’s move has raised many more questions than Fowler’s. He occupies an iconic status in Finnish football, having moved to Finland in 1992 from Spartak Moscow.

Russia was one of the few places in worse economic shape than Finland at that time, and the young Popovitch was grateful for the security provided first at TPV, where he scored 26 goals in 48 games, then briefly at Ilves, where he got 3 in 12, and finally, famously, at FC Haka, where he spent his best years, played 323 games and scored a massive 170 goals.

It’s important to point out just how unique this makes Popovitch. Lots of foreign players have come to Finland, including some excellent players, but they have mostly moved on when it became clear they could make more money abroad. Popovitch never did, apart from brief loan spells at Heerenveen and Ikast FS, and Finnish football fans recognise how special this makes him.

Veikkausliiga has just lost its player of the year and defender of the year because Sweden offers more money, but Popovitch stayed loyal to Haka and showed his class over fourteen years, during which Haka won five championships. He is a legend, and until the last year it seemed as though he would be at Haka for the rest of his career and beyond, taking on coaching duties with the academy and generally turning into an elder statesman.

Unfortunately, the last year has seen that plan fall apart. Popovitch has not been nearly as influential recently as he was during the 2007 season, when he won them a lot of games by doing things lesser players wouldn’t even think of attempting. His excellent technique and cool decision-making around the penalty area was a joy to watch, with chipped goals a particular speciality. He only showed glimpses of that in 2008, and at 38 years of age Haka could be forgiven for thinking that loss of form was permanent.

There were other possible reasons for his discontent. Haka filled a big hole in their budget by involving Sedu Koskinen, a nightclub owner from nearby Pälkäne. Sedu had different ideas about how to run a football club, demanding prettier players to attract women to games, and foreign signings and celebrities to create a ‘buzz’. In a factory town of 17,000 people, the small potential benefits and crushing incongruity of such a strategy became quickly apparent, and rumours were rife that Haka’s established players were envious of the contracts awarded to fairly nondescript foreign players.

Mainstays of the team have moved on, with Fowler quickly signing for HJK and Lehtinen moving to Levadiakos, and it quickly became apparent that Popovitch was not going to accept a pay cut for more work. He left Haka in a bit of a huff, stating that he didn’t want a testimonial and his 14 years with Haka were now history.

There followed a period of speculation about which club would sign him, but the HJK move blindsided quite a few people. Markku Kanerva told FIF that he would like more young players to get a chance, but it seems that HJK may be moving in the opposite direction. The tension between making maximum use of the resources available, and ensuring the club can compete for medals, has led them once again to sign a veteran who acknowledges himself that he isn’t the future of Finnish football.

“I’d like to thank HJK for giving me the opportunity, next season will probably be my last in Veikkausliiga,” Popovitch told Hufvudstadsbladet. “The biggest challenge for me will be to stay healthy the whole season. HJK is a club that should be in the reckoning for both the league and cup.”

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