Tomi Jalo 1958-2009

This week ended with a sad piece of news from Turun Sanomat, saying that Tomi Jalo had died on Wednesday at the age of 50.

Jalo was one of the few Finnish footballers to take part in the olympic games, being a part of the Finnish team in Moscow 1980.
Jalo played two games for Finland’s senior team and 11 games for the national youth teams.

The midfielder was an integral part of TPS for years. He played 309 games in the Finnish top flight between 1976-1989 and helped his team finish league runners-up of the three times. TPS also finished third on two occasions during Jalo’s career. Jalo’s most famous achievement, however, was captaining the TPS team that upset the odds at Inter with a 1-0 away win in 1987.

After ending his career, Jalo stayed in the game. He started as TPS head coach in the middle of season 1993 and helped the relegation-threatened team stay clear. He was unable to do the same with Inter in 1997, but he remained at the helm and led his team back to Veikkausliiga for season 1999. Jalo spent his last few years coaching TPS’ youth teams.

Tomi played most of his career in the same team with his brother Timo. His big brother Juha-Pekka played one game for Finland’s youth team, but had to end his career prematurely due to back problems. J-P is well-known as a commentator.

Jalo is survived by three sons.

Yrjö Asikainen, 1928-2008

Yrjö Asikainen was a strong, bustling forward who scored vital goals for Finland in their first important victories after the Second World War. A 2-0 win over Denmark in Copenhagen on 11 September 1949 was greeted with gleeful disbelief back home in Finland, where Asikainen got a memorable reception in his adopted home town of Tampere.

I got off the train and walked down Hämeenkatu,” Asikainen told me when I interviewed him in 2007. “People stopped and looked at me, and slowly people began clapping because of what we’d achieved in the match.”

In 1950 Asikainen scored in a 4-1 win over Holland and a 3-2 victory against Yugoslavia, and he looked set to become a fixture in the national team for years to come. His football career had begun in his birthplace, Vyborg, where he played for ViipurinIlves up until the outbreak of the Second World War. He volunteered to help defend the town at the age of sixteen, serving in an anti-aircraft battery before being evacuated in the early summer of 1944.

Life as an evacuee was precarious, with a spell living in Jyväskylä before Asikainen reunited with his former ViipurinIlves team mates in Tampere. The team, now called IlvesKissat, was to win the Finnish championship in 1950 with nine Karelian evacuees in the starting line-up. Asikainen was their figurehead, winning the golden boot with 20 goals in 1949, and again with 15 goals in 1950..

Like most evacuees, Asikainen found life outside Karelia hard. The attitude of the host population was indifferent and occasionally hostile, but sport offered a way for them to integrate and gain acceptance. Asikainen described IlvesKissat’s championship as “our gift to Tampere”, and it was an important event for a town that had not previously won a football championship.

Asikainen became a single father in the early fifties with the death of his wife, and money matters became more pressing for him. Despite trials at Arsenal and Werder Bremen, injury prevented him from moving abroad like his friend and strike partner in the national team, Aulis Rytkönen, but he still had to earn a living in an era when professionalism was still frowned upon, and “shamateurism” flourished.

Rytkönen was not selected for the national team during his time at French club Toulouse FC, and Asikainen had to make do with banknotes stuffed in his boots in the changing room when he returned to football with Helsinki club Kiffen. Even when he started playing in Vyborg, he received cinema tickets as an incentive to sign for one club over another, a practice that now seems rather quaint in modern football, where 16 year old Finns can earn hundreds of thousands of euros by moving abroad.

Despite winning a championship with Kiffen in 1955, he never moved to Helsinki and played only two seasons for the club, but was nevertheless one of the most celebrated players when Kiffen celebrated their centenary last autumn.

In later years he became a coach for IlvessKissat and the junior national teams, and a journalist for Aamulehti and the Swedish-language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet, where his upbringing in multilingual Vyborg proved helpful. He returned to his birthplace every year after travel became possible, usually with former players, officials, fans and family members of IlvesKissat.

Asikainen will be remembered as a legend of Finnish football with a phenomenal success rate, a man who only played five seasons in the Finnish top flight but was top scorer in three of them, a striker who only played nine internationals but scored five goals for Finland. He died at the beginning of last month at his home in Ylöjärvi.

Transfer news

Just a short post to plug Mika Peura’s excellent transfer page. I’ll write a bit more on the more interesting news in due course (Valeri Popovitch’s departure from Haka being the juiciest little morsel), but if you need to keep in touch with the ins and outs in the meantime, Mika’s your man.

We have a few interviews in the pipeline, as well as the usual navel-gazing and bullshit. The women and under-21s are the national teams of the moment, and they deserve more coverage than they’ve received thus far. We’ll endeavour to put that right soon.

Russia 3 Finland 0: old-school Finnish football is back!

Just last night I thought Finnish football had changed considerably as the U-21 team overturned a deficit to come out as victors against Austria, but little did I know. Tonight, Finland went down 3-0 against Russia and to make it Finnish enough, the first two goals were Finland’s own goals and Arshavin’s strike that settled the final score took a deflection of Markus Heikkinen.

It was men against boys really. The Finns had problems in all areas, starting from ball control. I still can’t find the words to explain how easily Roman Eremenko gave the ball to the Russians so that they could start the attack that resulted in the first goal. A bit later, Petri Pasanen had a great chance of clearing the ball in front of the empty net, but he managed to kick the ball into his own net. If Pasanen would have kicked the ball anywhere else the goal could have been avoided, but no can do. Veli Lampi’s own goal was very similar in principle.

The third goal was a job well done by Andrei Arshavin, but also silly defending on the part of the Finns. Arshavin strolled past both Hyypiä and Tihinen – and not passing Hyypiä first and then Tihinen, but he actually went through the space of about one metre that the full-backs had left between themselves. Just to make sure that the last player touching the ball would wear a blue shirt, Markus Heikkinen sprinted in to finish off Arshavin’s effort.

It was a deserved victory for Russia, as Finland’s performance was a miserable failure. They had no chances at all (well, aside the ones they used in their own end), the passing was dreadful with too many long balls and no-one had the decency to calm down the team when it was needed. Litmanen helped to some extent in holding on to the ball and trying to create chances, but he was only brought on ten minutes before the final whistle, when the score was already 2-0.

Over at Pelintekijä, Janne Oivio writes that the game was a “total disaster” and “even historical”, because “it is hard to come up with a Finland game played after the turn of the century that could be compared to this game”. That sounds harsh, but coming to think of it, I can’t remember too many fixtures like this one either. It looked like the Finns had already wet themselves before they ever came on the pitch.

I’ll edit this post later, treating you to Baxter’s thoughts and a highlight clip if one is available.

Finland in Russia: preview

The big question today is who is going to play on the left side of defence for Finland. Toni Kallio is suspended, and the choice to replace him is between Veli Lampi and Niklas Moisander. Both are in good form, but Lampi has played for Finland more recently, against Israel and Germany, and looks likely to get the nod.

“In training we lined up with me on the right, Moisander on the left, and Tihinen and Hyypiä in the middle,” Lampi told HBL. “But Petri pasanen didn’t train at all, he got a slight knock on Saturday. It’s difficult to say how Baxter and Co will reason, but if I get the chance then naturally I’ll be enormously hungry to play.”

The options are that Pasanen continues on the right and Moisander or Lampi fills in for Kallio on the left, that Pasanen moves to the left (where he playes for Werder Bremen) and Lampi slots in on the right, or that pasanen plays on the left and Toni Kuivasto goes to right back. The last one is pretty unlikely, I think.

Arja Paananen has been busy in St Petersburg for Ilta Sanomat, and she tells us that Arsharvin still wants to go to England and that Konstantin Zyrianov only knows the names of two Finnish players: Jari Litmanen and Joonas Kolkka. Kolkka is now fit to play after missing out against Azerbaijan, so it could be a much changed team against Russia.

Finland 1 Azerbaijan 0

William’s report is here

The game kicked off with a bit of an embarrassing anthem disruption from the North Curve. They kept singing while the Helsinki Police band were giving a decent rendition of Azərbaycan Respublikasının Dövlət Himni, the Azeri national anthem. They’re done great stuff recently, and there was a gushing article in yesterday’s Ilta-Sanomat, educational in tone about what a fan section should be about.

It’d be rubbish if that goodwill was wasted by people taking the worst parts of other countries’ football cultures. I counted 44 police around the Pohjoiskaarre fans at the start of the game, but they were mostly there to watch the game rather than in anticipation of any serious trouble.

Teemu Tainio started the match, surprisingly for me, and Finland lined up like this:

Jääskeläinen

Pasanen, Tihinen, Hyypiä, Kallio

Eremenko, Tainio

Sjölund, Väyrynen, Roiha

Forsell

The Azeri formation was something like this:

Aghayev,

Malikov, Sasha XXX (as he was announced on the team sheet), Shukurov, Chertoganov, Sadigov, Abasov, Mammadov, Zeynalov

Gomes

Subasic

Berti Vogts likes to keep things tight, and his entire objective was a 0-0 draw in Helsinki. His players were disciplined and organised, as well as niggly and cynical. They grappled with Forsell and screamed blue murder at each other whenever a Finland cross came in, as that kind of dangerous excitement should be strictly rationed in the Vogts theory of football.

Quite a few crosses did come in during the first half hour or so, as Finland dominated proceedings. Eremenko was tricky and full of ideas, always able to beat his man before spotting and executing a telling pass, Väyrynen was bright and Roiha extremely fast. The best chance of this period came when Roiha chipped the ball into the box for Väyrynen, who could only blast straight at the keeper. Roiha fizzed a shot just wide, but more often than not the ball would reach Forsell who was being wretsled to the ground by Sadigov and whoever else was nearby.

After that things settled into a Hodgsonesque quagmire of condensed play, with Finland’s full-backs not breaking forward as much and Azerbaijan content to waste time. For a while it seemed like they would not be able to continue play after a free kick for either team without seeking treatment, and the crowd started booing their gamesmanship.

It felt a bit grim at half time. Finland have lost to Azerbaijan in Baku, and last time in Helsinki it came down to Sheki Kuqi’s nose to save the day in the last minute. After Väyrynen’s miss and Sjölund’s failure to get a penalty when blatantly hauled down with only the keeper to beat, the nagging fear was that Finland would just not find a way past the most cynical opponents seen in Helsinki for a long time. The Azeris were throwing themselves in the way of anything and everything in and around the box, aware that the ground was wet and slippery and Aghayev would need protection. They looked comfortable, especially as they clearly had no desire to score a goal themselves.

Thankfully the referee gave Finland a penalty for shirt tugging in the box on 60 minutes. It looked inexplicable from where I was sitting, and the kind of thing that always happens but virtually never gets given, but nobody was that bothered (except the small party of Azeri journalists in the press box). After that Finland hung on, and when things started getting a bit frayed Baxter sent on Litmanen. He didn’t do anything amazing, but he really lifted the crowd and didn’t lose the ball much, so I guess you could say he steadied the ship. Baxter did, anyway.

The funniest press conference was Berti Vogts’s. He came in, gave his opinions on the game, said he only had one player playing abroad whereas the Finns had only one player playing in Finland (not quite true, as both Roiha and Pohja played a role), and that he congratulated Stuart Baxter. Then a quick ‘any questions? no? okay, bye’ before the Azeri journalists hauled him back in to answer for his defensive strategy. Vogts was very dismissive, insulting even, saying ‘you only watch football in Azerbaijan, this is completely different’, without addressing the question. He then went on to say that Finland might finish third, but won’t do better than that.

Baxter said there were more positives than negatives, and that he was very pleased to have gotten this game out of the way. The Russia game will allow Finland to be the ‘hunter’ rather than the ‘hunted’, and that is an easier role, according to Baxter. There will be less pressure on them, and Jonas Von Wendt suggests in today’s HBL that Heikkinen will come in for Roiha to bolster the midfield. In short, it was mission accomplished and not much more. But Finland don’t have to play Azerbaijan again for nearly a year, and that’s something everyone can be happy about.

I went to Atlantis-JJK yesterday as well, had a great time, and will write it up later on.

Finland v Azerbaijan preview

I did an interview with Stuart Baxter this week, and it was gratifying to hear him talk so much about stadia and facilities. This guy really understands what he has to do, and is in it for the long term. It was rather amusing that we spoke for 40 minutes and didn’t mention any of his current players, but luckily some more switched on journalists at the press conference afterwards asked about Alexei Eremenko Jr.

Teemu Tainio is in Finland, and may or may not play. There’s no pressing need for him to play, as Heikkinen is fit, but Ilta-sanomat has picked up on Roy Keane’s comments at safc.com:

The Black Cats boss said: “Teemu has reported with the international team. I had a chat with their administrator who said they just wanted to have a look at him, but I doubt he would be right for the games.

“Teemu and Nyron are coming along nicely, the Fulham game might be an option for them.”

IS missed out the bit about chatting with the administrator, but everything I’ve heard suggests the Finnish FA and keane are on the same page on this one. Baxter specifically mentioned ‘having a look at Tainio’ in his press conference on Tuesday, and I would be surprised if he played.

Baxter has been keen to talk about the atmosphere in the camp and ensure everyone is upbeat and enthusiastic, as his ‘battle between the wars’ soundbite got another airing on Tuesday. Having Tainio at the hotel, even if he isn’t going to play, will no doubt help give a little boost to the other midfielders who know they need to maintain their form to keep their places.

U21’s to face Austria, the national team to take on Azerbaijan and Russia

Finland’s U21 team has a chance of achieving what would be the best achievement in Finnish football so far as they play Austria twice. The winner of the tie will qualify for the U21 European Championships to be held in Sweden next year.

Markku Kanerva is unlikely to change his team compared to the group stage of the qualification. Petri Viljanen of FC Haka was recalled following an injury and FC Inter’s Timo Furuholm is a new call-up. Both are unlikely to be on the starting eleven, however. Berat Sadik is missing because he was called up to the senior squad.

GOALKEEPERS
Anssi Jaakkola, AC Siena (7 / 0)
Tomi Maanoja, AIK (8 / 0)

DEFENDERS
Jukka Raitala, HJK 12 / 0)
Joni Aho, FC Inter (7 / 0)
Jonas Portin, FF Jaro (14 / 0)
Ville Jalasto, FC Honka (14 / 1)
Petri Viljanen, FC Haka (2 / 0)
Tuomo Turunen, FC Honka (12 / 1)

MIDFIELDERS AND ATTACKERS:
Tim Sparv, Halmstads BK (13 / 4)
Mehmet Hetemaj, Panionios NFC (11 / 2)
Pyry Kärkkäinen, FC Lahti (10 / 0)
Juha Hakola, FC Flora (5 / 0)
Kasper Hämäläinen, TPS (14 / 1)
Tomi Petrescu, Tampere United (7 / 2)
Mika Ojala, FC Inter (7 / 1)
Jarno Parikka, HJK (14 / 2)
Aleksandr Kokko, FC Honka (2 / 0)
Perparim Hetemaj, AEK Athens (10 / 2)
Timo Furuholm, FC Inter (0 / 0)

Austria are missing some key players, such as Erwin Hoffer (Rapid Wien) and senior team players Martin Harnik (Werder Bremen), Christian Fuchs (Bochum) and Ronald Gercaliu (Austria Wien).
Finland will face a tough challenge, as Austria won their qualification group with nine points to spare and became the first team to confirm their play-off spot. Finland are in great form, however, and the players have played with each other enough to know how they should play.

The first game will be played in Pasching, Austria on Friday at 6 PM local time. The decisive game will take place in Turku on Tuesday, starting at 7 PM Finnish time.

At the same time, Stuart Baxter’s national team is preparing for Saturday’s game against Azerbaijan in Helsinki and next Wednesday’s encounter with Russia in Moscow.

Naturally, the Azerbaijan game is all about the win. Everyone remembers the defeat Finland succumbed to in Baku when qualifying for the 2008 European Championships. It wasn’t clear back then, but the extra three points would have seen Finland qualify. Hopefully, the lesson is learned and Finland won’t drop points when they should win – that applies not only to the Azerbaijan games, but also to the upcoming fixtures against Wales and Liechenstein.

The situation is very different when the team takes on Russia on Wednesday. Having finished third in the European Championships, Russia are clear favourites. However, that may suit Finland, as it’s been five years since Finland lost to a top-class team in a competitive game. If Finland can produce the kind of well-disciplined and at times attacking display we saw against Germany, they have a chance of getting something from the game.

The following players have been selected:

Jussi Jääskeläinen, Bolton Wanderers
Otto Fredrikson, LIlleström SK
Veli Lampi, FC Zürich
Petri Pasanen, Werder Bremen
Toni Kuivasto, Djurgårdens IF
Sami Hyypiä, Liverpool FC
Hannu Tihinen, FC Zürich
Niklas Moisander, AZ Alkmaar
Toni Kallio, Fulham FC
Joonas Kolkka, NAC Breda
Markus Heikkinen, Rapid Wien
Teemu Tainio, Sunderland AFC
Roman Eremenko, Dynamo Kiev
Mika Väyrynen, SC Heerenveen
Jari Litmanen, FC Lahti
Daniel Sjölund, Djurgårdens IF
Roni Porokara, Örebro SK
Mikael Forssell, Hannover 96
Berat Sadik, DSC Arminia Bielefeld
Paulus Roiha, HJK
Antti Pohja, Tampere United

Needless to say, all eyes are on Mikael Forssell. Jonatan Johansson, a striker with clinical finishing, is missing, and the possible replacements can’t quite match his standards. Berat Sadik and Paulus Roiha are not national team regulars, and Antti Pohja is not Johansson’s calibre.

Once again, Alexei Eremenko jr. was left out in the cold. Baxter is not pleased at all with Eremenko jr’s efforts as far as the national team is concerned, and he has not played very much in Saturn either. Baxter has closed the issue for now, saying Eremenko jr is welcome to join the team when he gets his act together and plays regularly for his club.

Finland’s young guns frighten Germany

Finland were without Jari Litmanen when they took on European Championship runners-up Germany at the Olympic Stadium, but they still managed to put in an excellent performance in Stuart Baxer’s first competitive game in charge, drawing the match 3-3.

EGAN RICHARDSON

HELSINKI TIMES

FINLAND PLAYED without Jari Litmanen and scored three times against the second best team in Europe. Whatever else comes from the first game of the World Cup qualification campaign, that should be remembered. Litmanen’s fitness has been a dominating theme in the build up to a lot of Finland matches in recent years.

When plans for a statue of Litmanen were discussed in Lahti, wags cruelly suggested that the sculpture should have a glass ankle, so that it could again be broken and remoulded and journalists could fill their word counts by once more guessing the state of Litmanen’s leg.

Finland coach Stuart Baxter had attempted to draw a line under such speculation by clearly setting out the criteria Litmanen would have to meet before being selected for the national side.

The jist was that Litmanen would have to be playing regularly for his club side, and it was this stipulation that led the former Ajax striker to sign for his home town club, FC Lahti, for the end of the Finnish season. He missed out on the Germany game through a bout of flu.

Litmanen is a legend, and is welcome in the Finnish squad, but if he is not fit and in-form then the national side has to have another plan. And what a plan they now have, under a coach favouring a more expansive style than the one employed by the often dour Roy Hodgson.

The Finnish midfield was rejuvenated, breaking forward from midfield and playing early balls for strikers Jonatan Johansson and Mikael Forsell to run onto. Mika Väyrynen was particularly impressive, pinging in the second goal and setting up Daniel Sjölund for the third.

Väyrynen’s situation encapsulates the lot of the Finnish footballer. He left his home country aged just nineteen, and after a successful four years at Heerenveen he got his big move to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven.

Injuries at crucial times hampered his career at PSV, and after three years there he has now returned to Heerenveen, where the club’s management are less able to replace injured players with big new signings.

Finns are far away from home, if they are successful, and can lack allies when team selection becomes political. For instance Sami Hyypiä, omitted from Liverpool’s Champions League squad because of UEFA’s new quota system for home-grown players, is at a clear disadvantage because he is not playing in his home country.

Swedish players have this option at a much earlier stage than Finns, and often take advantage of it. Henrik larsson moved from Barcelona to Helsingborg, and has since played two full seasons there as well as playing for the national side, and Anders Svensson rejuvenated his international career after moving back to IF Elfsborg at the age of 29.

It would be difficult to imagine a Finnish player similarly changing perceptions and cementing a career in the national side from a Veikkausliiga club. The Swedish squad for their recent qualifers included four home-based players, whereas Baxter only called up Tampere United’s Antti Pohja from Veikkausliiga.

Finland’s football clubs just cannot pay the same salaries as Allsvenskan sides, and the option to play at their home club means a loss of income and prestige that is just too big for Finns to consider until their mid to late thirties.

The root cause of this problem is the lack of a distinctive footballing identity among Finnish clubs, players and coaches. He argues that Finland needs a style, an ethos in order for everyone to know their jobs more thoroughly and to have confidence in the tactical plan he lays out. On the evidence of the Germany game, it seems as though Finland will play an up-tempo, aggressive style of football that is good enough to trouble the world’s best teams.

Baxter has said that he wants his Finland to have two or three younger leaders to replace Litmanen. If Eremenko (20 years old) and Väyrynen (26) continue to play as well as they did against Germany, Finland may well have found them, and journalists might not need the glass ankled statue to write about.

Helsinki Times column: Does Finland have a football culture?

The question is often asked. A lot of people think that Finland has no football culture, that this country does not understand or properly appreciate the game, that its players are unloved and it’s teams ignored. To those people the mere phrase “football culture” is anathema, something that happens elsewhere, irrelevant to Finland.

Of course some manifestations of Finnish football culture are allowed. Watching English Premier League matches is something almost everyone does, and supporting the national team is damn near unavoidable for most Finns, whatever the sport.

But Finland fans have taken things to another level in recent years. During the last qualification campaign their tifos invoked the national epic, Kalevala, as well as paying tribute to Jari “the King” Litmanen before the final home match of the group.

The latter display nearly moved Litmanen to tears, and more recently the Under 21 coach Markku Kanerva has thanked Finland’s fans for their support during the crucial Euro 2009 qualifier against Denmark.

Finland’s fans are at present seen as a positive thing, and the flares they use before and during matches are always featured in media reports on the support given to the national team. They look cool, so of course they get in the papers.

Unfortunately this tolerance is not extended to every fan group. Tampere United’s supporter group Sinikaarti were recently thrown out of the ground en masse after letting off smoke bombs, and those incidents always result in fines for the club involved.

Whether or not this tolerance lasts, Finland’s fans should be proud of a good display against Germany. They showed a side of “football culture” that is often misunderstood and derided based on perceived problems in neighbouring countries.

Stamping on these problems before they happen is pointless and counter-productive, so lets hope the national team’s supporters can introduce Finns to a new way of watching football. They make the game a hell of a lot more exciting and should be encouraged as much as possible.