Nordic Football News

Football in Finland now has a plush new home over at Nordic Football News. You’ll still get your Veikkausliiga fix, as me and Juha will be running the Finland section there, which will have all the stuff we’ve been posting here and more. The new site will have all kinds of interesting stuff, covering Allsvenskan, Norwegian Tippeliga, international and women’s football across the Nordic countries and some football photography.

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Veikkausliiga transfer update

The new year has seen a flurry of confirmed transfers, as well as a few trials that might lead to permanent moves. Some clubs are busier than others, with one in particular seemingly in the business of fire-fighting rather than planning for the future right now. Tampere United have seen chairman Jari Viita depart, after a season in which they lost around €200,000. Viita’s company lost €2.7m last year, and he is not in a great position to bail out TamU.

Winter recruitment has therefore been a painful process for TamU, with 17 year-olds Johannes Mononen and Juha Pirinen joining the club from Jippo and Haka respectively, and Aleksei Kangaskolkka signing from MyPa. While the chance for youth to shine is welcome, the somewhat frantic efforts to offload TamU’s saleable assets point to a less settled strategy.

Tomi Petrescu has signed for Ascoli on a loan until the 15th of April, with the option to make the move permanent at that point, while Henri Myntti is bewilderingly spoilt for choice as he ponders which club to sign for. Myntti is a freakishly tall player, who used to be a blunder-prone centre back but was converted last season into a Veikkausliiga goal machine, playing up front for TamU and heading everything that came his way and bagging 13 goals in 23 league games.

Myntti went to FC Saturn on trial at the end of last season, signed an improved contract with TamU, and is now on trial at Hansa Rostock after apparently turning down a move to Romania. More on the fun and games at Ratina Stadium later in the week.

HJK full back Jukka Raitala is on trial at Newcastle United. Raitala had a good season with HJK, playing 23 games and impressing with Finland’s successful under-21 side, and has attracted attention from Greece as well as West Bromich Albion, where he had a trial in the autumn.

Other current trials include FF Jaro’s central defender Jonas Portin, who is currently at NEC Nijmegen, and Brazilian midfielder Luiz Vanderlei, who MyPa are looking over. Vanderlei has been at Tornio club TP-47 for the past two years and adds a touch of class to teams in need of a playmaker.

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.

FAO footballers who want to move to Finland

We’ve had a massive increase in the number of people posting comments here trying to get attract the attention of clubs or agents. This has happened since the blog started, but it is getting to the point where they are taking over the site and I’ve decided to do something about it. The comments don’t have any effect really, nobody scouts for players using my blog so agents are not going to contact anyone who posts a comment here.

I suspect that the comments only open the commenter to exploitation, so from now on comments that try to advertise anything (including the services of a footballer) will be deleted. If you want to contact me, you can do so via footballinfinland ‘at’ gmail ‘dot’ com. I am not an agent and will not assist any player trying to move, but if there is an angle to your story I might decide to write about it.

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.”

Dominic Chatto

Correction: In the last sentence, I originally wrote that Chatto said ‘Finland is an excellent place to play football’. It should (and does now), of course, read ‘Sweden is an excellent place to play football’. I am sure that Dominic holds the same opinion about Finland, but he was explaining his transfer and so was talking about Sweden at that point.

Dominic Chatto finally moved to Sweden last week, signing a three year contract with Gothenburg club BK Häcken. His transfer has been complicated, with his former club AS Racine demanding a fee (which they eventually received), and Inter desperate to hang on to their talismanic midfielder. The price kept increasing as Chatto’s performances improved, however, and in the end Häcken offered Racine a good deal and Chatto a bigger league to play in.

The interesting thing for me when i spoke to him on Monday was that he claimed that he always wanted to leave Inter, because Inter were saying very different things until he actually moved. There are a lot of people involved in Chatto’s journey from Nigeria, and you do wonder how many of them have been looking after the player’s interests and how many have been rather more selfish.

His first club, Racine, retained his rights for a very long time while agents in Europe fixed him up with a club, and even before that when he moved from Racine to Heartlands FC. They have form for this kind of thing. They tried to get fees repeatedly when their former defender Olubayo Adefemi moved in Israel, but when he finally signed for Rapid Bucharest firm action from the Romanian, Israeli and Nigerian FA’s made sure they were disappointed. That didn’t happen this time, but it was interesting that Chatto’s agent, Luca Pagani, confused me ‘calling about Chatto going to Häcken’ with me being a lawyer representing Inter chairman Stefan Håkans.

Hopefully Chatto’s situation is now greatly simplified and his next contract negotiation goes a lot smoother than this one. Here’s an extended version of the interview I did for this week’s Helsinki Times.

It’s a long way from your home town, Kaduna, to Turku. How did you end up in Finland?

I started playing football at the Pepsi football academy in Kaduna. It’s a nationwide chain of academies where Nigerian kids have to go if they want to learn how to play the properly, and it was where I began to believe I could do something in football. We trained for two hours every day and i really improved a lot there. John Obi Mikel is a graduate of the Pepsi academy, but he played in Jos, not Kaduna, and I never played with him.

It was difficult at times, because you have to pay tuition fees there every month, but my family helped out sometimes, and occasionally scouts would give me money as a reward for playing well. A lot of the time I had to find the money myself, though.

I played there for four years, and by the time I was 19 I had grown as a player and was ready to find a club. I played for AS Racine for a while, and then moved to Heartlands in the top division. From there I was spotted by a scout and we ended up in Oulu, a multi-national group of 11 Africans all together! Only four of us were picked up by Finnish clubs, and the others all went back to their home countries – Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Nigeria.

How did your trial with Inter go?

Well I’ve been to other big clubs on trial, including Blackburn Rovers and Dynamo Kiev, so when I came to Inter I knew nothing was going to stop me. I played the first game and the coach liked me as a player and was ready to pick me straightaway.

What was it like to work with Inter’s Dutch coach Job Dragtsma?

As a player I’ve improved and the team as a whole has improved, and that’s the objective every year. You can’t compare this year to last year, because we played in a more Dutch style, because that’s how he likes to play and how I like to play. I like to keep the ball, play it on the floor, and move it on quickly. He’s a really good coach.

He seems to be good at boosting players who have had difficulties elsewhere, or maybe didn’t have the coach’s confidence at another club.

Yes, he always gave me confidence, and he always told the team how we have to play and that we are better than the others, and that he trusts us. He always told me that he had 100% confidence in me, and that if I was on the pitch he would not have any problems with the midfield. I always tried to give my best so as not to let him down.

At what point did you know Inter were going to win the title?

Before the season started, when we were playing in the League Cup, I saw a few changes in the players’ attitudes, and we were playing really well. We won the League Cup and when I saw that I thought we are going to have a really good year.

The first game was a little bit difficult as we had to make the transition from the artificial pitch to the grass, but we won 3-1 in the end and went from there really. We were winning a lot and after every game we really thought good things were happening – we had improved a lot and got used to each other, and by the middle of the season I was convinced we’d win the league.

Inter have a lot of good players, and at times the team seemed to have an almost telepathic understanding. What was it like to play with guys like Ojala and Hooiveld?

Mika Ojala is quite young, and I’m really impressed with his form as a player. He’s really developed this year, and I think he’s going to get even better. He always gives 100% in training, the same in games, and with time he will be a good national team player. He’s really talented and he will be a very good player.

Before games he is the only player I talk to about his movement, because as a midfielder you really have to get used to your strikers’ and wingers’ movement and runs. He was one of the players I could give really accurate passes to, because he is always in the right position and he always makes use of the ball in the right way, and of course he’s really pacy.

I would say Jos Hooiveld is my best friend in the team, and we are always together. People at the club call us brothers, ask where my brother is and so on because we are always in the same place. We really got used to each other and talked a lot about how to approach games.

It will be strange to play against him next year, won’t it?

Yeah. At first I was supposed to go to the same club as him, but things changed as they often do in football. AIK (Hooiveld’s new club) changed coach, and after that I didn’t have a contract offer anymore. I don’t really know what happened.

Was it ever an option to stay at Inter?

Well, I wanted to leave, because at this moment I’ve achieved something with Inter and I was the best player in the league. I felt that I needed a little bit more from football, a bit more competition. It wasn’t about money – Inter offered almost the same as Häcken – but it was just time to move on. I need to play for the national team, and in the national team of Nigeria they always want to hear that you play in a big league.

I want to play in the World Cup in 2010. I’ve been selected for the national team twice, the first time I was injured and the second time, at the Olympics, I couldn’t go because Inter had five games at a crucial stage of the season.

What was your best game this season?

I would say MyPa away this year. I had a free role, and I was able to control the game and made very few mistakes – maybe two or three mistakes in the whole game. My marking was great and I won man of the match.

Is it true that Häcken captain Janne Saarinen contacted you via facebook before the transfer?

Haha yeah, it’s true. He just sent me a message asking if I’d like to play for Häcken, and it went from there really. I’ve been to the club to sign my contract and I like the set-up, I think we can do something good there.

I should repeat that the transfer is not about money. Häcken is not such a big club and they cannot offer huge contracts, and like I said before Inter offered almost the same salary as they did. I just felt that I needed a new challenge and a new league, and Sweden is an excellent place to play football.

Toni Lehtinen signs for Levadiakos

Former FC Haka striker Toni Lehtinen has signed for Levadiakos, according to the Greek daily Sportday. His contract will run until the end of the 2009-2010 season, with an option for a further year, and he will earn around €80,000 a year.

Lehtinen has been at Haka since 2003, and has played 104 league games, scoring 39 goals. He has been on trial at VFL Bochum and Eintracht Braunschweig in recent years. He has been on the fringes of the national squad, but needs a good season if he is to have any hope of forcing his way into the reckoning, especially after Niklas Tarvajärvi’s solid performance against Switzerland last night.

Levadiokos are a lower ranking Greek club who usually have a relegation battle of some kind or another. They represent the small town of Levedeia in the Greek Super League, and their budget is pretty meagre, so Lehtinen’s wages represent ‘respectable money’, according to FIF’s friends in Greece. lehtinen has experience of playing abroad before, but having visited both Greece and Lehtinen’s previous location – Peterborough – I can safely say they don’t have much in common.

Levadiokos’s strikers include the veteran Albanian Alban Bushi, 32 year old Eduardo Bustos Montoya, Patrick Dimbala from DR Congo and Greek youngster Stelios Vasiliou. None of them have made it out of single figures in the Greek league before, and it might be difficult to do so at a smaller club, in a new league. In any event, Lehtinen will have to knuckle down and show his worth to more senior players, after being the number one striker at Haka for so long. His pace might be an asset the club will look to utilise.