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.

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.

What a strange weekend

Ilkka Mäkelä had hoped for 5-6,000, but in the end the attendance for Jari Litmanen’s return was 4,163. Seasoned football-watchers were unsurprised about that, given the history of football in Lahti. One told me that “hardly anybody in Lahti supports FC Lahti. The real clubs there are Kuusysi and Reipas.” A Reipas banner was displayed prominently at the game tonight, and the Lahti fans travelled to haka on a Kuusysi bus this season, so the two clubs still have loyalties in the city.

As is the way with these things in Finland, Kuusysi’s senior team has been revived and plays in Kakkonen as City Stars, and you wonder how FC Lahti would compete with them if they were in the same division. That’s not something FC Lahti management will be lying awake at night worrying about just now, as City Stars fight relegation to Kolmonen, and Reipas still don’t have a senior side, but Lahti face big challenges in establishing support in their city.

Reipas and Kussysi won 8 titles between them before they merged. Lahti managed to finish fifth in 2003, won the devalued League Cup last year, and typically attract a fraction of the crowds a big ski jumping event will draw to their home stadium.  Compare to Tampere United, formed two years later for similar city-unifying reasons and now with 3 league titles and a Finnish Cup under their belts. They’ve sold more season tickets (3,200) than Lahti’s average crowd (2,519), and despite a poor 2008 season they have the fourth highest average attendance in the league.

So FC Lahti need success. A title would give them a shot at establishing a fanbase and with their new signing it looks like they may have found a way back into the fight after disastrous defeats against HJK, Inter and Haka had seen them cut adrift.

Litmanen did not start against KuPS, and by the time he came on in the 56th minute his side were already 3-1 up. But with the King on the field they added another 5 goals to level Inter’s goals for and HJK’s goal difference, and more importantly provide a massive confidence boost for everyone involved with the club. Jonne Kempinnen beamed like a child after the game, as you would if you’d played with royalty.

On Sunday Haka got a gubbing at home to Inter. It was an Osuuspankki day, so anybody with a bank card got in free of charge, and the crowd was a healthy 2,881. There was an excellent turn out of Inter fans too, maybe maybe 150 if you include the Turku junior sides that were presumably playing a tournament nearby and stayed on for the game.

Dominic Chatto sounded bullish after the game. “Of course I knew we were going to win, we are getting better all the time and you can see it in our play. I think there will be something good at the end of the season,” he said when pushed about Inter’s title chances. “The new players have come from big leagues, Croatia and Holland, and I think that these games are fairly easy for them.”

Guilliano Grot in particular looks like a real handful. He came on in the second half and repeatedly left his marker for dead with an explosive turn of pace, at one point crossing for Severi Paajanen to blaze wide when shooting might have been a better option. Inter coach Job Dragtsma banged his fist on the dugout in frustration, a little surprisingly as his team were 3-0 up by that point.

Dragtsma has an air of steely determination about him these days. After inter’s disappointingly drawn MyPa game a couple of weeks ago he interrupted Jos Hooiveld during the post-match press conference to remind him of a wasteful miss by Mika Mäkitalo. It wasn’t a big thing, but many managers would go to great lengths to appear unconcerned by small matters like that. His perfectionism could be a vital asset in the run-in, but you do hope he will know when and how to lift the pressure on his players.

Oh yeah, and HJK won 1-0 against VPS at home. Their next game is against second bottom KuPS on Sunday, while Inter and Lahti play each other in Turku. It would take a brave gambler to bet against Klubi lifting the title.

Highlights here

Helsinki Times: Veikkausliiga preview

When Tampere United got to the Third Qualifying Round of the Champions League in 2007, it should have been a big step towards confirming the improvements made in the Finnish game. The national team was having one of it’s best ever qualification campaigns, the Under 21s were looking good for the 2009 European Championships, and now the champions had beaten Bulgarian giants Levski Sofia to set up a Nordic derby against Rosenborg for the right to play in the money spinning group stages of the Champions league.

In the end, the progression resulted in an ugly row about a game against TPS Turku, a match that ended up being played in the wrong stadium in front 1,800 people, less than half the number of tickets that had been sold. United were hammered by Rosenborg, and despite a spirited showing against Bordeaux in the first round of the UEFA Cup, their attempts to appear professional were dealt a massive blow by the lack of fairly basic facilities.

It would be difficult to imagine either of Tampere’s ice hockey clubs being forced into this compromise, yet Tampere United’s desire to postpone a game to avoid another defensive injury, combined with a Toto concert at Ratina Stadium, forced them to play the TPS game at the run down and neglected Tammela ground. Ratina is not much better – the undersoil heating doesn’t work, and most spectators are forced to sit in the open and use portakabin toilets – but at least they can fit a big crowd in, and offer decent dressing rooms. Neither is possible at Tammela.

On the eve of a new season, it would be good for Finnish football to learn the lessons of this affair. The team with the best finances is TPS, unsurprisingly, as they also have by far the best stadium in Veikkausliiga. According to Nelonen’s sports news, TPS will have a 2008 budget of €2.3m, and city rivals Inter (who share the stadium) will spend €931,000. While small in international comparison, these figures represent the first and eighth biggest budgets in Finnish football, making Turku about as close to a football city as Finland gets.

TPS have parted company with their manager, Mixu Paatelainen, who left to join Hibs and reunite with his family, who have settled in Scotland. He had ruffled a few feathers and created a side that took no prisoners, but he was unable to beat the champions, losing 3-0 and 3-1 to Tampere and finishing the season in fourth place. While this qualified them for the 2008-09 Intertoto Cup, more is expected by the TPS hierarchy.

In his stead Martti Kuusela has taken the reins and achieved some eye-catching results in pre-season, notably a 2-1 win over Swedish giants Hammarby. Kuusela has made few changes to his team of bruisers, but the fear is that they may be over-reliant on their French centre forward Armand Oné. Hammarby were impressed with his physical prowess, but in the final of the pre-season League Cup against Turku rivals Inter they badly missed his presence and link-up play, going down to a 1-0 defeat.

Inter have some excellent young players, and in the League Cup final showed they have built a tidy team under coach Job Dragtsma. Built around the excellent centre half pairing of Jos Hooiveld and Diego Corpache, Inter are a resilient side who can cause problems for clubs with much bigger resources. Along with the composed Nigerian midfielder Dominic Chatto, Hooiveld and Corpache will attract attention from bigger sides, but if they hang around and stay fit and in form, Inter could do a lot better than last season’s ninth place.

The champions, Tampere United, are making big adjustments on the pitch. After selling Juska Savolainen to Norwegian club Rosenborg for €350,000, and moving Jarkko Wiss upstairs to become team manager, the champions’ midfield is going to look very different this year. Vili Savolainen has come in to replace his brother, and at different points during pre-season he has been partnered by Antti Ojanperä, Jussi Kujala and Chris James. If coach Ari Hjelm can conjure a winning combination yet again, he will surely cement his reputation as the best Finnish coach.

TamU have the second biggest budget in the league, but they may find it hard to maintain the momentum of their European run and back to back championships unless they find a stadium with better facilities for their spectators. At present their sub-5,000 crowds have limited protection from the generally appalling Finnish weather, and rattle around the 16,000 capacity Ratina athletics ground. A renovated Tammela would massively improve their chances of competing with the bigger Nordic clubs.

This is a common theme for Veikkausliiga teams. Rovaniemi‘s finest, RoPs, were unsure of their place in this year’s top flight until the Veikkausliiga committee gave their approval to a plan of improvements to facilities for players and spectators at their home ground, which will take place over the summer and hopefully be completed by August. If they don’t implement the deadlines for improvements, they will be fined – €20,000 if there are not proper toilets for spectators by the 30th of April, and €75,000 if the floodlights are not upgraded by the 24th of August.

They have already had an eventful year, sacking Belgian coach Tom Saintfielt before a ball had been kicked as he failed to win the respect of the players. With Zambian veteran Zeddy Saileti and 37 year old Finnish midfielder Mika Nurmela in the squad, they will not lack leadership, especially as Saileti takes on new coaching duties this year after 14 years and 343 games with the Laplanders since joining the club from Nkana in 1994.

RoPs will be ecstatic if they avoid relegation, as will KuPs Kuopio, the other promoted club. With budgets of €650,000 for RoPs, and €853,000 for KuPs, they are at the bottom end of Veikkausliiga wage structures.

At the top of the table TPS, Tampere United and Haka will fight it out with Antti Muurinen‘s HJK. The former national team manager’s squad includes the well travelled Paulus Roiha, back in Finland after a few years abroad, the soon-to-be Finnish Medo, whose citizenship application is pending, and Jukka Sauso, Miika Multaharju and Petri Oravainen, all returning to Finland after stints in Europe.

After a few barren years for HJK, it would be foolish to bet against them coming back to win the title this season. They have a good coach, a football-specific stadium, a talented squad and the support that comes from being Finland’s most successful club. With Tampere United in transition they could be well placed to take advantage, particularly as they don’t have the distraction of playing in Europe this year. If they mess it up again – and with Roiha already injured, there is a chance that they will – the rest of Finland will laugh heartily.