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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Inter hold on to their advantage

FC Inter – Honka 0-0
HJK – TPS 1-0
FC Lahti – Haka 1-0
KuPS – MyPa 1-4
VPS – Jaro 2-1
TamU – IFK Mariehamn 1-0

Highlights here, just click the “Veikkausliiga” link below the video.

Inter and Honka couldn’t spell out a difference between themselves in the long-awaited game between the two top teams in Turku. Not the best of football games, but the weather made the game difficult for both sides. It was raining before the game even started and the cats and dogs kept coming down all night long. The football was as good as it gets in circumstances like that.

Both teams have nothced up 50 points, but Inter have a seven-goal advantage in goal difference and it is highly probable that wins against MyPa and Jaro would earn them the title. It is too early to put the champagne in the freezer, however, since dropping points might mean dropping the title.
Honka have games left against TamU at home and IFK Mariehamn away, and their job will be difficult too. Both teams are likely to give all they have got anyway, because it is almost certain that Inter and Honka will occupy the two top spots.

HJK and Lahti are in good positions as far as the European spots are concerned. Paulus Roiha’s great strike earned HJK a 1-0 victory against TPS while Lahti marked a home win win against Haka. HJK and Lahti have yet to play each other in the last round of games and the big stakes will add an interesting twist both on and off the pitch.

VPS beat Jaro 2-1 in the Ostrobothnian derby, thanks to a late game winner by Antonio Inutile. Both teams can now relax as they will most likely stay up for next season. That is some kind of an improvement, because at least one of the teams has usually been firmly rooted in the relegation battle at this stage of the campaign.

KuPS succumbed to a 4-1 loss against MyPa, who paid them a visit. KuPS are now four points away from safety, but TamU did them a favour by winning IFK Mariehamn 1-0. To Egan’s delight, the only goal of the game was scored by Henri Myntti.

RoPS will play KooTeePee tonight, and if they deliver the expected win, they are safe from relegation play-offs.

The stormy weather on Sunday inspired a couple of articles about the end of the season. Jari Welling of Turun Sanomat hoped that there will be “no more than a metre of snow” on the 26th, when the final round of games will be played. Helsingin Sanomat’s Tommi Hannula also thought that the season ends too late.
In my opinion, the Finns’ obsession with weather borders on the absurd. I’m sorry, Welling and Hannula, but if we want to see development in Finnish football, the season cannot start in late May and end in early September. Besides, the autumn games are usually quite atmospheric. Yesterday’s weather was an exception. Put some clothes on and stop whining.

Dodgy refs, table-topping stutterers and Daniel Nwoke

TamU had a bizarre night in Lahti last Friday, with an odd refereeing performance, a crucial goalkeeping mistake, three goals in the last minute and a questionable red card, but nobody said anything about match fixing.  You can see the highlights of their 2-2 draw here.

On saturday I went to valkeakoski to see FC Haka vs FC Honka. These two clubs are the last remaining Finnish teams in Europe this season, and to be honest they weren’t that good. Honka got a last minute winner as hundreds of former Haka players swelled the gate to a pathetic 1,500, the old boys being invited as part of a reunion.

Aleksandr Kokko is a decent enough striker, but he was fouled a lot and the referee offered no help. I judge him to be of little threat to TamU’s lethal weapon Henri Myntti at the top of the goalscoring charts, but even so I think Honka are a decent side who will cause some upsets in the title race this year. Honka got a last minute winner and looked a solid bet for third place, or maybe second if HJK mess up their difficult run-in. You can see the goals here.

On Sunday it was Tammela Stadium for me, and TPV against PK-35.  Two words to say about this: Daniel Nwoke. If he doesn’t get a new contract at TamU he will tear Ykkönen apart, but he can probably do a job at Veikkausliiga level. I don’t think he’s that much worse than King Henri, but for whatever reason he hasn’t clicked at TamU and it might be best for everyone if he moves on. PK-35 certainly couldn’t live with him, his finishing and passing were very good and he led the team well. No highlights of this one I’m afraid, but TPV won 2-0 and played much better than their league position suggests. They won’t be relegated this year.

On Monday the two title contenders met at Finnair Stadium in Helsinki. It was an excellent game between two evenly matched teams, but it was in the end decided by errors. Patrick Bantamoi should have come off injured before the freekick that gave HJK their first goal, Jos Hooiveld should have stayed closer to Dawda Bah for the second, and Domagol Abramovic was very grateful for slack HJK passing for his second. Medo got the winner in the last minute with a deflected strike. On this evidence Inter are a better team and will win the title, especially given the tough games HJK have coming up. You can see the highlights here.

One thing for HJK to note: stick a few of the free tickets up near the journos next time you want a big crowd, because a 7,000+ crowd does not look credible when you know the names of everyone in the stand. And that is only 20 people. Jonas Von Wendt mentioned this in Hufvudstadsbladet today, saying the crowd was probably around 5,000, and it certainly felt that way. I still can’t get my head round a stadium that  only holds 10,770 people and manages to make them all so far away from the pitch. What’s the point?

I would talk about PoPa’s American who uses the word ‘twat’ (a very British swear word) when abusing linesmen, but I’m very tired and I reckon that probably deserves it’s own post. Tomorrow, maybe.

Inter sail on under lucky stars

KuPS – HJK 3-2
VPS – FC KooTeePee 1-1
MyPa – RoPS 1-0
FC Honka – TPS 2-2
TamU – FC Haka 1-1
FC Inter – FC Lahti 1-0
IFK Mariehamn – FF Jaro CANCELLED

Inter have signed a great deal with the football gods. They won FC Lahti in front of over 8000 people willing to see Jari Litmanen in action, the difference between the sides being Mika Ojala’s beautiful – and somewhat lucky – freekick. Besides winning, almost everything else went just like they wanted: FC Haka failed to win at Tampere United, FC Honka were able to limit TPS to a draw, and most notably, HJK gave away three points during the second half after they had gone up by two at KuPS. Inter are now topping the league by a margin of five points. Their next game away at HJK might be decisive as far as the title is concerned and interestingly, HJK are the only team who have managed to beat Inter. That was the game that dropped Inter out of the cup.

KooTeePee are improving. They are now unbeaten in two games. That does not sound like a lot, but KooTeePee are one of the crappiest teams in the history of Finnish football.

The pitch at Maarianhamina’s Wiklöf Holding Arena was soaked, so there was no game. It has been raining in the island since Saturday and they teams together with the referee decided to call it a day 1,5 hours before the match was scheduled to start. Rumours are saying that Jaro would have wanted to play the game on Monday. I understand that, since that would probably spare them another trip to the island, but I’m glad IFK did not agree to do so. This is a professional league, and games should not be scheduled with a notice that would most conveniently be counted in hours rather than days.

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.