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.

Helsinki Times: Zeddy’s back!

SOMETIMES interviews take a different course to that envisaged beforehand. Zambian striker Zeddy Saileti’s meeting with the Helsinki Times is one such occasion, because when we meet Saileti is not a happy man. His team, RoPS, have lost 5-0 to Tampere United, and Saileti knows who to blame: the referee.

“The referee destroyed the game today. It’s very difficult for us to play away games at big clubs, because the referees don’t give us any protection,” says the Zambian. “You could see that. And they give so much respect to the other teams, but we are not a bad team: we drew 0-0 with Honka in Espoo, and Honka are a very good team.”

The Luanshy-born international clearly feels the pain of defeat just as much as the fans who made the long trip down from Lapland, and it takes a lengthy discussion of the referees various mistakes before the game is sufficiently dealt with and we can move on to Saileti’s earlier career.

The main problem Saileti perceived was the penalty awarded just before half-time, when Stephen Kunda was sent off for a foul on Henri Myntti. That ended the game as a contest, and a concise summation of our discussion of the game would be that RoPS were hard done by, and that is not a rare occurrence.

After promotion via the play-offs last year, RoPS’s licence to play in the top flight was not granted immediately because their stadium did not meet Veikkausliiga ground requirements. The solution involved promises from Rovaniemi City Council to build the required toilet block and floodlights by the end of August, or a fine will be levied. This creative solution is typical of the club, who have often done things a little bit differently to other Finnish teams.

RoPS began looking for African players after the World Cup in 1990, when 38 year-old Cameroonian Roger Mila starred in a team that showed African players could perform at the top level. RoPS were impressed, and CEO Jouko Kiistala looking for African players to bring to Finland. He made contact with a London-based Zambian in 1994, and ended up bringing Saileti and his compatriot Emmanuel Siwale to the Arctic circle.

When I first came here I knew nothing, really nothing,” remembers Saileti. “I arrived in January – there was a lot of snow and we only played indoor games. It was quite difficult to play indoors at first, and the outdoor pitches we used were often sand. Now we have artificial pitches and things are much better, but can you imagine: playing a Veikkausliiga game on a sand pitch!”

The far north of Finland has an inhospitable climate, and RoPS have sometimes gone to extraordinary lengths to get games played. In the 1987-88 Cup Winners’ Cup their Second Round tie with Albanian side Villaznia was played in Rovaniemi at noon, because there were no proper floodlights, and 8,000 people turned up to see a 1-0 win for the home side. They had to play their Quarter Final home leg against Olympique Marseille in Southern Italy, and the lack of home advantage hurt as the Finns went out 4-0 on aggregate.

After 14 years with the club, Saileti has acclimatised to the weather in Lapland. “I used to go home and play with Zambian clubs in the winter, but now I am much more settled here. Rovaniemi is like a second home for me, I know the people here, and my life is quite easy here.”

RoPS had an interesting start to the season when Belgian coach Tom Saintfiet was sacked before even taking charge of a competitive game for the club. He lost the confidence of his players and the RoPS board moved quickly, bringing in the Estonian Valeri Bondarenko two weeks before the season started. Coaching is the next logical step for Saileti, and to that end he is in the process of getting the right qualifications. He has already shown a keen eye for talent, having recommended the 4 Zambians currently at the club.

They are like younger brothers for me,” laughs Saileti, before turning serious again. “Maybe we will have to sign some more players, too. We have a very small squad, and “Drogba” (prolific 24 year-old striker Nchimunya Mweetwa) is injured, so we might need to look at getting in a new forward.”

After 14 years’ service, 355 games and a club record 89 goals, Saileti has established himself as a RoPS legend and a respected figure in Finnish football. . His club will be tapping the Zambian transfer market for some time to come.

Helsinki Times: TamU’s European adventure continues

TAMPERE UNITED won a dramatic tie against Buducnost Podgorica, the champions of Montenegro. A 1-1 draw in the away leg on 23 July was enough to see TamU through after a narrow victory in the home game a week earlier. TamU went 1-0 up through makeshift striker Henri Myntti, but had a nervous finish after Fatos Beciraj equalised on 81 minutes. They held out to win the tie 3-2 on aggregate, and will now face Artmedia Petržalka in the next round. The first leg will be played in Tampere on Wednesday 30 July, kick-off 19:00.

The draw had been particularly unkind to a Tampere side down on their luck after a poor start to the domestic season. Montenegro is a newly independent country and as such their representatives were unseeded, but Buducnost have a proud footballing history, having represented Serbia and Montenegro in the 2005-06 Intertoto Cup. Former Yugoslavian internationals Predrag Mijatovic, Dejan Savicevic and Branko Brnovic all started their careers at the club, and the current side provides the bulk of the nascent Montenegran national team.

Fun and Games

As TamU had to play the second leg away from home, they knew it would be a testing trip. After arrangements had been made and hotels booked, Buducnost moved the game back 24 hours, causing TamU’s players to spend an extra day in Montenegro before the match. “In some countries you can get all kinds of fun and games when you play away second, because they know you can’t get revenge,” observed TamU co-owner Tim Rowe.

TamU are in the same position now, with the first leg in Tampere followed by a trip to Slovakia on 6 August. They will be aiming to repeat their success of last season when they upset the odds to beat Levski Sofia, progressing to the Third Qualifying Round where they lost to Norwegian giants Rosenborg.

After the Buducnost game TamU coach Ari Hjelm talked of the need for bravery and confidence when Finnish teams play in Europe, and it is to be hoped that the two clubs in UEFA Cup action this week will take heed. FC Honka should not need to sweat too much to get past icelanders IA Akrakenes after a 3-0 victory in the home leg, but FC Haka face a tricky home tie against Irish side Cork City.

Russian return

Haka went 2-0 up with goals from Janne Mahlakaarto and Toni Lehtinen in the first leg two weeks ago, but they crumbled under sustained second half pressure and were left hanging on to a 2-2 draw by the end. They played that game without the aviophobic Russian playmaker Valeri Popovitch, but he will be available for the home leg in Valkeakoski.

Haka almost failed to get a license to play in the UEFA Cup this season because of budgetary problems, but since nightclub impressario Seppo ‘Sedu’ Koskinen took control they have been living in interesting times. Koskinen has talked of glamourising Haka by inviting celebrities to games, would like to sign more attractive players so that woman start to attend more regularly, and possibly establish an academy for young African talents. This is some way removed from the down-to-earth ambience currently prevalent at Haka games, and it remains to be seen how their core audience will react.

Helsinki Times, Pitch Invasion: Nigerians in Kajaani

I wrote something for this week’s Helsinki Times about the Nigerians playing for KajHa in Kajaani. You can read the post over at Pitch Invasion.

The Helsinki Times on The Helsinki Cup

With 800 teams from nearly 30 countries, the Helsinki Cup is the biggest youth football tournament in Finland. Organised by FC Honka and Käpylän Pallo since 1976, the competition attracts some of the biggest clubs in world football, including Mexican giants Cruz Azul last year.

Like the Gothia Cup in Sweden, the Helsinki Cup attracts clubs from all over the world. In 1976 there were 211 teams present, but now the competition has grown to be just over half as big as it’s Swedish counterpart.

The point of the competition is not so much the elite teams that come from all over the world to test their wits against international opposition. Rather, for Finnish clubs, the idea is that the players learn a different style of play and of communication with young footballers from all over the world. One tradition that has helped inter-cultural communication no end is the sponsoring of teams from less privileged backgrounds by their Finnish peers, something that helped many sides from the former Soviet Union attend the tournament during the 1990s.

This ethos lives on in the current SPL campaigns – kaikki pelaa (everybody plays) and an anti-racism campaign currently airing on Finnish TV. At the Helsinki Cup the match referee gives a green “fair play” card to a player on each team. All players given a fair play card during the tournament then enter a raffle to win the Fair Play award for their age group.

Teams are accommodated in schools around Helsinki, with players travelling to their games by bus. The finals take place at Finnair Stadium in Töölö over two days from 11 July, and games will be taking place all over the city from Sunday 6 July.

Helsinki Times: Turku football boom

It is exactly one year since the first English language weekly newspaper in Finland began publication. To celebrate there are a lot of extra features, including this article on Turku’s football boom. If you haven’t seen the paper yet, I recommend buying a copy this week. Here’s the article:

9th May 2008

DURING the first half, one of the TPS fans behind the press box made a comment that his team’s midfielder Chris Cleaver was like toilet paper. A strange analogy, but one that has some foundation. Not the most exciting thing in the world, but vital, willing to do the dirty work and if you invite a load of people round and don’t have it, you’re going to be embarrassed.

Unfortunately for TPS, Cleaver – the battling midfielder that usually gives his team-mates time and space to play – was injured after ten minutes in the derby against Inter on May 4. He overstretched himself trying to tackle Inter’s Nigerian midfielder Dominic Chatto, and despite attempts to run off his injury he was replaced by 19 year old starlet Riku Riski. Riski is a highly regarded prospect, but this was too big a game and too difficult a role for his style of play.

And what a game it was. There were some tickets left on the morning of the match, but these had gone with hours to spare and a capacity crowd of 8,937 filled Veritas Stadium, widely regarded as the best ground in Veikkausliiga. The ground has a capacity suited to the teams that play there, stands close to the pitch, and facilities for lucrative corporate hospitality. It’s no surprise that Turku is experiencing what the local media has dubbed a ‘football boom’, with two sides in Veikkausliiga and an excellent ground to watch them in.

TPS fans

The two clubs have contrasting backgrounds. TPS have the backing of Seppo Sairanen, an investment banker. Their budget is big by Finnish standards, and they are investing for the future rather than blowing everything on players’ salaries. They heavily subsidise ticket prices, for example, and are reaping the rewards with two active, growing fan groups: Young Boys Turku and Sissi Ryhmä. Their plan is to break even by 2011, after running fairly heavy losses, but the Chief Executive Petri Jakonen has a few issues to sort out first.

First and foremost, he is clear that success on the field is the most important pre-condition to all the plans he has put in place. Without a team fighting it out at the top of the league, the plans for expansion and growth will come to nothing, and as such he was very worried by the performance against Inter.

“It was our worst day ever,” said an exasperated Jakonen. “It’s absolutely clear that we have to be top three in this league before we can think about anything else, and that’s why Sunday was so bad for us.”

He can say that again. Without Cleaver, TPS allowed Chatto the freedom to pick his pass, and the first unchallenged long ball he hit picked out Mika Mäkitalo. He turned, looked up, crossed the ball for Ats Purje, and a simple header was all it took to put Inter 1-0 ahead. It looked easy and, for Inter, it was. Their coach Job Dragtsma had prepared his team to take advantage of the somewhat brittle nature of the TPS defence, and with quick passing and movement Inter opened them up again and again.

In the stands things were not going well for the “home” team. “On what day did God create this team and couldn’t he have rested on that day too?” asked a crestfallen TPS fan. The two TPS fan groups turned their backs on the action and their banners upside down, and began chanting at the back of the Olympic Stand while steadfastly ignoring their team’s efforts for most of the second half.

“ I’m surprised by just how bad TPS have been,” said Inter’s goalkeeping coach, Jani Meriläinen. “Cleaver is very important for them, the kind of player you don’t notice too much but really miss when he’s not playing.”

Inter wrapped up the win with an excellent curling strike from Mäkitalo and two close range finishes by former Musan Salama player Timo Furuholm, while Riski and Armand One missed excellent chances for TPS. The big Frenchman found it tough, and often had to come back towards midfield to collect the ball. That’s not his natural game, and it was difficult to see the tactics TPS were trying to apply. In the post-match press conference, the first question for the former Finland manager was “your system didn’t seem to work. Was there one?”.

In the circumstances, it was understandable that the TPS people did not want to dwell on the game. Jakonen was keen to talk about the success of his organisation in selling out the stadium and creating the ‘football boom’ in Turku.

“In Finland football clubs don’t tend to have homes,” says the former Reipas, TPS, HJK and MyPa goalkeeper. “I mean what is a football club’s identity? For me it is the colours, the badge, the team – and the ground. In ice hockey every club has a home, so why not in football?”

“There is only one place in the world where two clubs successfully share the same stadium, and that is in Milan. And those clubs have a lot of history together. Of course we are pleased to have such a good stadium, and we are happy to be here, but if we are to progress we need to do something about the match day revenues.”

Jakonen divides football revenues into three parts: match day revenue, sponsorship money, and TV rights fees. TV coverage of Veikkausliiga is in its infancy right now, and TPS have – according to Jakonen – a level of sponsorship that is comparable to other Nordic clubs and even some sides in the UK; but they lag far, far behind in match day revenues, which at present consist only of ticket sales. Refreshment, revenue and merchandising are all run by Veritas, and TPS want a larger slice of that pie.

Veritas Stadium, main stand

Veritas is owned by Kiinteistöyhtiö Kupittaan Stadion, whose board contains FC Inter’s chairman Stefan Håkans but no representative from TPS. They did not have the money to join the company when the new main stand was built in 2003. As a result there is considerable overlap between the Inter and Veritas organisations, and since Sairanen’s largesse began to raise TPS attendances much higher than Inter’s, disquiet has been voiced about the arrangements for merchandise and refreshment stands.

TPS want to keep at least some of the money their fans spend on beer and hotdogs, but according to Jakonen that has never been on the table. According to Håkans, TPS never asked. They could of course both be right – it is clear that TPS are irritated by what they perceive as Håkans’s high handed manner, and think he should be working hard to keep them as tenants, whereas he probably wants them to ask a lot more nicely. Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact is that Turku has two teams attracting good crowds, a great stadium, and an enthusiastic local media. Surely that can’t be turned into a problem?

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.

Helsinki Times: Young players and Webster

I’ve decided two things. Firstly, I should write more football articles for Helsinki Times. And secondly, I’m going to start putting those HT football articles here. I’ll format them like they will appear in the paper, just for some local flavour from these crazy Finns. The first one is from this week’s edition:

Youngsters move abroad as Webster ruling shakes up transfer rules

Finnish football loses a lot of players to foreign clubs, but is all that set to change with the landmark Webster ruling?

29 February 2008

EGAN RICHARDSON
HELSINKI TIMES

THE MOST striking thing about the January transfer window from a Finnish perspective was the number of teenagers who moved abroad for fairly substantial sums of money. They joined big clubs and will play in the youth teams, earning more money than they would in Finland and hopefully developing at a faster rate.

We’re talking about the likes of Lauri Dalla Valle, 16, who left Jippo and signed for Liverpool, FC KooTeePee’s Teemu Pukki, 17, who moved to Sevilla, and Tero Mäntylä, 16, who moved from TP-Seinäjoki to Portsmouth. KuPs’s 17 year-old midfielder Petteri Pannanen is currently on trial with Torino, who will doubtless track his progress over the 2008 season.

This movement is a consequence of the explosion in transfer fees for older footballers since the Bosman ruling, as rich clubs search further afield for the next generation of stars. It is a technique pioneered by Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, saving millions of pounds by spotting and signing players like Gael Clichy, Ashley Cole and Cesc Fabregas when they were young and relatively inexpensive.

Stay in school

Young players in the national team’s youth set-up are advised to take care of their education and military service, but beyond that the Finnish FA expresses no preference. Teemu Pukki will finish high school at a Finnish school in Andalucia, while Mäntylä and Dalla Valle will continue their education in English. All three will return to Finland at a later date to complete their military service or obtain an exemption.

This kind of transfer does not raise as many objections from Finnish clubs as it would elsewhere. Finnish salaries are low for most professions in international comparison, so going abroad to better yourself is an accepted and even encouraged part of a young person’s development.

The financial aspect of these deals helps a great deal, of course. While the sums are never astronomical, the prestige of sending a player to a Premier League or Serie A club helps the Finnish team to attract young players. It would not be good for a club’s reputation to stand in the way of a player offered that kind of opportunity.

“We like to offer young players opportunities they wouldn’t get at other teams, so there was no point standing in his way when Sevilla came in for him,” says KooTeePee chairman Matti Koski when asked about the Pukki transfer. “The money is not a lot and we don’t have any expectation of transfer fees in our budget, so the revenue will go towards the youth teams.”

Webster ruling

Koski is frustrated at having to compete with the big city clubs who find it much easier to find wealthy sponsors, and his task will be made that much harder by a recent decision made by the Court of Arbitration in Sport (CAS).

Andy Webster broke his contract with Heart of Midlothian in August 2006, moving to Wigan Athletic. He argued that under European Union law, and FIFA’s Article 17, he should only pay the remaining value of his contract to compensate his former employer.

They disagreed, demanding £4.6m (€6,100,00) as a transfer fee under the tribunal system, but the case was finally resolved on 30 January with Webster ordered to pay just £150,000 (€200,000) to Hearts.

“Basically, Article 17 gives footballers the sort of employee rights that anyone else would expect in the workplace,” says Tony Higgins, a representative of the international players union Fifpro. “What it means is that any footballer can now serve notice on his club [in mid-contract] and move on to a new club.”

While Higgins believes the most affected players will be those at the very top, the consequences for the likes of Pukki, Mäntylä and Dalla Valle are unclear. Will the big clubs still find it beneficial to have so many foreign youngsters on their books when they don’t have a significant re-sale value?

A quick survey of officials at Finnish clubs revealed that very few had any knowledge of the ruling, much less a plan to deal with it. That will have to change in the coming months.

Helsinki Times: The dream ends here

Here’s William Moore’s take on Finland’s failure to qualify, and here is my Helsinki Times piece:
It was always going to be a long shot. Finland needed to win in Porto, while Serbia got less than maximum points in their two remaining matches against Kazakhstan and an already-qualified Poland. So it proved, as Roy Hodgson’s men could only draw 0-0 with the 2004 finalists.

Spirits were high in the build-up to the game. Everyone in the Finland camp believed the pressure was all on Portugal, who needed a draw in front of their home crowd in order to ensure qualification. Felipe Scolari had lost his temper in a previous home game, punching Ivica Dragutinovic in a touchline melee, so it was clear the Portuguese could be rattled.

This view overlooked the pressure Finland themselves were under. For many members of this Finland team, the 2008 qualification campaign was the last shot at glory, the final chance to take their country to its first major tournament. Sami Hyypiä said in the build-up to the game that he would have quit international football after the last campaign, had Hodgson not been appointed manager.

The opening stages of the match showed the nerves this pressure caused. Hardly a Finnish player could keep hold of the ball, as bad decision followed bad decision. Even Jari Litmanen, normally the coolest head in the team, couldn’t seem to find the extra couple of seconds of thinking time he usually makes for himself with his clever movement and excellent technique.

Litmanen had not played a game in five months before last Saturday’s 2-1 win over Azerbaijan, when he came off the bench and set up Sheki Kuqi’s winner. Hodgson had bridled at post-match questions about Litmanen, believing that the rest of the team deserved consideration before he examined the performance of Finland’s talismanic striker. Litmanen had played well, but so had everyone else, reasoned the English coach.

So it was a surprise to see Litmanen start the game at the Dragao Stadium. Finland were under the cosh for much of the match, and he just couldn’t find the spark that might have created something for his side. Indeed, the closest Finland came to breaking the deadlock was when Portuguese defender Bruno Alves nearly scored an own goal in the 85th minute.

So what now for Finland? Roy Hodgson will decide whether or not to stay on, as will many of the senior players. It seems certain that Litmanen and Hyypiä will now retire, but question marks also hang over Joonas Kolkka, Hannu Tihinen and Aki Riihilahti.

The qualifiers for the World Cup in 2010 will see an influx of new faces. Finland’s Under-21 team have had an excellent start to their Euro 2009 qualification campaign, and the likes of Tim Sparv, Ville Jalasto and Tomi Petrescu will be eager to get their chance.

The positives to be taken from this campaign should not be overlooked. This was as close as Finland have come to qualifying for a major tournament, and with a bit more luck they could very easily have done it. The margin for error is tiny at this level of international football, and Finland fell just the wrong side of it.

The excitement generated among fans is one major plus. While the attendance for the Azerbaijan game was poor (just 10,325), the support they offered the team was phenomenal. Some seasoned observers of Finnish football judged it as close as Finland has ever come to a ‘European’ football atmosphere.

That enthusiasm needs to be harnessed if the game is to grow, as Hodgson pointed out in his post match press conference. As the 1,000 or so Finland fans make their way home from south west Europe, many of them are wondering how long it will be before Finnish football has another chance like this.

The flippant answer is of course “two years”, the amount of time until the next tournament, but a player like Litmanen comes round only once in a generation. To do it without him would be an extraordinary achievement, but then again – that is precisely what 14 other countries did this time. Maybe it’s time for Finland to be just like the other teams, rather than “Litmanen plus ten others”.