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.”

HJK win cup

Here’s what Helsingin Sanomat has to say about it.

Pathetic attendance, due to the poor scheduling, terrible marketing and general disinterest in the worst of the Finnish domestic competitions. The League Cup at least attracts some interest because it gives an indication of how teams will play in the next season, whereas the Cup just gives a second chance to teams who aren’t good enough to qualify for Europe through the league.

I just discovered that the Finnish Volleyball Cup finishes a full three months before the end of the season, and is not always played in the same place. Maybe it’s time the HJK-obsessed people of Töölö had to travel to see their team win the game’s ‘showpiece occasion’. I can’t think of a stadium in Finland that could not have accommodated Saturday’s crowd, and I can’t think of a reason to keep this game as a home match for one club above all others.

Suomen Cup Final Preview

The women’s cup final between Lahti club Kuusysi and HJK Helsinki will be an attacking game, according to Kuusysi coach Jukka Makelä. “The pressure is on HJK, they are the leading cup team in Finland. Challenges are nice and we’ve played the whole season with the attitude that we don’t play for a draw. We know that the game won’t be easy, but at the same time we believe we can win.”

“We tried during the season to change our play a little bit, so that we defended slightly further forward. Th idea is that we attack and try and score goals, and then try to stay together in defence as well. We’re not going to change anything for this game, as it has worked. We trust our own game.”

Kuusysi finished sixth in this year’s Naisten Liiga, whereas HJK came second to runaway champions Honka. The winning margin was 13 points, and this year’s Cup will not provide HJK with a route into Europe unless Honka manage to win the UEFA Women’s Cup, since only one club qualifies for that tournament from each country.

HJK changed coaches in August, after Jarmo Österlund and Maria Virolainen’s stint in charge failed to dislodge Honka from the top of the table, and the new boss is Gary Williams. And Englishman who played for Chelsea’s academy before attaining his UEFA B and C licences and coaching in the USA, Williams was in charge of HJK’s under-15 girls before being handed the top job.

Antti Muurinen’s men will take on Honka three and a half hours after HJK’s women kick-off against Kuusysi. TV coverage of the finals starts on YLE 2 at 14:50 Finnish time, and you can watch a stream of the men’s final at least here.

“We hope that we can continue in the same style we showed against VPS. But that will be harder because now the opponent is much tought,” said Jarno Parikka. We lost third place in the last match against FC Lahti but then we showed what we are made of against VPS.”

Haapala is injured for HJK, but Aho and Mattila might play. Otaru is out for Honka. If the crowd is above 1,500 I will be very surprised, but if you fancy a day out in Töölö there are plenty of tickets available at Finnair Stadium. HJK-Kuusysi starts at 11:30 am, while HJK-Honka kicks off at 15:00.

Mondial

Niclas Lonnqvist wrote a series of articles in Hufvudstadsbladet this summer, focusing on immigrant sides in Helsinki. There was a Kosovan side, a Hispanic one, a Russian club and Mondial stars, a club that draws its players from any and all immigrant groups.

They have different problems to ‘normal’ Finnish clubs. As immigrants they have fewer sponsors to draw on, as their connections are not that good yet, so finances are difficult at times. Immigrants make less money than natives, in general, so asking the players to chip in can cause problems as well.

The finances of Finnish football are another problem. Municipal facilities are very cheap for junior clubs, as promoting sport among young people is one of the duties of local councils here, but for amateur teams it can be as much as four times as expensive. The league licenses are also much dearer for senior teams than for junior ones, especially as the line between pro clubs and pub teams is pretty blurred, and all the immigrant clubs play at or near that line.

They also face a different problem. Finnish teams can be reluctant to play against immigrant teams, as they have a lot of misconceptions about the way immigrants play football. When pitches are scarce over the winter, it is difficult for the immigrant clubs to get a game as the clubs with pitch bookings tend to ring up their mates in other clubs rather than ask the foreigners to play. So it tended to be Mondial against Colo Colo and Spartak (the Hispanic and Russian teams) when winter came around.

So last winter Mondial got a grant to buy a share in a heated pitch, as a means of ensuring they had a nice facility to play in. They invited lots of clubs for friendlies, including A Juniors from Atlantis, organised sauna evenings with other clubs, and generally tried to make themselves more well known and acceptable among Helsinki’s football fraternity. It was, it has to be said, a massive success.

Unfortunately they might not get the grant money this year, because instead of organising seminars about racism they played football and drank beer. I am an amateur at race relations, but in my limited experience of breaking down prejudices and barriers, sitting in classrooms has been much less productive than playing football and drinking beer. I hope Mondial get the money to continue their work from somewere. If you would like to help (money is good, offers to drink beer and play football infinitely better) then get in touch via footballinfinland ‘at’ gmail.com.

Veikkausliiga Round 25 preview, part 2

TamU beat Honka 4-3 in an entertaining game that saw TamU stir up the title race once again. A few weeks ago they got a home win against Inter and now the other title candidate was treated to a defeat at their hands.

FC Lahti – IFK Mariehamn

A win would guarantee IFK Mariehamn a place in Veikkausliiga for next year while the Black Drones could use a win too, as it would mean that the fate of bronze medals would then be decided in the last round of games.
IFK Mariehamn have suffered from injuries throughout the season and Arajuuri, Reed, Ochieng, Överström, Blomberg and Chilom are still out. FC Lahti have no injuries apart from Jere Pitkälä, who has been missing for a long time. So yes, the King will play.
It will probaly be an even game as both teams have something to play for. However, I think the home team’s quality and their willingness to bring home the first medals in the club’s history is enough to see off the threat of IFK Mariehamn.

MyPa – FC Inter

MyPa still have a chance of finishing fourth while Inter have an advantage over Honka in the title race.
Tuomas Kuparinen is out for MyPa while Ats Purje, Ville Nikkari, Kito, Felix Åkerlund, Henri Lehtonen, Joni Kauko and Ville Mäkilä are out for Inter. The list looks lengthy, but they have played fairly well without Purje, Nikkari and Kito and Henri Lehtonen, despite being the team captain, can be replaced as he has been fairly average during the season.
I’ve got to go for an away win here. MyPa won’t lose this game easily, but Inter will know that after Honka’s defeat yesterday, a win today will make them champions.

FF Jaro – KuPS

The hosts are safe and have nothing to play for, but are motivated as 2008 has been Jaro’s best season in a long time. KuPS, on the other hand, are threatened by relegation and need a win to have a chance of avoiding the relegation play-offs.
Jonas Portin, Jonas Emet, Vesa Heikinheimo and Jermu Gustaffson are missing from the hosts. KuPS’ Joonas Pöntinen and Petteri Pennanen are away with the U-19 team and Jarno Kauhanen and Echiabhi Okodugha are injured.
Given Jaro’s good season (by their standards), I can’t really see the visitors taking a win. A draw is by all means possible and Jaro could snatch the three points too.

RoPS – VPS

Both teams are safe from relegation. RoPS will probably field some of their own youngsters and that is a welcome move. Janne Turpeenniemi is suspended and Nchimunya Mweetwa and Chileshe Chibwe are out due to injuries. VPS are missing Ville Koskimaa, Jussi Ekström and the suspended Maciej Truszczynski.
It might be a display of nice, creative football or then a crop of uninterested players trying to get it out of the way. The win could go either way and a draw is possible too.

TPS – FC KooTeePee

Perhaps the most uninteresting game of the round. TPS have had a tough, disappointing season and KooTeePee ensured a couple of weeks ago that they are going down to Ykkönen (although I am tempted to say that the relegation was already a foregone conclusion in April).
Kiko is suspended for TPS and Ville Lehtonen, Mika Ääritalo, Jani Sarajärvi and Simo Valakari are missing due to injuries. KooTeePee are missing Niko Ikävalko, Obinna Okafor and Tommi Vartiainen. Tuomo Turunen and Henri Järviniemi are doubtful.
Basically, the question is how big a margin will TPS win by. Maybe Mikko Paatelainen has an answer as he has a chance of being the league’s top scorer this year?
If KooTeePee get anything out of this game, I can only call it ridiculous. A definite home win.

FC Haka – HJK

One of the classics in Finnish football.
Haka will not bring home silverware or European spots this year, HJK are still fighting for bronze medals. Haka are in the Suomen Cup semi finals and the Cup is all they are aiming for.
The hosts are missing Kalle Parviainen and Sebastian Strandvall. HJK are healthy, with the possible exception of Petri Oravainen.
Haka have lost four home games in a row and will want to turn it around in their last home fixture of the season. HJK, however, have more to play for and are favourites.

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.

Smoked out

Tampere United fans were a little bit disgruntled on Sunday. They had been chucked out of the HJK match en masse for letting off smoke bombs, a ridiculous over-reaction and unnecessary collective punishment. The first half of the VPS match was extremely dull as a result, as the Sinikaarti section was empty and the fans stood outside the fence.

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The caption reads ‘some smokes – 100 punished’.

The fans stood outside in the first half and put their banner up out there:

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Things were better in the second half, when they returned and seemed much louder than usual. That effect was probably just a result of their absence, and silence in the first half, but it amply demonstrated that Tampere United are really nothing without Sinikaarti. You can have all the free ticketers, all the ligging sponsor’s guests, all the junior teams you like, but they are no replacement for paying fans who care about the team. Not enough people in Finnish football understand that.

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