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.

skprotesti003

The caption reads ‘some smokes – 100 punished’.

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

skprotesti009

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.

skprotesti014

Yle vs. Urheilukanava

Yle started their Veikkausliiga broadcasts today as FF Jaro played FC Lahti. The system in Finland is quite interesting: Urheilukanava broadcast the games from April to September, and Yle are only interested when the title is about to be won. The move from Urheilukanava to Yle may raise the number of people watching, as Urheilukanava is a channel directed at sports people and the popular Yle channels have something for everyone – except football fans.

I was prepared for my daily dose of football well in advance, and out of an old habit I turned on the TV half an hour before the game to watch the pre-game analysis – but instead, I had to watch men with bags full of testosterone tune a Ford Ranchero.When the broadcast started, only 10 minutes prior to kick-off, I only saw a widely unknown guy from Yle standing next to Juha Malinen, who had nothing interesting to say during the lucrative five minutes dedicated to the pre-match analysis.

After the game, the same team made a desperate attempt to discuss the game in a quarter of an hour, including post-match interviews. The ratings aside, difference between Yle and Urheilukanava was huge, to the advantage of the latter. If Yle really wants to broadcast the games, why not do it properly? In Urheilukanava, two highly enthusiastic football lovers dedicate 25 minutes to predicting the game before Finland’s best commentator, Tuomas Virkkunen, takes over.

And the same formula is used for every game, be it a largely uninteresting encounter between two mid-table teams or a highly anticipated clash between two top teams. Yle then interferes and ruins the whole thing for the most interesting games of the season. In addition to not doing things properly, they also force changes in the schedules. The televised game always starts at 4 PM, while other fixtures are kicked off at 7:30 as usual.

Anyway, KuPS suffered an expected 4-0 loss at Inter on Friday and they weren’t much helped on Sunday by TPS, whose new, more spirited style of play under John Allen meant a 2-1 loss to the struggling IFK Mariehamn. To cancel out Inter’s win, Honka took an expected win over KooTeePee and HJK took the win they needed at MyPa, the score being 3-1. FC Lahti had to settle with a 2-2 draw at Jaro and VPS got a point at TamU with each team scoring once.

There’s three points separating FC Honka from table-topping Inter, and if neither of the teams stumble, their clash in Turku on 5th October will be of a decisive nature as far as the title is concerned. HJK are five points away from the top and will have to use the backdoor if they want to join the title race. Other teams are ruled out unless miracles happen.

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.

To sell or not to sell?

Juha raised a good question the other day about Finnish teams in Europe. Are they happy to draw big clubs, in the expectation that they will get a drubbing and a bumper crowd, or do they prefer to get the unkown teams that might offer a chance of progress? TamU’s co-owner Tim Rowe was rather annoyed at drawing Buducnost in the first qualifying round, because they are neither a big club nor a pushover, so a small crowd and an exit was a possibility: the worst of all worlds, in other words.

TamU are out of the CL now, after a 4-2 defeat in the second leg against Artmedia, but they have become a good veikkausliiga side. At the start of the season they were a bad Veikkausliiga team, whereas last season they were playing a different sport to most other teams in the division. The sale of Juska Savolainen hurt them a lot, as pointed out loudly and repeatedly by Ari Hjelm, and you do wonder what might have happened if they’d gambled a bit and kept hold of him for another crack at the Champions League. This season’s TamU would have a good chance against Kaunas or Aalborg, never mind one with Juska in it as well.

But that’s by the by. TamU are now a side with a big centre forward, to whom they do not just ‘lump it up’ as I put it before. Pohja and James come deep to collect the ball, and if and when a cross to Myntti comes, it is usually a quality ball that catches the defence out. Only occasionally do they hit a long ball, and when they do Myntti usually wins it and lays it off. Against Artmedia TamU lost the midfield battle and were forced into long balls more often, with the Slovakians well prepared, tall and able to physically defend Myntti. Veikkausliiga teams don’t seem to have grasped that skill yet, but when RoPS were winning the midfield battle they had chances to score and TamU looked poor.

It will be interesting to see how TPS cope with Myntti on Saturday. Against Inter they were abject, unable to cope with Joni Aho striding out of defence or Jos Hooiveld’s heading ability at corners. The one bright spot for Martti Kuusela is that his ploy of using Chris Cleaver at right back worked quite well, with Purje inneffective for much of the game.

In the stands it was an even contest, with TPS having a slight edge in the early stages but suffering from inflexibility towards the end. They sat in the Veritas Stand opposite the Inter fans, a much better position for the away support to occupy than the usual spot at the other end of the same stand, and were very loud in the early stages. Their ‘the city is black and white’ chant was particularly apt as the 8,254 crowd seemed to be split pretty evenly between Tepsi and Inter fans, despite it being an Inter home game.

But when Inter took the lead and their fans started asking if TPS’s Sissi Ryhmä were going to turn their backs again, they had no answer. A bad day for TPS, with Kuusela conceding the title was a lost cause and a thorough seeing to from their crosstown rivals, but I was most interested in Job Dragtsma’s reactions.

I like him, his team has always tried to play good football and he is finally seeing some success for his efforts. He seems much harder this season though, a bit less relaxed and occasionally going apoplectic on the bench, entirely losing his cool Dutch aura. He had good reason on Monday, as Inter players were consistently getting scythed down and the referee only booking their players. With games against Haka, Lahti and HJK coming up, Inter have a golden opportunity to stride ahead of the pack in the next couple of weeks and you sense that Dragtsma knows it – the other possibility is that Inter lose top spot and have to fight like hell to get it back.