2008 Veikkausliiga – the changing of the guard

The biggest disappointment this year has been HJK Helsinki. They started with high hopes, big signings, and a fluent attacking style, but things have fallen apart for them since the 3-2 win over Inter that seemed to renew their title hopes back in August. Their strategy – big money signings combined with the cream of Finnish youngsters – has failed, as they finished fourth in this year’s Veikkausliiga and will now rely on the Finnish Cup to qualify for Europe.

The cream of Finnish youngsters is a particularly wasteful part of the strategy, as Finland is full of ex-HJK players. Not just the pros, but amateurs who played for a while and then left the club as juniors, along with guys like Antonio Inutile who never really got a chance there.

Whereas Inter’s policy is that young players need a chance in the first team as soon as possible, because otherwise you will never know what they could have achieved, HJK’s seems to be that a place in their line-up needs to be earned, and can’t be wasted on just anyone.

Next year’s bright young hope for HJK is Akseli Pelvas, who moved to HJK from EsPa when he was 14. Pelvas has impressed, scoring 24 goals for HJK’s farm club Klubi 04 in Kakkonen this season. He was shipped out to IFK Mariehamn on loan to get a taste of Veikkausliiga, and then scored twice for HJK to give them a 3-2 win at FC Haka last week, but the 19 year old is going to have to compete with Paulus Roiha, Jarno Parikka and probably one new signing in 2009.

They have annoyed a lot of people in other Helsinki clubs with their magpie-like transfer policy, and I get the feeling that whichever Helsinki club manages to identify itself as the anti-HJK will get a lot of support and have a good chance of establishing themselves.

Compare that to Inter, who spent a large part of the summer without proper strikers after Timo Furuholm got injured. They eventually signed Gulliano Grot and Domagoj Abramovic, but the coach needed to demonstrate the desperate need, and potential rewards, before he was given the go-ahead to offer them contracts.

There’s been some disappointment about the drop in attendances for Veikkausliiga games this year. The average for Veikkausliiga this season was 2,631, down from 2,976 in 2007. I don’t really share the pessimism, as Veikkausliiga is not the only thing in Finnish football, and further down the pyramid there are some small rumblings of change.

Quality not quantity is what matters, and the big away followings and developing rivalries are what will make Veikkausliiga stronger in the long term. I’ve seen or heard about away followings of at least 100 fans from Inter, HJK, TPS, Viikingit, Honka, Tampere United, Lahti, PoPa and HIFK this season. Those are a lot of clubs to have taken so many people away, the kind of followings that usually only occur when there is something big to play for.

Once you get that many people travelling and chanting, then people will want to go to see the fans and the rivalry, as they have been doing at Turku derbies, and so people should maybe worry a little bit less about KooTeePee getting 1,700 rather than 2,200 people.

It’s a slow process, but as PoPa, HIFK, and whichever of the Oulu clubs comes out on top get their act together, the long term trend is upwards. Last season’s Veikkausliiga figures were most likely inflated anyway, as everybody talks about phantom spectators in Finnish football (the phenomenon of clubs picking a number and doubling it rather than counting the number of people through the turnstiles), but this season there was a bit of an attempt by the league to clamp down on the practice.

The great thing about 2008 is that Finland has three new ‘medal winners’ (that doesn’t make much sense in English, but it’s a very common phrase here) this year, and they all have reasons to be cheerful. Lahti finally showed their town a reason to support them, and took a huge, 500+ following to HJK for their final game. That is the kind of support that matters, not an extra few hundred juniors getting pisswet through and hating every minute of a home game they didn’t pay to see. They also have Jari Litmanen, who will surely finish his career there now and is just about the best marketing tool any Finnish club can hope for.

Inter have the best young players of any Finnish club, they own the best stadium, and they will compete in the Champions League next year. Job Dragtsma is hopeful that they would keep Dominic Chatto, which would be a major coup for the club. With Joni Aho, Mika Ojala and possibly Chatto as well, they will again be at the top of Veikkausliiga. Europe is another thing, but their style of play might help them there.

Honka did well in Europe this year, but their victory over Viking Stavanger and narrow defeat to Santander just failed to get them into the UEFA Cup group stages. Vasara and Kokko have been very good, but the middling playerslike Weckström, Peltonen and Kokko have been the real revelations this year. Nobody expected much from them, indeed Kokko was rejected by TamU when he was at their farm club, but Mika Lehkosuo has really gotten the best out of them. That’s a trick HJK have not yet mastered.

They really need a new stadium, and I was worried by the councillors I spoke to in Espoo talking about ‘private finance’ for it. That might be difficult to find in the coming recession, during which building costs will be cheaper and the owners of the ground will be able to get more for their money. We’ll see what Espoo council comes up with.

The biggest fiasco of the season has been Tampere United. That deserves a post of its own, and even then  you could only scratch the surface of what has gone wrong since the double win last year. Speaking to a member of their fan group a couple of weeks ago, the only source of pride he could come up with was that his group had fewer glory hunters, as their numbers have held up pretty well no matter how shit the team has played. And the team has played, very, very shit at times this season.

Advertisements

Espoo

Great car parks of Espoo

Cities tend to have a distinguishing feature, something that sets them apart from their rivals. Venice has canals, Barcelona offers weird looking Gaudi architecture, New York has sky scrapers. In Espoo – second biggest municipality in Finland, and home to Nokia headquarters – the main feature of the landscape is the car park. Multi-story, dirt-track, fenced off fields – they’re absolutely everywhere.

People live in Espoo because they want to pretend the Greater Helsinki conurbation does not exist, and that means they all have a car so they can get from place to place without interacting with anybody else. This helps make Espoo a disturbing suburban mix of cars, roads, fields and housing, with no centre and next to no public transport.

It’s not absolutely diabolical. They have a Veikkausliiga team, for starters, and they’ve done very well this year. They hope to get a new stadium soon, and by crikey they need it. Honka play at a Sunday league ground. They seem to have stolen the seats from a primary school and nailed them to benches, covering the stands with some plastic sheeting. You can see the priorities of Espoo decision makers by comparing the Länsi Auto areena – a hockey rink sponsored by, what else, a car dealership – with the Tapiola football ground:

Espoo's hockey and football facilities

Honka did well to hold Finnish Champions Tampere United (for another three days or so) till extra time, when they scored twice to get the win. The game was a bit dull, and Jonne Hjelm should have won it for TamU when he hit the bar, and again 5 minutes later when the referee inexplicably failed to give a penalty when he was scythed down by Ville Jalasto. The headline in HBL was ‘Honka win the wrong game’, referencing their 4-3 loss to TamU in the league on Saturday.

Honka now travel to Haka in the semi final next Wednesday, after playing IFK Mariehamn away in their final league game this Sunday. Honka can win the league if they beat the Ålanders and Inter fail to beat Jaro at home, but it could end up being another near miss for Mika Lehkosuo’s men.

The attendance was not announced, probably as it was so small, but it was swelled by one Tampere United fan from Moscow. Vladimir has followed the club for 4 years, since he bet on them and started playing Championship manager as TamU, and he made the trip to Espoo with 100 or so TamU fans. Here’s Vladimir with his post-match pint:

Vladimir the TamU fan

Veikkausliiga Round 25 Preview

Honka v TamU

This is a rehearsal for the Cup Semi final on Wednesday. TamU have nothing to play for in the league, and a big game against the same opponents on Wednesday. On the other hand, they probably won’t want to go into that game off the back of a heavy defeat.

“We got to rest a bit, and now we have a very good feeling,” Honka’s striker Aleksandr Kokko told his club’s website. “TamU have drawn some games and got two 1-0 wins in their last two games. They are in good condition, but so are we and we’ll be ready to take three points on Saturday.”

Kokko is one of the people who will be disappointed when Henri Myntti wins the Golden Boot this year. He’s not admitting defeat yet though, bless his Pori socks.

“Sure it’d be great, if Myntti didn’t score and I got at least one. It’s really not important, the important thing is to win.”

That’s right Aleks, let yourself down gently.

TamU have a lengthy injury list, but should welcome back Chris James into midfield, while Honka have a full squad, pretty much.

This may or may not be updated with the other games later, when I get back from TPV-Atlantis.

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

Finland’s young guns frighten Germany

Finland were without Jari Litmanen when they took on European Championship runners-up Germany at the Olympic Stadium, but they still managed to put in an excellent performance in Stuart Baxer’s first competitive game in charge, drawing the match 3-3.

EGAN RICHARDSON

HELSINKI TIMES

FINLAND PLAYED without Jari Litmanen and scored three times against the second best team in Europe. Whatever else comes from the first game of the World Cup qualification campaign, that should be remembered. Litmanen’s fitness has been a dominating theme in the build up to a lot of Finland matches in recent years.

When plans for a statue of Litmanen were discussed in Lahti, wags cruelly suggested that the sculpture should have a glass ankle, so that it could again be broken and remoulded and journalists could fill their word counts by once more guessing the state of Litmanen’s leg.

Finland coach Stuart Baxter had attempted to draw a line under such speculation by clearly setting out the criteria Litmanen would have to meet before being selected for the national side.

The jist was that Litmanen would have to be playing regularly for his club side, and it was this stipulation that led the former Ajax striker to sign for his home town club, FC Lahti, for the end of the Finnish season. He missed out on the Germany game through a bout of flu.

Litmanen is a legend, and is welcome in the Finnish squad, but if he is not fit and in-form then the national side has to have another plan. And what a plan they now have, under a coach favouring a more expansive style than the one employed by the often dour Roy Hodgson.

The Finnish midfield was rejuvenated, breaking forward from midfield and playing early balls for strikers Jonatan Johansson and Mikael Forsell to run onto. Mika Väyrynen was particularly impressive, pinging in the second goal and setting up Daniel Sjölund for the third.

Väyrynen’s situation encapsulates the lot of the Finnish footballer. He left his home country aged just nineteen, and after a successful four years at Heerenveen he got his big move to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven.

Injuries at crucial times hampered his career at PSV, and after three years there he has now returned to Heerenveen, where the club’s management are less able to replace injured players with big new signings.

Finns are far away from home, if they are successful, and can lack allies when team selection becomes political. For instance Sami Hyypiä, omitted from Liverpool’s Champions League squad because of UEFA’s new quota system for home-grown players, is at a clear disadvantage because he is not playing in his home country.

Swedish players have this option at a much earlier stage than Finns, and often take advantage of it. Henrik larsson moved from Barcelona to Helsingborg, and has since played two full seasons there as well as playing for the national side, and Anders Svensson rejuvenated his international career after moving back to IF Elfsborg at the age of 29.

It would be difficult to imagine a Finnish player similarly changing perceptions and cementing a career in the national side from a Veikkausliiga club. The Swedish squad for their recent qualifers included four home-based players, whereas Baxter only called up Tampere United’s Antti Pohja from Veikkausliiga.

Finland’s football clubs just cannot pay the same salaries as Allsvenskan sides, and the option to play at their home club means a loss of income and prestige that is just too big for Finns to consider until their mid to late thirties.

The root cause of this problem is the lack of a distinctive footballing identity among Finnish clubs, players and coaches. He argues that Finland needs a style, an ethos in order for everyone to know their jobs more thoroughly and to have confidence in the tactical plan he lays out. On the evidence of the Germany game, it seems as though Finland will play an up-tempo, aggressive style of football that is good enough to trouble the world’s best teams.

Baxter has said that he wants his Finland to have two or three younger leaders to replace Litmanen. If Eremenko (20 years old) and Väyrynen (26) continue to play as well as they did against Germany, Finland may well have found them, and journalists might not need the glass ankled statue to write about.

A very Finnish ‘riot’

I live in the most violent country in Western Europe. Homicides are more common here than anywhere else that wasn’t run by communists until the early 90s. Someone was stabbed in the chest in the central square of Tampere on Friday night, I have seen numerous fights there, and when people are drunk you know that things might well kick off. And yet I’ve never seen a police van stationed in that square, something that’s standard practice in British town centres, and most of the drunken thuggery goes unchecked. It’s not a good advert for Finland and is pretty common in all Finnish towns.

But when football fans are involved, well, that’s a different matter entirely. Yesterday Sinikaarti, the Tampere United fan group, let off some smoke bombs in their section. It was a bit windy so it wasn’t as effective as it might have been, but it added some welcome colour to what is a pretty big game. Two HJK supporter groups were there, Sakilaiset and Forza HJK, and they installed themselves at opposite ends of the stadium. They do this every time they come to tampere, and I have no idea why. It confuses the hell out of Ratina security, however, one of whom assured a friend of mine that all the HJK fans were in the away fans section (Sakilaiset were not), while one of the Sakilaiset leaders was standing right behind him.

After the smoke bombs went off, the stewards decided to kick everyone in the Tampere United fan section out. The Sinikaarti leaders say they were quite prepared to evict those who were responsible for the smoke bombs, but still the stewards decided to get rid of everyone, innocent or guilty. The club say that smoke bombs are against the rules and that something had to be done, and they will be talking to the security guys to ascertain exactly what happened. Given their ‘razor sharp’ unawareness of 40 away fans in a home stand, I would love to hear what they have to say about that.

Sinikaarti stood behind the fence and watched the game from there instead, and Sakilaiset leaders came over to chat with them about what had happened, even remonstrating with the stewards on behalf of the ejected TamU fans. Before the game Sakilaiset were denied entry to OConnells, where TamU fans normally drink, and stood outside for a bit. Then some Sinikaarti members came out and walked to the ground, through the middle of the group of HJK fans. Now does that sound to you like a riot? Me neither. But rumour has it Radio Nova’s traffic reports disagreed on Sunday afternoon….

The match itself was a bit dull. HJK have become very good at closing down space and forcing teams to use long balls, as Inter did last week, but they also had a good plan to deal with Henri Myntti. He struggled to win headers and TamU’s attacks often broke down. They still took the lead though, through Myntti after a corner, before Jarno Parikka‘s introduction changed the game and gave HJK a 2-1 win.

Honka beat Lahti 1-0, a result that surely puts Lahti out of title contention, and HJK are now top of the league pending Inter’s expected demolition of KooTeePee tonight. You can see highlights of all the games here.

FIF kicks Fjordball’s arse

A year ago, TamU were getting a good seeing to at the hands of Norwegian giants Rosenborg in the Champions League Third Qualifying Round. The Trondheim club have a budget roughly 10 times bigger than TamU, so it was no surprise that Rosenborg ran out easy winners. No shame for a Finnish club in losing to a Norwegian one.

Well, Honka just did Viking in Stavanger to go through to the First Round of the UEFA Cup, which is a frankly astonishing result. The same budgetary problems apply, and remember that Honka have sold three of their better players to Swedish clubs for biggish money in the last year.

Highlights here