European draws

Friday’s UEFA Cup and Champions League draws could have shown the participating Finnish clubs a bit more mercy.

TamU’s dreams of making it to the Champions League group stage are pretty much ruled out. They need a perfect performance and some help from the heavens above if they want to cancel out Artmedia’s 3-1 aggregate lead and three away goals in their second qualification round second leg game next week. Even if they do qualify for the next round, they will need another miracle when they take on Italian giants Juventus.

In the UEFA Cup, FC Haka will play Brøndby IF from Denmark, while FC Honka face a challenge from Norway’s Viking Stavanger.
Veikkausliiga teams in general are not much weaker than Norwegian or Danish premier league sides. However, other Scandinavian sides usually have more experience from European games as opposed to the Finns, and the quality of their routine performance is a little bit higher, owing to them getting so many challenging games in their domestic leagues.
It cannot be said that Haka and Honka stand no chance though. The Scandinavian clashes are usually even affairs, but Danish, Swedish and Norwegian sides always seem to have the upper hand. Most likely Haka and Honka will have to put in a performance of their highest standards.

It is interesting to see how the clubs will react, if any leading persons in the organizations come out publicly to discuss the draws. In the past, Finnish clubs have sometimes been so pessimistic about their team’s chances of qualifying that they have wanted to be drawn to play a big European club, the logic behind being “we won’t qualify anyway, so let’s hope we get a big team to play against so we can cash in on the home game”. FC Honka could have drawn Manchester City and FC Haka had a chance to play Aston Villa. Both English teams would have probably beaten their Finnish opponents, but they would have attracted huge crowds. Playing Brøndby IF and Viking Stavanger will provide the Finns with a better chance to qualify, but in case they lose, will the clubs grieve over the money they “lost” when they didn’t get to play European giants?

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FC Haka v Cork City preview

This should be in today’s Irish Daily Mail:

Cork City manager Alan Mathews is expected to name an unchanged team for his side’s UEFA Cup First Qualifying Round clash with Finnish club FC Haka tonight. Cork need at least a high scoring draw after the first leg at Turner’s Cross finished 2-2, but there was an upbeat mood among the Cork squad as they trained in hot sunny weather at Haka’s Tehtaan Kenttä ground yesterday afternoon.

Cork are aiming to emulate the aggressive, up-tempo game that saw City claw back a two goal deficit in the first leg. Haka will welcome back the calming influence of 38 year-old Russian playmaker Valeri Popovitch, who did not travel to Ireland because he is afraid of flying.

The Finnish club have won nine Finnish Championships, more than any other club except HJK Helsinki, but off-field issues have dominated their start to the 2008 season.

The Valkeakoski side were initially refused a licence to play in this season’s UEFA Cup because their finances were not in order. Part of the solution came when the local council bought all the tickets for the home leg of the First Round tie, and then distributed them free of charge.

A capacity crowd of 3,500 is expected at the stadium, which has a pleasantly wooded setting on three sides, and a foul-smelling wood pulp factory on the other.

The pulp factory is a symbol of the previous backers of the club, United Paper Mills. After they pulled the plug on Haka, local nightclub owner Seppo ‘Sedu’ Koskinen stepped in and bought the club, promising to glamorise football in the small industrial town of Valkeakoski.

The 51 year old owner has promised to increase the ‘buzz’ around Haka games by inviting Finnish celebrities to Haka games, and has suggested that Haka players will need to be good-looking in future so as to ensure plenty of women turn up.

Cork will be without striker John O’Flynn, who has not yet recovered from his ligament injury. Haka’s Mikko Innanen and Pieteri Holopainen were injured in Sunday’s 1-0 win over VPS Vaasa and will be replaced by first leg goalscorer Janne Mahlakaarto and Jarno Mattila.

Probable line-ups

Haka: Dovbnya, Mattila, Kangaskorpi, Viljanen, Okkonen, Mattila, Kauppila, Manninen, Popovitch, Lehtinen, Mahlakaarto

Cork: Devine, Horgan, Murray, Sullivan, Danny Murphy, Healy, Gamble, Darren Murphy, Kearney, Behan, Mooney.

Honka cruise past Akranes, Haka “stagger like 4am drunks”

Honka did the business in Vantaa, and should now have a routine trip to Iceland in two weeks. Koskela, Heilala and Otaru got the goals in front of a crowd of 2,300 at Pohjola Stadium. I’d love to see a team playing there at a higher level than Kolmonen, Vantaa is such a sporting desert at present and a team in Kakkonen could draw big crowds. HIFK, PoPa, Warkaus JK and KTP are currently getting decent attendances at that level, and you’d hope that Allianssi would too.

Haka started well in Cork, but could not withstand the pressure their opponents applied in the last half hour. Daniel McDonnell was not impressed with Haka, or Cork for that matter, bemoaning poor defending on both sides. Still, this is a better result than they managed against Rhyl last year. There are also reports in the Irish Times and on RTE.

European draws

The draws for the first qualifying round of the European competitions were made today. The Finnish clubs all have a good chance of progression. In the UEFA Cup Haka will play Cork City and Honka will take on ÍA Akranes of Iceland. Cork are a good side with a growing fan base and I expect them to give Haka a good game. O’Connells will be packed out that week, no doubt.

In the Champions League, Tampere United will play Budućnost Podgorica of Montenegro. They’ll need to be on top form against a team containing several Monetenegran Under 21 internationals. TamU’s will need to improve on their lacklustre performances so far this season if they’re not to come a cropper. If they manage to get past Buducnost, they will play Maltese champions Valetta or Slovakian student drama group Artmedia Bratislava.

One thing I am looking forward to is the arrival of Varvari in Tampere, if they turn up. I once saw two busloads of Partizan Belgrade basketball fans get a right shoeing from the Podgorica police, but Varvari were nowhere to be seen.

UEFA Cup Final preview

Zenit St Petersburg represent the city that has often defined relations between Finland and Russia, and therefore the security and prosperity of the Finnish people. The area around St Petersburg was at one time inhabited by people speaking Finnic languages, and on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland there still exists small pockets of Ingrians.

Since Peter the Great drained the swamps around his new capital city, the relationship between Russia and those to its west has been a defining feature of Russian policy. For those who lived to Russia’s west this was an uncomfortable situation, as first the Tsars and then the Soviets felt the need to protect their western territory. As Finland was first annexed and then declared independent, the implications became clearer to those in charge of both Finland and Russia, and the importance of St Petersburg (or Leningrad as it was then known) declined. The capital reverted to Moscow, and the Soviets concentrated on building ‘socialism in one country’.

Then came the Second World War. A horrifically bloody affair in this part of the world, it involved huge invasions and re-invasions, and a massive miscalculation on the part of the Finnish command when deciding the relative importance of areas of forest in Northern Karelia and the security of the second city of the Soviet Union. Despite the snafus, Finland defended most of its territory, but it was clear from the subsequent negotiations that the Soviet Union was not prepared to countenance even the impression of a threat to Leningrad, as it was then known.

Zenit won their first honours during the war, the Wartime Soviet Cup of 1944. At this time Finland was engaged in heavy fighting with the Soviet Union just to the north of Leningrad, and those Zenit players who were not conscripted to go to the front were working in the metal works that was at that time the owner of Zenit. After the war they were taken over by the makers of LOMO cameras.

During the Cold War, Finns had more person-to-person contacts with Russians than many other nationalities. Trade, which was mandatory under the terms of Finland’s Friendship and Co-operation Agreement with the Soviet Union, ensured that decision makers in both countries had an interest in not questioning the values of the other side too closely.

Zenit’s fortunes were up and down after 1945, as it was always difficult for teams outside of Moscow and Kiev to make an impact in the Soviet league. They did escape relegation in 1967 when they finished in the relegation places though, as it was felt that Leningrad needed a top flight team in the year in which the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution was celebrated. In the 80s things picked up, and they won a league title in 1984.

Since then, the pendulum of political and economic power in Russia has swung back towards St Petersburg. Both the current and previous Presidents (I’ll pretend it matters that there’s a new one) are from St Petersburg and Medvedev at least is an avid Zenit fan. They are now owned by Gazprom, which is expected to become the biggest company in the world in the next few years, and has its headquarters in the city. As Gazprom searches for legitimacy in Europe, financing pipelines here and ice hockey tournaments there, Zenit are expected to become a power in the world game by virtue of sheer financial clout.

They are supported by Russia’s president, by the most important Russian company, and by a small section of ultra nationalist and racist fans. This combination of monopoly capitalism, massive wealth and populist xenophobia is a microcosm of much of Russian politics and society, which is crucially important to Finland and for locating Finland in the context of Europe. Is Zenit’s success a sign of Russia’s westernising impulse? Is the bigotry in the stands an indication of the popularity of a virulent nationalism that Finland should take note of? Is Gazprom’s rise a benign case of a company searching for recognition through sponsorship of sport, or is it a more sinister indication of control in Russia passing from private to semi-state hands?

None of those questions will be answered or even discussed on Finnish free-to-air television tonight, because as someone so appropriately put it, ‘it’s HOCKEY TIME!’ right now. YLE don’t have the rights to the Zenit v Rangers UEFA Cup final, so they’re not showing the game. Anywhere. At all.

With each passing day I feel less and less like paying these people for the privilege of owning a television set, and this may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Haka kicked out of Europe

FC Haka have been denied a licence to play in the 2008-09 UEFA Cup. Apparently this is for financial reasons, and TPS have been ‘promoted’ from the Intertoto to fill their place. The full list of Finnish entrants now reads:

Champions League: Tampere United

UEFA Cup: Honka, TPS, Jaro (if they win the Fair Play ballot)

Intertoto: MyPa

Haka do have the right of appeal against the denial, the results of which will be known in 2 weeks.

More when we get it/I read it

European draws

Tampere United have drawn Murata from San Marino in the first qualifying round of the Champions League. A mighty relief for them giving them near-certain progression to the second qualifying round where they will face Levski Sofia. Each round is worth 150,000euro, so it’s not like the club wanted to draw Dinamo Zagreb for the big occasion.

Full draw is here.

In the UEFA Cup, Haka will go to Sunny Rhyl, MyPa face the Faroese side EB/Streymur and HJK will play FC Etzella, from Luxembourg. I guess all three will be confident of pregression.