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.”

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Transfer news

Just a short post to plug Mika Peura’s excellent transfer page. I’ll write a bit more on the more interesting news in due course (Valeri Popovitch’s departure from Haka being the juiciest little morsel), but if you need to keep in touch with the ins and outs in the meantime, Mika’s your man.

We have a few interviews in the pipeline, as well as the usual navel-gazing and bullshit. The women and under-21s are the national teams of the moment, and they deserve more coverage than they’ve received thus far. We’ll endeavour to put that right soon.

Haka 4 Cork City 0

FC Haka 4 Cork City 0

Cork City’s European hopes were dashed here in Valkeakoski last night as they fell to a disastrous 4-0 defeat against FC Haka. Manager Alan Mathews was left to rue his decision to switch to a 4-5-1 formation after his side were steamrollered in front of a sell-out crowd at Tehtaan Kenttä.

“We switched from 4-4-2 because it was a big pitch, and we wanted to try and keep it tight in the middle and to give ourselves a foothold in the game,” said Mathews, while Cork fans shouted their scorn for the formation during the post-match interview.

The 30-strong Rebel Army had previously chanted ‘4-4-2’ and ‘on the ground’ as their side failed to get any kind of foothold and resorted to niggly fouls and long balls. At half time Mathews changed the formation in an attempt to come back from a 2-0 deficit, bringing on striker Denis Behan and taking off midfielder Cillian Lordan.

Behan’s aggressive style proved counter-productive when he contested a free kick given against him and was given a yellow card for dissent. The 24 year old had already been booked for a foul 13 minutes earlier, and the Latvian referee had no choice but to send the former Brentford man off.

“If you get sent off for dissent, that’s an unacceptable red card,” said a frustrated Mathews after the game. “If you get sent off for fouling somebody perhaps you can dispute it, but dissent is a cheap red card and that’s very disappointing.”

Cork went behind in the 10th minute when Toni Lehtinen raced clear down the right flank. He crossed for Janne Mahlakaarto, who slotted the ball past Cork goalkeeper Michael Devine. It was a taste of things to come for the Cork defence, who were carved open repeatedly in a torrid first half.

Haka’s Russian midfielder Valeri Popovitch was the star of the show. Having missed the first leg in Cork due to his aviophobia, the 38 year old showed his class with a lovely lob for the second goal after great interplay with Lehtinen.

Cork had a lot of corners but never looked like scoring. Their most dangerous moment came when Haka goalkeeper Sasha Dovbnya dropped the ball 10 yards from goal, but even then Mooney was second to the ball and the danger passed. Their evening was summed up when Gamble raced clear of his marker but overran the ball. His frustration boiled over and he belted the ball at the advertising hoardings, with the rebound almost reaching the halfway line.

Manninen got a third goal after good work from Popovitch and Kangaskorpi, before Valeri Minkenen won a free kick and scored it himself to wrap up a 4-0 win in the 79th minute.

Asked by Finnish journalists what had gone wrong, Mathews denied his side were unprepared for Popovitch. “We knew he was a good player and we had plans to deal with that, but we put in a very poor performance that wasn’t worthy of getting anything from the game,” said Cork manager Alan Mathews.

Haka: Dovbnya, Kangaskorpi, Viljanen (Minkenen 61), Okkonen, Kauppila, Manninen (Nikkilä 85), Parviainen, Lehtinen (Mattila 52), Popovitch, Mahlakaarto, Fowler.

Cork: Devine, Horgan, Murray, Gamble, Lordan (Behan 45), Healy, Darren Murphy, Sullivan, Kearney (Ryan 61), Danny Murphy, Mooney (O’Flynn 81).

Goals: 10′ Mahlakaarto, 15′ Popovitch, 70′ Manninen, 79′ Minkenen

Attendance: 3,211

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.

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.

Haka win ‘classico’

TamU 1 Honka 2

IFK 0 Lahti 1

VPS 1 RoPS 0

HJK 1 Haka 2

KuPS 2 FF Jaro 0

Click score for highlights

Today’s Hufvudstadsbladet says that Mikko Manninen would be hailed to the skies if he was playing in the Helsinki area or in Turku. Of course he would, he’s a smashing player and, these days, much more important to Haka than Popovitch. My prediction was that the ageing Russian would lose the midfield battle, but Haka coach Huttunen cannily avoided that problem by leaving him out of the side altogether. This was ostensibly because of a knee injury, but the confidence a Popovitchless win will give Haka going into their UEFA Cup game in Cork shouldn’t be underestimated. The aviophobic 38 year old will not travel to Ireland.

There was a great finish from Jarno Parikka, and an amusing segue in the highlights film when the cameraman goes from a loud PA system introducing the teams to five fans on each side singing their support. It is not that impressive.

Lahti midfielder Konsta Hietanen scored direct from a corner to keep Lahti in touch with Inter and plunge IFK deeper  into a relegation battle with KuPS, who beat Jaro 2-0 with the help of an excellent goal by Jussi-Pekka Savolainen.

VPS started with Edereho, and he missed some amazing chances in the second half. Thankfully he scored from a corner, and might just keep his place. There was a strange incident at the end of the game when referee Ville Järvenpää gave RoPS a penalty for what seemed like nothing at all. Why do Veikkausliiga referees get these game-changing rushes of blood to the head at the end of matches?

Jonas Emet is a good player

Just look at the two goals he scored yesterday. I’ll be honest and say I’ve not come across him before, but according to Wikipedia he’s had trials at Southampton and Djurgården already, and he’s only 19. He’s scored 5 goals in 9 games this season, from midfield. We’ll see how he plays at Ratina on Sunday.

The top of the table clash in Valkeakoski was what I think football journalists are supposed to call ‘absorbing’. The first 30 minutes were absolutely dominated by Tampere, as they closed down space and refused to give Haka any options. Key to this was Jussi Kujala at centre back. His distribution and reading of the game are excellent, and in the first half he created the best opening with his pass to Tomi Petrescu, which is in Iltalehti’s highlights (see link above, use the sidebar).

He’s a bit weak defensively, though. For all their dominance Tampere couldn’t score, and it was inevitable that Haka would come back into it at some point. They did, and had some good chances despite never really getting the upper hand in the first half. Honours even in the first half.

After the break Tampere tired badly. They lost control of the midfield, and Haka hit the woodwork twice. Popovich played very well. Tampere are a resilient team though, and they came back into it immediately after Daniel Nwoke’s introduction. The first action after he came on was a corner, which he flicked on. From the flick the ball was crossed back in and Lindström headed home at the far post. 1-0, should be game over for an experienced team like Tampere.

When Sakari Saarinen broke free in injury time, he could have taken the ball into the corner, he could have shot and at the very least put the ball behind the goal and allowed Tampere to regroup from the restart, or he could have passed to Daniel Nwoke in acres of space, just to his left with an open goal to shoot at.

He did none of these things, preferring to try to dribble around the entire defence before weakly shooting against the defender’s legs. Of course, Haka went straight up the other end and scored. I’ll be surprised if he plays in the next few weeks, Ari Hjelm tends to remember these things. Saarinen has struggled to regain last season’s form, and he may be looking at a spell on the sidelines now. Tampere are not short of midfielders.

I was surprised by the number of Tampere United fans in the ground. It’s a little bit sad that they have strict segregation for Sinikaarti, but nothing at all for the rest-so you have 80 people singing and 200 odd sitting quietly in the next stand. And there is no ‘end’ for the away fans so they might join in the singing and stuff. As it was, I didn’t realise till Tampere scored that half of our stand had travelled from Tampere. Dedicated stands for away fans would be a very good innovation in Finnish football.