Yrjö Asikainen was a strong, bustling forward who scored vital goals for Finland in their first important victories after the Second World War. A 2-0 win over Denmark in Copenhagen on 11 September 1949 was greeted with gleeful disbelief back home in Finland, where Asikainen got a memorable reception in his adopted home town of Tampere.
“I got off the train and walked down Hämeenkatu,” Asikainen told me when I interviewed him in 2007. “People stopped and looked at me, and slowly people began clapping because of what we’d achieved in the match.”
In 1950 Asikainen scored in a 4-1 win over Holland and a 3-2 victory against Yugoslavia, and he looked set to become a fixture in the national team for years to come. His football career had begun in his birthplace, Vyborg, where he played for ViipurinIlves up until the outbreak of the Second World War. He volunteered to help defend the town at the age of sixteen, serving in an anti-aircraft battery before being evacuated in the early summer of 1944.
Life as an evacuee was precarious, with a spell living in Jyväskylä before Asikainen reunited with his former ViipurinIlves team mates in Tampere. The team, now called IlvesKissat, was to win the Finnish championship in 1950 with nine Karelian evacuees in the starting line-up. Asikainen was their figurehead, winning the golden boot with 20 goals in 1949, and again with 15 goals in 1950..
Like most evacuees, Asikainen found life outside Karelia hard. The attitude of the host population was indifferent and occasionally hostile, but sport offered a way for them to integrate and gain acceptance. Asikainen described IlvesKissat’s championship as “our gift to Tampere”, and it was an important event for a town that had not previously won a football championship.
Asikainen became a single father in the early fifties with the death of his wife, and money matters became more pressing for him. Despite trials at Arsenal and Werder Bremen, injury prevented him from moving abroad like his friend and strike partner in the national team, Aulis Rytkönen, but he still had to earn a living in an era when professionalism was still frowned upon, and “shamateurism” flourished.
Rytkönen was not selected for the national team during his time at French club Toulouse FC, and Asikainen had to make do with banknotes stuffed in his boots in the changing room when he returned to football with Helsinki club Kiffen. Even when he started playing in Vyborg, he received cinema tickets as an incentive to sign for one club over another, a practice that now seems rather quaint in modern football, where 16 year old Finns can earn hundreds of thousands of euros by moving abroad.
Despite winning a championship with Kiffen in 1955, he never moved to Helsinki and played only two seasons for the club, but was nevertheless one of the most celebrated players when Kiffen celebrated their centenary last autumn.
In later years he became a coach for IlvessKissat and the junior national teams, and a journalist for Aamulehti and the Swedish-language newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet, where his upbringing in multilingual Vyborg proved helpful. He returned to his birthplace every year after travel became possible, usually with former players, officials, fans and family members of IlvesKissat.
Asikainen will be remembered as a legend of Finnish football with a phenomenal success rate, a man who only played five seasons in the Finnish top flight but was top scorer in three of them, a striker who only played nine internationals but scored five goals for Finland. He died at the beginning of last month at his home in Ylöjärvi.