Football in Finland: 2008 Preview

Tampere UnitedWhen Tampere United got to the Third Qualifying Round of the Champions League in 2007, it should have been a big step towards confirming the improvements made in the Finnish game. The national team was having one of its best ever qualification campaigns, the Under 21s were looking good for the 2009 European Championships, and now the champions had beaten Bulgarian giants Levski Sofia to set up a Nordic derby against Rosenborg for the right to play in the money spinning group stages of the Champions league.

In the end, the progression resulted in an ugly row about a game against TPS Turku, a match that ended up being played in the wrong stadium in front 1,800 people, less than half the number of tickets that had been sold. United were hammered by Rosenborg, and despite a spirited showing against Bordeaux in the first round of the UEFA Cup, their attempts to appear professional were dealt a massive blow by the lack of fairly basic facilities.

It would be difficult to imagine either of Tampere’s ice hockey clubs being forced into this compromise, yet Tampere United’s desire to postpone a game to avoid another defensive injury, combined with a Toto concert at Ratina Stadium, forced them to play the TPS game at the run down and neglected Tammela ground. Ratina is not much better – the undersoil heating doesn’t work, and most spectators are forced to sit in the open and use portakabin toilets – but at least they can fit a big crowd in, and offer decent dressing rooms. Neither is possible at Tammela.

Growing Football in Finland

On the eve of a new season, it would be good for Finnish football to learn the lessons of this affair. The team with the best finances is TPS, unsurprisingly, as they also have by far the best stadium in Veikkausliiga. According to Nelonen’s sports news, TPS will have a 2008 budget of €2.3m, and city rivals Inter (who share the stadium) will spend €931,000. While small in international comparison, these figures represent the first and eighth biggest budgets in Finnish football, making Turku about as close to a football city as Finland gets.

TPS have parted company with their manager, Mixu Paatelainen, who left to join Hibs and reunite with his family, who have settled in Scotland. He had ruffled a few feathers and created a side that took no prisoners, but he was unable to beat the champions, losing 3-0 and 3-1 to Tampere and finishing the season in third place. While this qualified them for the 2008-09 Intertoto Cup, more is expected by the TPS hierarchy.

In his stead Martti Kuusela has taken the reins and achieved some eye-catching results in pre-season, notably a 2-1 win over Swedish giants Hammarby. Kuusela has made few changes to his team of bruisers, but the fear is that they may be over-reliant on their French centre forward Armand Oné. Hammarby were impressed with his physical prowess, but in the final of the pre-season League Cup against Turku rivals Inter they badly missed his presence and link-up play, going down to a 1-0 defeat.

Inter have some excellent young players, and in the League Cup final showed they have built a tidy team under coach Job Dragtsma. Built around the excellent centre half pairing of Jos Hooiveld and Diego Corpache, Inter are a resilient side who can cause problems for clubs with much bigger resources. Along with the composed Nigerian midfielder Dominic Chatto, Hooiveld and Corpache will attract attention from bigger sides, but if they hang around and stay fit and in form, Inter could do a lot better than last season’s ninth place.

Champions Changing

The champions, Tampere United, are making big adjustments on the pitch. After selling Juska Savolainen to Norwegian club Rosenborg for €350,000, and moving Jarkko Wiss upstairs to become team manager, the champions’ midfield is going to look very different this year. Vili Savolainen has come in to replace his brother, and at different points during pre-season he has been partnered by Antti Ojanpera, Jussi Kujala and Chris James. If coach Ari Hjelm can conjure a winning combination yet again, he will surely cement his reputation as the best Finnish coach.

TamU have the second biggest budget in the league, but they may find it hard to maintain the momentum of their European run and back to back championships unless they find a stadium with better facilities for their spectators. At present their sub-5,000 crowds have limited protection from the generally appalling Finnish weather, and rattle around the 16,000 capacity Ratina athletics ground. A renovated Tammela would massively improve their chances of competing with the bigger Nordic clubs.

This is a common theme for Veikkausliiga teams. Rovaniemi’s finest, RoPs, were unsure of their place in this year’s top flight until the Veikkausliiga committee gave their approval to a plan of improvements to facilities for players and spectators at their home ground, which will take place over the summer and hopefully be completed by August. If they don’t implement the deadlines for improvements, they will be fined – €20,000 if there are not proper toilets for spectators by the 30th of April, and €75,000 if the floodlights are not upgraded by the 24th of August.

They have already had an eventful year, sacking Belgian coach Tom Saintfielt before a ball had been kicked as he failed to win the respect of the players. With Zambian veteran Zeddy Saileti and 37 year old Finnish midfielder Mika Nurmela in the squad, they will not lack leadership, especially as Saileti takes on new coaching duties this year after 14 years and 343 games with the Laplanders since joining the club from Nkana in 1994.

RoPs will be ecstatic if they avoid relegation, as will KuPs Kuopio, the other promoted club. With budgets of €650,000 for RoPs, and €853,000 for KuPs, they are at the bottom end of Veikkausliiga wage structures.

At the top of the table TPS, Tampere United and Haka will fight it out with Antti Muurinen’s HJK. The former national team manager’s squad includes the well travelled Paulus Roiha, back in Finland after a few years abroad, the soon-to-be Finnish Medo, whose citizenship application is pending, and Jukka Sauso, Miika Multaharju and Petri Oravainen, all returning to Finland after stints in Europe.

After a few barren years for HJK, it would be foolish to bet against them coming back to win the title this season. They have a good coach, a football-specific stadium, a talented squad and the support that comes from being Finland’s most successful club. With Tampere United in transition they could be well placed to take advantage, particularly as they don’t have the distraction of playing in Europe this year. If they mess it up again – and with Roiha already injured, there is a chance that they will – the rest of Finland will laugh heartily.

Editor’s note: View the original version of this article at Egan’s excellent blog, Football in Finland. The original version was first published in the Helsinki Times. Photo credit: blogdroed on Flickr.

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