Those Jari Viita people

Ari Hjelm has been with Tampere United throughout their ten-year history, first as an assistant to Harri Kampman and then from 2001 as head coach. He has won three championships, and it is a common refrain in Tampere that he is primarily responsible for the club’s success, and that he is the best coach in the country. He has now seen off his enemies in the club, after last week’s departure of Sporting Director Jarkko Wiss and Chief Executive Sami Salonen, and is the master of all he surveys. Rightly so, argue many in Tampere, as he is the most successful coach the city has ever produced.

This argument is often advanced in the city’s pubs, and so it was one evening last October when a man wanted to talk football with me. Conversation turned to the coaching situation in Finland, and the man’s stridently expressed opinion that Hjelm is the best coach in the country.

The dialogue meandered around a bit, with me slightly sceptical about Hjelm’s qualities, until I offered the opinion that maybe Jarkko Wiss would one day make a good coach. The man snorted. That’s not poetic licence – it was an actual, beer spraying snort.

“I see. So you’re one of those people. Those Jari Viita people,” came the explanation for his derision.

My interlocutor wanted to drum home the point that TamU was Hjelm and Hjelm was TamU, and it seemed to him as though the battle lines were drawn and Tampere football was divided into two groups: the Hjelm supporters and the rest. With us or against us. Hjelm was under pressure, as Juha Koskimäki and Kalevi Salonen – two key Hjelm allies within the club – had been fired by TamU chairman Viita, and the team’s performance had been poor.

“I’m sad that so much know-how has left this club,” Hjelm told STT after Koskimäki and Salonen’s departures in October 2008.

“Neither me nor Ari Hjelm had any say in the team’s affairs,” sacked manager Salonen chimed in. “Zico (Hjelm) has not been able to decide who to play in the team and who to leave out, everything has been decided by Jari Viita and Jarkko Wiss. This has been going on for a long time, since the turn of the year.”

Viita had wanted to sack Hjelm after a 5-1 defeat at HJK early in the season, but was persuaded that this was unwise by other directors. The expense of paying off Hjelm’s recently signed two year contract was a big factor in the decision, because fundamental differences over strategy were beginning to show themselves in the team’s performance and it was clear even then that big changes needed to be made in the club’s management structure.

Hjelm fought back, complaining in the tabloids about the loss of Juska Savolainen and the poor quality replacements, but a TamU director vehemently insisted to me at the time that Hjelm had approved all transfer dealings and requested all the players TamU had signed after the 2007 season.

Jari Viita became involved with Tampere United during one of their periodic financial crises, when he bought shares to cover a budget shortfall. Also owner of the magnificently named Riihimäen Cocks handball team, he is still one of the major shareholders in Tampere United, and along with English businessman Tim Rowe and ice hockey power broker Kalervo Kummola has held a major stake and put money in at crucial times during the club’s history.

Wiss’s role was similarly important. After retirement in 2007, he became TamU’s Sporting Director with responsibility for player recruitment, and Hjelm and his long-standing friends and colleagues were pushed aside from the buying and selling of players and negotiation of contracts. Hjelm has always had a difficult relationship with his bosses, and adding a valued former player to the mix was in hindsight always likely to be difficult for him to accept.

jari

The idea was that Wiss’s contacts, international experience and language skills would provide the club with better value signings, which would save the club money and enable them to progress to compete regularly in Europe, preferably in the group stages of the Champions League.

Part of the plan was the TamU academy team, which was to compete initially in the winter SM Liiga series. The idea of this team was to draw the best players from all the Tampere clubs – which have historically been at loggerheads for many reasons, among them political ones – and give them quality training three times a week at Tampere’s sport high school.

When the idea was mooted a lot of Tampere’s young prospects were playing in the lower divisions of the Finnish youth structure, and the TamU academy would give them a chance to play against better players, train as an elite group of Tampere’s best young talents, and provide an easier access point for the national team coaches.

Similarly, the academy was intended to attract young players from outside of Tampere, and Johannes Mononen was one of the first to sign, moving to Tampere from the North Karelian town of Joensuu at the age of just 17.

Revenue from transferring young players to bigger European teams would establish Tampere United as Finland’s pre-eminent club, draw more fans, increase sponsorship revenue, and change the rules of engagement in Finnish football.

In principle, the plan was flawless. While Ari Hjelm has achieved some fantastic results, with three championships to his name, he is rarely seen at lower league matches in Tampere, where younger players are frequently scouted. In 2007 Inter Turku signed 21 year old midfielder Severi Paajanen from Tampere side PP-70, for instance, while TamU bought 30 year old Antti Pohja from HJK.

This is the kind of move that wins championships, but costs a lot of money, and when pursued as part of a strategy can be indicative of a short term outlook. The academy was supposed to provide an alternative, a direct route for the best young players in Tampere into Tampere United’s first team, but with Wiss leaving the club, the academy is likely to be mothballed. Academy coach Tomi Jalkanen has already tendered his resignation, although TamU’s press officer was not able to confirm his departure at the time of writing.

Hjelm’s friends are long-standing bigwigs of the Tampere football scene. The club was born from the bankruptcy of Ilves in 1998, and along with Ari Hjelm they also took Juha Koskimäki from the defunct club.

Koskimäki  had been TamU’s team director, and Kalevi Salonen the manager (he had filled a similar role with the other big Tampere club, TPV), until they were fired last October. They performed those undefined backroom roles that allow many people to be ‘involved’ in Finnish football, but their real function was clear: bringing in the sponsor money from their friends among the local business community.

This function is crucial in Finland. Most teams rely on sponsorship money almost to the exclusion of all other income streams, as attendances are so low, and the ability to press the flesh among the sponsors is highly prized by Finnish clubs.

The power brokers in Finnish sport sponsorship are usually middle aged men, and the clubs usually choose middle aged men to buttress these relationships. Koskimäki and Salonen have been TamU’s sponsorship rainmakers, and notwithstanding Koskimäki’s role in Ilves’s bankruptcy, they had helped ensure the smooth flow of sponsorship money into the club.

Funding a club via one or two main sponsors, or via gate money generated by a large fanbase, is unheard of for these guys. They were brought up in the Finnish football tradition, where the sponsor is king and the fan unimportant. The shortcomings of Ratina Stadium (it is far too big and the fans are remote from the pitch) are overlooked by many who share this worldview, because it provides better VIP facilities for sponsors than the second stadium in Tampere, Tammela.

These Finnish sponsorship deals are simple. The sponsors get exposure on the shirt or in the ground, and the freedom to consume as much potato salad, mustamakkara, cider and beer as they can at each and every home game. It’s an arrangement that suits them, as the sponsorship cost can be written off against VAT and, well, everyone likes beer and mustamakkara, right?

Back in October, the man in the bar was explaining all this, and the fact that TamU would now find it difficult to get sponsorship revenue without Koskimäki and Salonen. That small circles of people can have such an influence on one of Finland’s most successful football clubs without actually putting that much money in, just one year after the club filled Ratina Stadium for a Champions League tie against Rosenborg, is a reflection on the missed opportunities that could have led to a new, brighter future.

In the wake of the Rosenborg game the club was looking to capitalise on the publicity. Ticket prices went up, sponsorship became more expensive, and there was a real drive to make TamU the third force in the city, after the Ilves and Tappara hockey clubs. The scourge of the Finnish football shirt – a thousand logos making the players look like clowns – could have been dealt with, and it was hoped that fewer sponsors would contribute more money, and make the organisation more professional.

This failed for a number of reasons, and the level at which sponsorships were offered was a source of friction within Tampere United: the more professionally minded people in the organisation wanted to take advantage of TamU’s position as one of the leading clubs in the country, while the old guard did not want to squeeze the sponsors – who are, essentially, their mates – too hard.

This conflict had a generational dimension too. The new guard, personified by Sami Salonen and Jarkko Wiss, are internationally minded, young, and see Tampere United as part of a European scene that offers huge revenues in comparison to domestic football. The old guard sees the Finnish championship and local bragging rights as paramount, and usually has another job in addition to a position at a football club.

Jari Viita had left the club in the autumn as his business was in financial difficulties and he could not inject the sums necessary to keep the club ticking over, with Harri Pyhältö taking his place as chairman.The control of sponsorship revenue is effectively control of the club, in the absence of directors subscribing to share issues, but for good measure TamU had found a new shareholder and sponsor in the Kangasala grit and asphalt manufacturer Soraset. The club had no alternative plan, and with revenue drying up there was little alternative but to sell more shares in the club.

This deal was negotiated by Pyhältö – another long-time associate of Hjelm, Koskimäki and Kalevi Salonen – with little input from the club’s Chief Executive, Sami Salonen. It gave Soraset an 18% share in Tampere United in return for €220,000, at a time when the club was in dire need of funds, and added a new ingredient to the power balance that had long fluctuated between Rowe, Viita and Kummola. The way was clear for the return of the old guard.

After Salonen and Koskimäki returned to the club in March, the writing seemed to be on the wall for Wiss and Sami Salonen. Kalevi Salonen’s new position on his return was ’special assistant to the chairman’, while Juha Koskimäki was the head of the sales group, with the task of selling sponsorship.

TamU fans protest at the departures of Jarkko Wiss and Sami Salonen before the home game against VPS. Photo by Petteri Lehtonen.

At Saturday’s game against VPS, TamU figures were tight lipped. Thankfully Jari Viita was not, telling Ilta Sanomat’s Jari Perkiö that the departure of Salonen and Wiss and the return of the ‘old guard’ were unsurprising events for him.

“I completely expected this, I’ve known for a long time that this would happen. The old guard, led by Ari Hjelm, got what they wanted.”

Perkiö asked for clarification: do you mean that Hjelm is behind this?

“That’s correct. We had completely different views on how to develop the club. He wants 25 year old Finnish players, because he can’t communicate in any other languages. We tried to change TamU radically, but we quickly noticed the old guard’s intent.”

“Maybe it would have been enough for these brats if we’d received a little support from the council. But we didn’t get a penny.”

Viita was annoyed at the city council on another count, too. Apparently TamU made many proposals to improve the facilities at Ratina, which is owned by the council, but there was never a response.

“And this year tops it all, when they couldn’t even provide us with a winter training facility. Nor did they get Ratina into a playable condition by the start of the Veikkausliiga season, even though the weather was good.”

“Even if we had the heavenly father as coach and Bill Gates as chairman, under these conditions we would not be successful.”

In the midst of all this are the fans. Tampere United have a large and active fans group, who have grown over the last five years to become an integral part of the match day experience. The group is called Sinikaarti (Blue Guard), they were established in 2003, and they are unhappy at the way the club has been run.

These middle aged guys don’t know anything,” said one long-standing fan. “They think the club is their own personal property and they don’t care about anything else. They don’t speak English, they cannot sell players abroad let alone recruit from there, and they look like Swiss Tony.”

The resemblance to the Fast Show character is undeniable, at least in Koskimäki’s case, and the generational conflict is most sharply apparent where the fans are concerned. They are mainly young, take their cue from the ultra scene in other countries, and they see the opportunities that have been missed in a way that some middle aged Finnish men don’t.

At Saturday’s game they hung their Sinikaarti banner upside down in the style of dissatisfied ultras from all over Europe, and held a protest before the game which involved a banner reading: “Ammattimaisuuden puolesta, puuhastelua vastaan! Seurajohto: strategianne?”. This roughly translates as “for professionalism, against unprofessional farting around! Management: what’s your strategy?”. They were silent for the first 14 minutes, before chanting ‘Wiss!’ 14 times in honour of the former captain and latter day Sporting Director’s squad number.

This followed a ‘Kiitos Seve’ banner at the away game against MyPa, thanking departed CEO Sami ‘Seve’ Salonen for his work with the club. After the 4-1 defeat club captain Mikko Kavén led his team over to applaud the fans – something TamU players have occasionally failed to do even when they’ve won a game – and he was dropped by Ari Hjelm for the match against VPS on Saturday. He is not expected to return to the side any time soon.

Meanwhile, the conspiracy theorists are working overtime. Tampere football has long been divided along political lines, with TPV being the nominally left wing club and Ilves the nominally right wing club. This political dimension shows at matches, where Social Democrat MP Jukka Gustafsson is always present to cheer on TPV.

The Tampere United board is now composed mainly of men formerly linked to Ilves, and the theory goes that they are not too bothered if TamU go bankrupt and get relegated, because they could then sell the league place to the newly reformed Ilves, who are currently playing in the third tier of Finnish football, Kakkonen.

This theory holds that the departures of Salonen and Wiss were necessary because they are not Ilves people: Wiss was a TPV junior, and Salonen previously worked for Tamhockey Oy, the holding company in charge of Tappara, which in turn has an affinity and co-operation deals with TPV.

Whatever the reason – and the most likely explanation is simply that these children did not want to share ‘their’ toy – Tampere United will face a long struggle to return to the heights they attained in the 2007 Champions League campaign.

All photography from Petteri Lehtonen: http://beat.pp.fi

Egan Richardson writes about Finnish football for Nordic Football News, a blog dedicated to football in the Nordic countries. The site has previews of the 2009 Tippeliga and Veikkausliiga, two summer leagues that started recently.