Author Archives: Egan Richardson

About Egan Richardson

the author of the Football in Finland blog.

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.

Nigerian Footballers in Finland

KAJAANIN HAKA (KajHa) are not, in any sense of the word, a powerhouse of Finnish football. They play in Kajaani, for starters. A small town of 38,000 people in the north of Finland, not much happens there and Haka have done their utmost to continue that tradition.

Kajaani

They’ve had a few seasons in the top two divisions, a TUL (Workers’ Sport Association) title in 1999, and not much more. In 2006 their local rivals Kajaanin Palloilijat and FC Tarmo decided to join forces in an attempt to bring a higher standard of football to the city, and formed a new club called AC Kajaani. Now AC and KajHa battle it out in Kolmonen, the fourth tier of Finnish football, drawing crowds not much bigger than the proverbial three men and a dog.

The combined weight of sponsorship has seen AC shake things up through sheer financial strength, and when they poached KajHa’s Georgian midfielder Lasha Chkhaidze in the close season it was a sign that KajHa would have to work very hard to keep up.

Enter 28 year old Paul Nwachukwu and 23 year old Junior Obagbemiro. Junior’s career has taken him to the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Nepal, Malaysia, Bangladesh and India. He was the top scorer in the 2007 Bangladeshi Championship, scoring 16 goals in 20 games for Brothers Union, before heading off to Sporting Clube de Goa in the Indian league. Nwachukwu got 14 goals in 2007 and was second in the scoring charts, but his club Mohammedans had a much better season and finished third in the league.

It was in Bangladesh that their paths to Kajaani began, when they met a former footballer who has now settled in Asia. “In Dhaka I met one of my idols, Ladi Babalola,” says Junior. “He played for Nigeria at the 1987 Under-20 World Championships, and everyone in Nigerian football looks up to him. He is friends with Mikko Perälä, who has connections at clubs in Finland. That’s how we started to think about coming to Europe.”

“Europe” is the key word here. Footballers in Asia often earn much more money than they do in Finland, but the chance to impress scouts in a bigger league is the main motivation for players to leave a comfortable career and a hefty wage packet to try their luck in Europe. And Finland is – just about – in Europe. So leaving behind the massive crowds and bigger pay packets of South Asia is an attractive option, even if the European option is not exactly at Champions League level.

“For us Africans the dream is to play in Europe,” continues Junior. “It is easier to prove yourself, to play for the national team and get transfers to big clubs from here than from Bangladesh.” The Bangladeshi League has provided players for Finnish clubs before. Stanley Festus was another of Babalola and Perälä’s imports, but unfortunately red tape and injuries have prevented him from making a big impact.

Now happily married and playing for HyPs in Kakkonen, Festus had an eventful few months when he first arrived in Finland back in 2004, after registration problems forced him to start at FC Raahe in Kolmonen. Festus became something of a cult figure among fans who followed his progress via the FutisForum2 messageboard, with ‘Stan the Man’ merchandise sold and a skate shop in Oulu providing him with clothes.

Things went a little bit smoother this time. Without a club to register Junior and his compatriot Paul Nwachukwu, before the end of April, they came to KajHa on trial and instantly showed their class. Coach Rauno Lesonen liked what he saw, and now the players are looking to improve their income and standing.

“Of course they are very good players in the third division,” laughs Lesonen. “We would like to keep them. But it all depends on their attitude, they are still learning about the culture and the playing style in Finland.”

“The players here are like a family,” says Junior. “We have a big group and we need a good team spirit. If I stay here we have to do something with the team, we have to get promotion. It’s a young team but they are good players and we can achieve something.”

The promotion charge suffered a major setback just before the mid-season break, when KajHa lost 2-1 to AC. A mischievous suggestion that maybe KajHa should have joined the merger brings a fierce response from chairman Jarmo Anttonen.

“I was born Haka!,” says the former KajHa captain, before modifying his stance slightly. “Well, I’ve played for them since I was six years old. Now we have a ‘sinettiseura’ award from the Finnish Football Association for the quality of our work with youngsters, and I want to continue that work.”

Anttonen thinks for a bit, before settling on the best way to describe the difference between his club and the merged entity. “We are a family, and our family is better than theirs. They are only two years old. They don’t even have a family!”

Such bullishness is a pre-requisite for his position, as the chairman of the poorer club in a small footballing backwater in Northern Finland. KajHa are lucky to have found such good players, but they might not have them for long. Nwachukwu has a trial lined up in Italy, and Junior might well move within Finland. Anttonen will surely console himself with the knowledge that these lads are unlikely to move across town to AC.

This article also appeared in the July 11th edition of the Helsinki Times. For more in Finnish football, visit Egan’s blog Football in Finland.

Photo credit: jervelrivman on Flickr.

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.