The disheartening showing of Finland’s national football team belies many positive aspects the season threw up.
Despite excellent performances in Europe, a disastrous showing by the national team in the European Championship qualifiers, the expulsion of a club and a rise in domestic crowds, the Finnish football season is drawing to a rather mundane conclusion. With a handful of fixtures remaining, Helsinki club HJK have already won the league and minnows RoPS are ten points adrift at the bottom, having won just three of their 28 games thus far.
However, this year has not always been so predictable. The campaign started with the expulsion of big spenders Tampere United, who were not permitted to take part in the league after they were found to have received money from an inappropriate source. There was also a great deal of excitement surrounding Jyväskylä-based JJK, who had a significant amount of money pumped into them during the close season, with many expecting them to challenge the more established names in the league.
The national team did not have the same optimism surrounding it, alas, as previous defeats to Moldova, Hungary and the Netherlands left Mixu Paatelainen’s men with an uphill struggle that continued this year; morale- boosting wins over San Marino and Moldova have been tempered by a 6-0 thumping by arch-rivals and neighbours Sweden. However, this is definitely a transitional period for Finland, and the emergence of promising players such as Kasper Hämäläi-
nen, Teemu Pukki, Alexander Ring and Perparim Hetemaj certainly bodes well for the future.
Excursions to Europe
While the national side struggled, HJK did the country proud this year in European competition, with some stirring performances earning them rave reviews throughout the continent. A record-breaking 13-0 aggregate win over Welsh side Bangor City was followed by a narrow defeat to Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb. After dropping into the Europa League – Europe’s second-tier competition – Klubi then faced German giants Schalke 04 in the final qualifying round. A magnificent 2-0 home victory had everyone dreaming of Finnish representation in Europe after August for the first time in many years, but a resounding 6-1 defeat in the away leg put paid to those hopes. However, the club can be proud of how they performed and players such as Pukki, Dawda Bah and Rafinha all got moves to bigger clubs on the back of the European campaign.
As previously mentioned, the domestic league has thrown up very few surprises. HJK have simply been too strong and consistent this year, meaning they never looked like doing anything else other than defending their title with ease. Fourteen wins from fourteen home matches is a frightening statistic, and serves to underline the dominance the club exerts on the Veikkausliiga at present. Further down the league, JJK have justified the confidence placed in them and look a good bet for third place and the Europa League place that comes with it. They have played a refreshing brand of football this year, which is especially brave given they have been involved in the relegation play-off in each of the last two seasons.
Thursday 13 October
Friday 14 October
Given this season is all but over – apart from the chase for Europa League places – many clubs will already be turning their attention to next season and what lies in store in 2012. HJK have lost a number of very good players this year thanks to their excellent European adventures, which means bad news for everyone else. Given the champions can pay much more, offer a capital lifestyle and the prospect of European football and medals, a few clubs may be bracing themselves for the departure of one or two of their better players. With the inevitable departure of RoPS comes the opportunity for FC Lahti to rejoin the league after a year-long sojourn in the Ykkönen. Jari Litmanen’s hometown club look odds-on to come back up at the first attempt, and they will be looking to add more competition to a league that is in danger of dividing into three distinct groups: HJK, the middling teams and a detached lower end.
A quick glance at Finnish football could well reveal doom and gloom, but if you scratch a little deeper you will see a national side with some promise, a league that has seen an increase in attendances and a club side that has matched a number of illustrious teams this year. The future is bright for football in this country, as the world’s favourite sport reaches deeper into the psyche of Finland and its people.
LEHTIKUVA - MARCUS SANDBERG - JUSSI NUK ARI