Archive for July, 2008

Confused? – it must be Austria!

Saturday, July 26th, 2008

The European Tournament has come and gone, giving a fleeting glimpse of full stadia to Austria, but all too soon, the domestic season restarts, and the confused world of Austrian football is there for all to see – except of course not many people are looking.

The Austrian Bundesliga has two divisions, of ten and twelve teams. There is only one promotion and relegation place. However, the lower division (which of course, in common with so many is the Erste Liga – First League) relegates three teams each season – allowing the champions of each of the three regional leagues to gain promotion. This has only been the case for four seasons; prior to which a play-off system meant either one or two new teams would appear each season. The lower division used to have only ten teams, the same as the top league, but it was extended to 12 in 2006.

There is now a move to try to change the system again, and place a restriction on the number of sides promoted from the Regional leagues. Statistically, there must be a case. Nine teams have been promoted 2005-7, while only 5 have been relegated in 2006-8, (thanks to an increase in the numbers in 2006, and two clubs losing their license to bankruptcy in 2007). Of the nine promoted clubs, three were relegated in one season, while one lasted two years (they would have been relegated first time out, but were reprieved by the clubs losing licences). In other words, only one club with a history of more than two seasons in the league have been relegated in the last three years. Co-incidentally, no club has risen to, and then dropped out of the top division in that time.

To confuse matters further, two of the nine clubs have sold their license this summer, so only three of my nine promoted clubs are still running in their original form in the Erste Liga, (and two of those are reserve teams!). Naturally the Regional leagues do not want a further change, and wish to keep their direct promotions, but in order to make a good argument, they need the promoted clubs to start looking like they deserve their promotion, and can keep both their status and identity. The trio for 2008 look like as good a bet as any. St. Pölten won the Eastern Regional league. This is a team with plenty of history who competed in the top division in the 1980s and early 90s. Vöcklabruck, which was part of my European tour in May, won the Central Regional League. Their facilities are more than adequate, and were frequently getting good crowds at the end of last season.

So than leaves SV Grödig, champions of the Western Regional League. Grödig is just a few km outside Salzburg, and looks the part – an attractive but generally quiet place to live, with the city not far distant. The football club is on the edge of the town, and until last season had few facilities at all. During the summer a new stand has suddenly been raised, giving the club 252 seats – but the rest of the surrounds is merely flat standing. The stand faces south, which is unusual and with matches in this division generally taking place on Friday evening, the sun will glare into the faces of the spectators at the start and end of season. This is compensated for by the mountain views, which makes the whole place a delight.
The visitors for the second home game of the season have styled themselves as FC Trenkwalder Admira. They are the embodiment of a lot of outsiders complaints about football in Austria. They appear to be the plaything of businessman Richard Trenkwalder, whose main business in a personal and recruitment agency. A year ago, SC Schwadorf, from a small club 25km south of Vienna won the East Regional League and a place in the Erste Liga. In Austria, where football is completely dependent on sponsorship money, he who pays the piper gets to call all the tunes, so once in the league, the club name became SKS Trenkwalder, letting the country know whose money was holding the club in place.

Meanwhile, in the regional league, sat the complicated name of FC Admira/Wacker Mödling. Admira, with 8 titles are the fourth most successful club in Austria after the two big Vienna clubs (Austria and Rapid), and Wacker Tirol Innsbruck (under several variations of the names). They merge in the early 70s with Wacker, another Viennese club and champions of 1947. Playing at the Sudstadt stadion, in the southern suburbs of Vienna, they also absorbed second division Mödling in 1997. They were relegated to the Erste Liga in 2006, and were refused a license at the end of 2007, (when with 33 points, they might have just escaped relegated thanks to GAK of Graz also being refused a license). That of course meant that Schwadorf had replaced them in the league.

In the first half of last season, it became apparent that while Trenkwalder may have raised a team into the professional league, it did not come with instant support, and so during the winter break, he arranged a swop. For the second half of the season, SKS Trenkwalder played at Sudstadt, while Admira/Wacker Mödling switched to play in Schwadorf. SKS avoided relegation by one point, while Admira were a mid-table team. This season, he takes it one step further, and has basically merged the clubs – with the Erste Liga team now known as FC Trenkwalder Admira, and the regional league team, FC Trenkwalder Admira Amateur (Amateur being the tradition way of ending the name of a second or reserve team in Austria or Germany, assuming the first team is professional). There is no mention of Schwadorf at all, and anyone watching football there this season will see only real amateur football some three divisions lower down the pyramid.

Getting back to Grödig, some 700 people and I saw an entertaining game. The home side played with a 4-4-2 formation, although on midfielder held back to shield the defence. The visitors were in 5-4-1, which looks defensive, but does allow the wingers to roam with no defensive duty, and did threaten the home defence on many occasions. Grödig won 2-1, both goals coming from penalties and scored by their Brazilian striker Diego Viana, (who led the regional league charts with 33 last season). Viana has scored four of Grödig’s five goals in the opening games this season. The home defence looked uncertain on many occasions, and Admira had hit the post, and sent a few shots wide before Christoph Mattes levelled the first penalty a little before half time. Grödig just about deserved the win – they have now won both home games, but lost their only away one this season. However, it is too early to say that their entry into the league will be a success.

Starting with the Finnish

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

As summer reaches its height, the international tournaments have come to an end and the more fanatical football fan is already looking forward to the new season. Some glory in the morass of friendly matches available – from the beginning of July, there are always a good selection of matches, with some grounds that are not normally available, and some mighty mismatches presenting hats full of goals. Others complain that these matches, which are really nothing more than public training sessions get lost in substitutions, or even that programmes are not issued.

Frankly, I am not one for the friendly match, and even when they are accessible, I tend to see only a couple involving my own team. A couple of well established pre-season tournaments help to bring me gently into the new season, but it is the overseas voyages that really start the season off. In Europe, the leagues of Scandinavia and the former Soviet Union tend to play through the summer (and Ireland as well). The lengthy efforts to pare down the European competitions before the big teams enter also starts in Mid-July.

Thanks to the efforts of Ryanair, I arrive in Tampere, Finland around 10.30 at night. It is still daylight, although the sun will set soon, returning after less than five hours below the horizon. The first question on my mind is why Finland feels it needs to have Daylight Saving Time? I get a simpler answer to the next question – where is the bus to Helsinki?, so I board and head to the capital.

Its 1.30 in the morning when I get off the bus, by the city is still very lively, and when I reach my hotel, there is loud music in the front bar. This will go on until after 3, so I am not about to get one of my better night’s sleep. Come the morning, I have some free time to look around the city centre. It is an easy, comfortable place to walk around, but I am not overwhelmed by local architecture. The big white cathedral in Senate square seems to be over the top, a laughable oversized reminiscence of the Sacre Coeur. By comparison, the older orthodox Uspenski Cathedral likes much more within the scale of the city. The Uspenski is on a mound above a docks area, and it appears the city has been growing away from it – certainly, the ultra modern shopping buildings are well away, past the railway station.

One thing Helsinki is not short of is coffee. It appears that every second shop in the commercial areas is a coffee shop, and what is more, all have a fair number of customers. It seems unlikely though that the citizens of Helsinki will ever get the caffeine jitters and start a riot – this seems to be as laid back a city as I have been too. As well as the nice “girls in their summer clothes” brightening up the pavements, one can also view various extremes of fashion, punk, goth and the like – and the population just ignores it all and gets on with their own business. Naturally, fat middle-aged Englishmen are also ignored by all and sundry as well. I passed one crowded street during my brief exploration of the city, making me wonder what the fuss was about – as it happened, sometime in the next hour or so, Bruce Springsteen was expected to step out of the hotel door, and get into a car to be driven away. Now I certainly cannot sing like Springsteen, but I can manage the walk from hotel to car as well as anyone.
In Finland, Saturday afternoon is not normally football time – but while most fixtures were the following day, there are always some, normally lower down the pyramid to see. The top division in Finland is the Veikkausliga – the name is that of the state gambling organisation. The next divisions down are the Ykkonen and Kakkonen which are First and Second – so the Veikkausliga is by default, Premier League – although the term is never used in Finland (except for the English League, of course). The Veikkausliga and Ykkonen are national leagues, whereas the Kakkonen is divided into three regional groups.

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I chose the match at IF Gnistan, whose ground, now known as the Fair Pay Areena is situated in the Helsinki suburbs, just ten minutes by train from the centre. The spelling of Areena with two ‘e’s is correct, whereas the name Fair Pay (and not as I originally thought Fair Play) comes from sponsorship from a local financial company, which has also stolen the yellow card symbol used in the FIFA campaign. Just to confuse matters, the ground has not one but two other names – it is either the Oulunkyän Liikuntapuisto or the Åggleby Idrottspark. This is because most public signs are shown in both Finnish and Swedish. Finnish being the language that looks as if all the letters have been mixed up and then squeezed out through a mincer to create incredible long unpronounceable that even the German’s would not be proud of. The letters IF at the start of the home club name suggest that it was started by Swedish speakers, but the matchday programme was in Finnish. The programme was free with the admission charge of €5.

It is an athletics track with an artificial surface football pitch in the middle. On one side there is a steep slope, and about 10 rows of wooden seats mounted on a steel frame. Some of the wood has come away and some steps sway when stepped on. I cannot imagine a safety certificate being available! No other facilities were inside the ground, with dressing rooms and the only toilets I could find being in another building, over 100 metres away. Entrance was at the top of the slope, and there is a wide tarmac path above the seats. A small tent shades a refreshment area. Fried sausages were available, but knowing that the Germans (surely the world’s experts on Sausages) consider a Finnish sausage to be little more than a vegetable, I stuck with the local favourite, coffee and a doughnut, for €2.

A top of the table match, visitors Warkaus started the day in pole position, Gnistan one point (but two places) behind – the season is just approaching the half way stage, with only one promotion place available. Gnistan took the lead in the first half, but were pegged back soon after the break when a not too clever back header from a corner resulted in an own goal. Warkaus then took command, and deservedly went ahead with under 10 minutes to go. The equaliser, in the third minute of extra time, came as a bit of a surprise as I could not see Gnistan getting back into the game. The draw meant that Warkaus gave up the leadership of the league, and results since my visit have not gone their way, with Klubi-04 (actually a reserve side connected to top division HJK) now six points ahead, Warkaus down in sixth place, while Gnistan are still third (but now five points off the top).

About 120 people on the benches. About a dozen further fans on the far side, generally shirtless and drunk, and shouting and chanting for the team (on the benches, polite applause was the norm). They were in fact watching the game from outside the fence, as beer is not permitted inside – an odd rule that appears to apply to the minor divisions, but not at the top level. I saw beer being drunk at both Veikkausliga matches I was to see.

On Sunday, I visited the Olympic stadium complex. Its impressive late art-deco tower affords fine views over the city. The football pitch is used by Finland’s international team, and also if HJK play in Europe. The stadium was built in the late 1930s, completed by 1938, and would have held the 1940 Olympic games. With the war intervening, it instead took its turn in 1952. It was of course at the stadium that Bruce Springsteen had been playing on the Friday night.
The stadium is surrounded by park land and other sports facilities – most notably the ice sports Arena just to the north, (Ice Hockey being the most popular spectator sport in the country). To the west, the Töölön Pallokenttä was a series of football pitches with degrees of concrete seating along the sides. (Töölö being the district of Helsinki, an easy 30 minute walk from the centre). However, at the turn of the Millennium, part of this was replaced by a very modern stadium, known as the Finnair Stadium.

There are two pitches left of the Pallokenttä, each with about 30 steps of concrete, covered with wooden bench seats on the East side, and a ten foot wall on the other side, as the grass pitches are well below the level of the adjoining road. The more northerly pitch which has seating for its full length is used by Kakkonen club HIFK. At the junction of the pitches, some of the terracing is cut away to give a joint cafe area, while immediately to the North of these is the Finnair Stadium. HIFK now head outside the stadium and use dressing rooms at the new stadium.
HIFK stands for Helsingfors Idrottsföreningen Kamraterna – which is a Swedish name. Talking to some of the home fans, it appears they would have difficulty in spelling the name, let alone translating it. Idrottsföreningen translates as sports association, which is appropriate as this is a multi sport club. Translating Kamraterna is apparently more difficult, as they say it is means more than a club – perhaps a group of friends or comrades. When it started, most of the support would have spoken Swedish. The support generally refer to the club as “Eee-Eff-Koh” which is a close as I can get to the Finnish pronunciation of the letters IFK, as chanted. When they named the town, which was not often, they said Helsinki, not Helsingfors (the Swedish variation). HIFK are said to be the only ‘sleeping giant’ in Finnish football – while there was only around 200 people at the game, including a hard core who chanted through the game – because this is just part of a major sports club, there is a latent fan base that could return if they were to be promoted. The club has been champion of Finland on seven occasions, but the last of these was in 1961.
The visitors, Rakuunat from Lappeenranta, only 30 km from the Russian border, a fact that is borne out by the players names, many of which have a Russian feel. Relegated from the Ykkonen league (first divsion, second level) in 2006, they look likely to suffer another drop this season. As a further sign that the club has problems, they could only name a single substitute. Although Rakuunat tried hard to make an impression, especially early in the game, it came as no surprise that eventually, it was an easy home win, 4-0.

Since the trip, Rakuunat have stayed in bottom place, while HIFK have drawn with Warkaus, and beaten Gnisten to stay in touch with the leaders.

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And so, after the match, just the short walk into the Finnair stadium to see HJK take on FC Haka in a Veikkausliga match. The Finnair stadium has an artificial surface, and long curved roofs rather high above the seating. The roof on the west side extends beyond the end of the stadium, rather reminiscent of the graceful, but useless structures built in South Korea for the World Cup. Talking to a journalist later in the week, this opinion was confirmed – the roofing of the Finnair being rather unhelpful in poor weather.

HJK is a Finnish name, Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi meaning the Football club of Helsinki. FC Haka are from Valkeakoski, about 150 km north of Helsinki, they have won the title 9 times, most recently 2004, and were runners-up 2007. HJK are the record holders with 21 titles, but none since 2003 – but only finished 7th last season.
HJK were rather surprised by Haka – the first club I have seen in Finland that tried to build from a defensive position, and fielding a 4-1-4-1 formation. HJK had never looked like conceding a goal up until they scored just after the half hour – but almost immediately a right wing cross was met on the far post and the scores were level. HJK dominated the second half, but I do not think they got a single shot worthy of the name on target – they were all but smothered by the visiting defence, and this caused them to forget the wingers and play direct long balls, which only helped their opponents. The winning goal, scored after 61 minutes came because Haka were persistent when breaking forward – holding the ball and making short passes until HJK were caught out of position, and a shot could be curled in from the edge of the area. HJK could have gone top by beating Haka (at least because the two teams above them were playing on Monday), and have since won away and are back in third place. Haka have since drawn at home, and are down in sixth place, two points behind HJK.

I paid €5 for admission at HIFK, and €25 for HJK, although in the second case, I could have found cheaper tickets. Both clubs issued free programmes. HIFK, like Gnisten the day before was a photocopied four page A5 programme, while HJK was a glossy programme.

So Monday saw me leave Helsinki, taking the train 200 km west to Turku, the city was busy enough, but it was a damp grey day, and I did little exploring. The stadium surprised me by being further out of town than it appeared from the map. Anyone trying it from the railway station should allow at least an hour.

The Veritas stadium (named after an insurance group) is two sided with no facilities at all behind either goal. The south stand is quite old, single tier along the full length of the side, constructed from concrete with steel supports, so there are pillars blocking the view from the back few rows. The North stand is very new, the lower tier being seats, and with a row of business boxes at the top of this tier and an upper tier exclusively of business seats and executive boxes. The crowd for a top of the table match was just short of 3000. (Yesterday at HJK, the crowd was 5324). MyPa 47 were the visitors and started the weekend in second place (and would have gone top with a win). MyPa is pronounced Moo Pa, when chanted by about 20 visiting fans.
Inter Turku is currently top of the Finish League, but is not the most popular club in the country – in fact it is not the most popular club in the city! It shares the Veritas stadium with the city’s other club, TPS.

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Inter were founded by Stefan Hakans, the managing director of a salvage and waste company. Hakans has funded the club throughout its 18 years of history. The story is the club started as a youth team because Hakan’s 11 year old son could not get a game for any other club in the city. A senior side was started in 1992, and by buying out another club, they arrived at the third level in 1993. Promoted to the second level in 1995, and the top level in 1997 – they spent 1998 in the lower division but I think have been top level since.

Playing in Blue and Black stripes, the club appears to be doing homage to Inter Milan. Incidentally, the full name is International Turku. The Milan and Inter Bratislava clubs are also short for International (allowing for different languages), but if any one remembers the short lived Inter Cardiff club – that was just Inter.
Admission was 10 Euro, (8 Euro in the old stand). Programmes were once again free.
The game was quite dull, Inter took the lead on 63 minutes with a fluke – a long free kick was punched out by the goalkeeper, and it hit the head of the Inter centre half and rebounded into the net. The scorer stood still, rather stunned by his luck. MyPa equalised two minutes later.

For Inter, it was the fifth successive draw of a still unbeaten league season. They have since returned to winning and stay top. Inter have never finished higher than 4th place, so their owner is clearly hopeful that this will be their year. MyPa won the title in 2005, and with a win since my visit, (over the champions, Tampere United), they are a testament to the ability of a small town team to do well, if sufficient local sponsorship can be found.

Another train ride on the Tuesday, and I am back where I started, Tampere – although I now have time to stroll through this very pleasant town on a Sunny afternoon. It is an extraordinarily mixed town, with a waterway passing through the centre, and mills (somehow not as dark or satanic as those in the north of England) are almost alongside the shops (and of course, the coffee bars). From the centre square, a couple of hundred yards takes you to a quayside, and you can then see the stadium across the water.

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The Ratinan stadium is all seated, built up around the track, with cover only over the main side – tickets for the Champions League game were available at €20 and €25, and they had to put special signs on the ticket windows to remind people that there was a charge for the programme €1. This is the biggest league ground in the country, but a crowd of just over 5000 meant more than 10,000 empty seats. A small group of fans from Montenegro gathered to the right hand side of the covered stand. Buducnost Podgorica are the second team from an independent league to represent Montenegro in the Champions League. After the first season of competition, Buducnost finished runners up to Zeta, and followed this with UEFA Cup defeat to Croatians, Hajduk Split. (Zeta, who were runners-up last year, beat Kaunas of Lithuania, and then lost to Rangers in the Champions League). Buducnost have once played in Europe as a representative of Serbia and Montenegro, but this was in the Intertoto Cup. They beat Valetta in the first round, and Deportivo la Coruna in the second leg of the second round – but had lost badly in Spain, so went no further.

For most of this game Tampere United were comfortable; a change from their poor league form which means they are unlikely to claim a third successive title. The club was only formed in 1998 – it was meant to be a combination of two teams, TPV and FC Ilves, but TPV pulled out (they play in the Ykkonen), and FC Ilves still carry on somewhere lower in the pyramid. United took Ives Ykkonen place and won promotion a year later. They have won the title three times, 2001, 2006 and 2007. Last season they reached the final qualifying round of the Champions League before losing to Rosenborg – but were also stopped by Bordeaux missing out on the UEFA Cup’s group stage as well. The victories were over Murata (San Marino) and Levski Sofia
After 51 minutes, the home side led by 2-0, Niemi scoring the opening goal, and then New Zealand international Chris James adding one from the penalty spot. Both players were guilty though as United missed chances to seal the result, and this allowed Buducnost to give themselves a chance with a last goal from Fatos Beciras. In talking to local journalists, (oddly one that came from Sheffield) I said I thought Tampere could win the tie if they took it to their opponents in Montenegro. It appears they did just that, as they scored after only 8 minutes, and ended up with a 1-1 draw – and hence going through on aggregate. The next round is a far more difficult task, against Slovakia champions Petrzalka.