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 nights 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.
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 es 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 Germans 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 worlds 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 Finlands 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.
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 citys other club, TPS.
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.
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 Cups 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.