Monday, January 30, 2017

When lies get out - a story of SJK and bullshit

It's human nature to exaggerate on a CV. Whether it's Joey Tribbiani claiming he can speak French, the youngster claiming that they really did get an A-Level in Klingon or just a slight dressing up around reasons for leaving a job - selling ones self is pretty common. Where it leads to genuine concern is when it is exposed as a lie, or at least doubted so heavily that it can't be trusted. This emerged as an issue in the relatively secluded sphere of Finnish football this weekend, as a result of some unsavoury circumstances.

The fine work of some dogged journalists (not just sports writers) has uncovered the appalling abuse committed by people acting as coaches, scouts and mentors in British football in the not too distant past. As a result, these men are slowly being arrested and victims gaining the courage to come forward. Alarming echoes of Jimmy Savile and Operation Yewtree. Yet the arrest of one such person this weekend has shone a light on 2015 Veikkausliiga champions SJK (Seinäjoen Jalkapallokerho).

Michael "Kit" Carson is an Irishman who spent most of his career working at English clubs such as Norwich and Peterborough. He was arrested and bailed last week for historic sex abuse allegations. His LinkedIn profile shows his current employer as SJK with the job title of UK scout, along with his own soccer school company (which incidentally is down for maintenance).

Lari Paski, SJK's media officer, told me that Carson had a consulting role with the club in 2012 but has never been employed as a coach or scout, and while he does have connections with current and former SJK staff, he is most definitely not on the payroll. More worryingly, Carson's connection with Finland goes back to the 1980s where he brought junior teams to Finland to compete in tournaments such as the Helsinki and Kokkola cups. Even SJK chairman Raimo Sarajärvi has had to come out with a similar statement, while admitting "I find it hard to believe, how can we know what dark sides humans have - I hope it's not true".

It goes back to the original point - we all know someone who claimed to be on the books at Arsenal, or whose uncle was a scout for Chelsea. Essentially it's harmless fun, especially when you see the state of most football scouts, nursing a team sheet on a cold Thursday at Motspur Park, getting paid in mileage in the hope that they discover the next Lionel Messi to keep them in the game. Reading the Nowhere Men by Michael Calvin shows what a life it can be.

In a sport dominated by who you know, these claims need to be tested more than ever. No more so when the safeguarding of young boys and girls is the issue. No matter how often the world changes, people will still be lured in by the promise of signing for a famous club, giving prestige to the people in club jackets, floating around the local park with a jobbing League Two manager on speed dial. Even recently, I've seen a lot of nonsense from people who claimed to have scouted players as soon as that player signs for a team - Maximus Tainio signing for Tottenham a recent example.

We can't police the Internet, especially what people put in their Twitter bios and LinkedIn profiles. But we can call out the bullshitters. We can take claims of abuse seriously. We must not allow these predators the arena to work, making promises of stardom and glory, taking advantage of vulnerable young people, in an industry where football clubs strive to find them early.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Finland's darkest hour

It's around this time of year, in late November, when the sun sets on Utsjoki in Northern Finland for winter - not to be seen again until January. Even then it's only for an hour or so, but it's essentially eight weeks of darkness. It's not all bad, it's the best time to see the Northern Lights and the snow does bring some relief.

Image: Pentti Kallinen / Yle

In a similar vein, the sun was supposed to rise on Finnish football on January 1st 2016. The reign of Mixu Paatelainen and his Christmas tree was over, a solid caretaker spell from Markku Kanerva steadied the ship, Hans Backe taking over the job full-time at the turn of the year once his television commitments were finished.

Since then...

It isn't (all) Backe's fault. He's had a rotten run of injuries. At various points, he's been without Moisander, Sparv, Pohjanpalo, Uronen and Hetemaj. He has also inherited a World Cup qualifying group in which Finland were fifth seed because of the FIFA ranking at the time of the draw (90th in July 2015, thanks Mixu). A group containing Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey was always going to be tough, especially with the addition of a Kosovo side who'd never played a competitive game. Certainly harder than the Euro 2016 pool, where third place guaranteed at least a play-off.

Away friendlies were arranged against big teams in Belgium, Poland, Italy and Germany. They were even leading in Belgium in the 89th minute. But...

There is a tactical inflexibility as infuriating as Mixu's 4-3-2-1. Playing seven defenders at home to Croatia, which left about half a mile of space behind Pukki, was knackered as soon as they conceded. Moisander in midfield? I've gone on record saying I'm not his biggest fan, but don't play him there. Of course he then picked up a booking which ruled him out of the Ukraine match.

Moisander v Iceland

The players need to take responsibility. Moisander himself was lucky to play against Croatia after a complete lack of discipline after the injury time goal in Iceland where he grabbed the ref by the collar. Backe's video analyst John Wall has said that "only half of the players" watched the pre-Ukraine footage that was sent to them by mobile phone. Individual errors have directly resulted in conceding goals.

This brings us onto Roman Eremenko. This week he received a two-year ban from UEFA after testing positive for cocaine in a Champions League match between Bayer Leverkusen and his club side CSKA Moscow. Eremenko scored in a 2-2 draw on matchday one. Russian journalists have suggested that the levels in the sample implied that he almost certainly took the drugs on the day of the game. His club have indicated that they will appeal...

Eremenko has probably been the most consistently excellent Finland player at club level over the last two years. He hasn't always brought that form to the national team, but his quality is unquestionable. Assuming the appeal is unsuccessful, he won't be available again until October 2018, at which point qualification will have begun for Euro 2020. Then one has to take into account his readiness - fitness, mental state, motivation, plus he'll be 31 and not played a match in two years. Will he still be on the gear during his enforced break?

There are benefits - his presence in the team arguably slowed things down in the final third, while it may allow younger dynamic players like Robin Lod to flourish in his absence. There are several others in the U21 side who may also benefit, Simon Skrabb to name one. But his absence is another black mark on Finnish football, one which will bring extra scrutiny on players and support staff alike.

The other elephant in the room is the FIFA Ranking. I touched on it earlier, how the rankings are used to decide seedings. Well, under Backe the ranking has dropped to 101st at the time of writing - Finland's lowest since the system came into effect in 1991. Ranked below Syria, Malawi and Kyrgyzstan is a sad day. The methods used to calculate the positions are questioned, but they are based on results. To put it into context, even the defeat to Ukraine will see Finland rise back into the 90s due to the re-weighting of older matches.

Finland have hardly had glory days in their football history - a fourth place in the 1912 Olympic games is their biggest success, with no World Cup or Euro appearance to list. The team of the late 90s came closest, conceding a shambolic last minute own goal equaliser to Hungary cost a play-off match. A generation with Litmanen, Hyypiä, Johansson, Niemi, Riihilahti, Kolkka, Forssell didn't make it. There was no root-and-branch review.

The biggest nations look to themselves when things go wrong. Germany did it after poor showings in Euro 2000 and 2004 (despite a World Cup final appearance in-between). Brazil took some time after their 2014 semi-final humiliation against the Germans, but replacing Dunga with Tite this year saw a massive upturn in form after a poor start to their qualification. England constantly try new approaches but with similar results - constantly looking elsewhere in a bid to establish their own identity.

Several Finnish youth internationals are based at clubs in England, with supposedly access to elite coaching. Keto at Arsenal, Virtanen at Everton, Sundman at Aston Villa to name but three. Their time may come, but they will need regular first team matches. It's a conversation had regularly about Jari Litmanen - would he be allowed to stay in Finland until 21 in the current age, playing regular games and winning trophies?

Domestic league football in Finland has had something of a renaissance in the last couple of seasons, in interest and drama at least. SJK and IFK Mariehamn winning maiden titles after proper title races, Helsinki derbies bringing sell-out crowds and some needle too with a promotion/relegation play-off between the two big Turku clubs. While average attendances haven't jumped, the fact that every Veikkausliiga game is streamed live and some shown on free-to-air TV won't hurt at all. Even the second tier had a strong finish. The PK-35 shambles didn't reflect well however and we can almost certainly look forward to the annual financial scrutiny resulting in some movement within the divisions. We've seen Backe calling up some Finland based players for recent squads - Granlund, Riski, Saksela and Viitala have all been watched.

Ultimately, there's no quick fix for Finland's problems. Palloliitto (the Finnish FA) aren't flush with cash and there are numerous reasons why the changes also need to come at the top. Removing Backe will only work if a proper structure is in place to choose the correct successor, and there is little chance of that happening given the calibre of applicants for the last vacancy. The disparity between international sides is greater than in league matches, there are more mismatches in qualifiers. Backe's recent contact with Wales manager Chris Coleman seemed to suggest a desire to look past his own side, but Finland do not have Aaron Ramsey or Gareth Bale.

At their recent meeting, the weekend of the Eremenko ban news, Palloliitto reminded everyone that the number of registered footballers in Finland is up 7% to over 140,000 players, including 32,000 females. These are numbers to be proud of, for sure. But the context in which these figures were unveiled suggests that everything is fine.

It's a long time until the next qualifier away to Turkey in March and a lot can change. It certainly can't get any worse.