Thursday, January 31, 2013

Finland U21s discover the road to the Czech Republic

After all the chat, explanations and stilted humour of a morning in Nyon, Finland finally learned who they will have to face in order to get to the Euro 2015 tournament in the Czech Republic.

Finland U21s, picture from Suomen Palloliitto

Let's have a quick look at who they'll have to face, if they want a summer holiday in a couple of years...


Finland played Stuart Pearce's England U21 in the opening game of the 2009 finals in Sweden. Lee Cattermole gave England an early lead, before Tim Sparv scored a penalty. A second half goal from Manchester City's Micah Richards gave England the win. England went on to the final, where they lost 4-0 to Germany. Finland lost all three matches in the group stage. The two teams also played in qualification for Euro 2002, the first match was 2-2 in Finland, England won the return 4-0.

Kasper Hämäläinen vs England in 2009


Wales were the opponents in qualification for Euro 2004 (group 9), and Finland opened with a 2-1 win - goals from Pekka Lagerblom and a late winner by (then Liverpool forward) Daniel Sjölund ensured three points, despite an equaliser by Adam Burchill. The return tie in Merthyr Tydfil saw a goalless draw. Italy won the group, Finland third and Wales fourth.

Mathias Lindström gets stuck in

The teams faced off in qualification for Euro 2013, and saw away wins in both ties, starting with a shock in Turku - Finland were 3-1 up at half-time, only for the visitors to score twice, then a last minute winner. They met again four weeks later, and while Lithuania went ahead early, three second half goals won it for the Finns. Finland ended the group fourth, Lithuania fifth.

Finland trudge off after losing at home to Lithuania

Moldova and San Marino

Finland have never faced either team in UEFA u21 competition.

Depending on fixtures (yet to be announced), and locations, ETS will be hoping to attend the matches in England and Wales. Watch this space!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Finland lose King's Cup final

After the promising performance against Thailand on Wednesday, Finland were brought back down to Earth on Saturday in a 3-0 defeat to Sweden in the King's Cup final.

A Saturday morning meeting in a warm stadium, with perhaps not first choice squads, was always going to be a strange environment for the Nordic sides, especially with a trophy up for grabs.

Sweden celebrate

Goals from former Sunderland striker Tobias Hysén, young midfielder Robin Quaison and one-time Southampton midfielder Anders Svensson won Sweden the competition.

Anders Svensson with the 2013 King's Cup

Of note for fans of the quirky, Sweden also retained the Unofficial World Championship title which they won after beating North Korea in the first match. They will defend the title against Argentina next month, while Finland will face Israel.

Highlights of Finland 0-3 Sweden

The bronze medal match between North Korea and Thailand finished 2-2.

It appears that the matches within the competition were not designated 'A' internationals, so the results are unlikely to count towards FIFA rankings. Each country's current rankings are Sweden (19), Finland (84), North Korea (99) and Thailand (138).

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Honka lose two players over unpaid wages

Thursday saw a potentially landmark decision in football in Finland, and potentially worldwide. While governed by the laws of the land, football employment cases tend to drag on before leading to precedent cases (Bosman, Webster etc).

After weeks of wrangling, the Finnish football association (Suomen Palloliito) ruled that Honka players Duarte Tammilehto and Tapio Heikkilä were legitimately allowed to walk away from their contracts with the Espoo club on the grounds that they weren't paid for two months, and bonuses were witheld. The club was in financial trouble, and were in danger of missing out on a license to compete in the Veikkausliiga (and Europa League) in 2013.

Why always me? Former Honka captain Heikkilä

The SPL's ruling was thorough, quoting legislation, EU rulings and competition regulations. But they need this ruling to be bulletproof - the situation of unpaid/deferred wages is repeated all over the major European leagues. In Britain alone in 2012, Portsmouth, Hearts and Rangers have had to defer player wages. Rangers players left the club en masse when the club was liquidated, but that was different - Honka remain, despite questions over whether they should have been granted a license.

The short arm of the law - former Honka midfielder Tammilehto

Honka are about to embark on a European campaign, with their first Suomen Cup in tow. But without these two players, and striker Tim Väyrynen is currently training with Dutch Eredivisie side Heracles, it's hard to see how they can keep pace in 2013. They will struggle to advertise themselves as good employers after this, and only a European campaign could tempt players to Espoo.

Meanwhile, two promising young players are free agents. Heikkilä is rumoured to be interested in moving to KuPS, while Tammilehto is close to signing with TPS. Honka have seven days to appeal the ruling.

It wouldn't be Finnish football without some kind of legal wrangling prior to the start of a season...

How does the Finnish League compare with the rest of Europe?

Every so often, we like to throw some numbers and statistics your way, and it's that time again. The splendid Football Observatory have released their study of 31 leagues around Europe (including Finland), based on factors such as age, nationality and squad size. Some of the numbers may prove quite surprising in context, others will purely seek to build on what you already know.

The Football Observatory study, source of these facts and figures

The data relates to players active on October 1st 2012, so cast your minds back that far. The leagues concerned were grouped geographically (Finland placed in the Northern section), and by league strength, calculated by average UEFA rankings over five years (Finland in group 5 of 5).

Squad size

Finland has seen the biggest decrease in squad number against the previous year, with the average Veikkausliiga squad containing 22.4 players, down 1.7 since the previous year. This was also indicative of squad shrinkage across Northern Europe, the four Nordic leagues all appear in the six nations at the bottom of that graph. This could be explained simply by finances, and clubs not being willing/able to keep large squads of players during a season. 

KuPS coach Esa Pekonen bemoaned his small squad (and an increased fixture list) last summer when his side were playing Europa League qualifiers every midweek. In 2011, the league structure changed to increase league matches from 26 to 33, putting extra pressure on the smaller squads, allowing for less rotation to combat fatigue. That some clubs struggle to fill a bench for league games is a sign that perhaps this needs to be monitored.

 Big bench, not enough players (photo courtesy of Futisblogi Puoliaika)

Squad age

Of the 31 leagues surveyed, Finland's average squad age was was the 27th youngest, at 24.89 years old (as of October 1st), an increase since 2011. The survey points that goalkeepers and defenders are likely to be older anyway. The average age of Veikkausliiga players is 3 and a half years younger than those in the Cypriot league, and 18 months younger than the Swedish league.

It's also indicative when measured against the strengths of the other leagues, where the 1st group of leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) have the oldest average leagues. Experience over youth? HJK's apparent policy of signing experienced Finnish players (Forssell and Tainio) could yet skew the figures for next year.

HJK's average age plummeted when Litmanen left
Number of new signings

Another area where Finland are amongst the lowest - Finnish clubs made, on average, 7.3 new signings in 2012, down from 10.4 in 2011. Again the Nordic clubs in general have lower turnovers, with the four leagues featuring in the bottom nine, Danish clubs signing only 5.8 players. The Europe-wide breakdown shows that nearly half of the forwards included signed for their current club in 2012, and that 59% of transfers occurred between clubs from the same country. Finnish clubs sign exactly half the number of players of the nation with the most signings (Bulgaria, with 14.6 signings).

On average, Eastern European squads sign the most new players, almost twice as many as Northern European clubs. In a separate study by the Football Observatory, they show that amongst the top 5 leagues, the teams with the fewer signings general perform better - in Spain, France and England, the champions of each country had a low average of new signings in their starting XI per game. A premium on continuity?

 HJK's new signing for 2013 Mikael Forssell

Club trained players

The amount of club-trained players is higher in Northern Europe than the rest of the continent, almost double the amount in Southern and Eastern leagues. The percentage of Veikkausliiga players trained by their clubs is 33.8%, a figure beaten only by Slovakia and Croatia. Compare this to Italy, where the figure is 7.8%, this shows that Finnish clubs place a greater emphasis on developing their own players - again perhaps by necessity over choice (Barcelona have the highest figure by club, but then they can legitimately field a starting XI of club trained players). 

The figure does increase amongst the lower-ranked leagues, 30.3% against 17.2% in the top five - another indicator that the stronger leagues can use their (generally) greater financial pull to attract the best players from other clubs and countries.

 The TPS junior (age 11) side - the stars of tomorrow?
International players per league

Perhaps one to come back to in a couple of years, but a positive sign - in the Northern leagues, 11.2% of players are considered active internationals (they represented their country between January 1st and October 1st 2012). In Finland this number is 6.7%, but this has risen from 3.2% since 2011. A large number of representatives of these are of African descent (33.8% of Africans in Europe are internationals), but further analysis of any Finland squad from 2012 will see very few domestic-based players. 

The King's Cup squad was heavily Finnish based, so this number will probably increase this year too. The country with the largest number of internationals is England, with 42.5% of Premier League players current internationals (and that wouldn't include people like Rio Ferdinand, Michael Owen or Paul Scholes).

Mika Ojala has left Finland to play in the Swedish league

Foreign players

As part of a (yet to be published) analysis of Veikkausliiga goalscorers, we discovered that 70.2% of goalscorers in the last three seasons were Finnish. This study correlates nicely, in that 23% of Veikkausliiga players in 2012 were expatriates (meaning 77% of Veikkausliiga players are from Finland). Contrast this to Cyprus, where 74.2% of players are from other countries… In Northern Europe as a whole, the number increased from 26.3% to 28.4%, with Norway and Denmark seeing the biggest increases. 

Across Europe, 44.3% of forward players are foreign, perhaps a sign of the elite non-Europeans plying their trade on the continent (Messi, Ronaldo, Falcao will all be expatriates). Brazil make up the greatest number across Europe (515), but some surprising countries are high on the list, with Serbia third (202) and Nigeria eighth (117). Across Nordic leagues, the highest concentration of expatriates are Western European (45%) and African (28%).

Brazilian striker Rafael scores for Lahti

The full study is available online for a bargainous €199, so I'll happily accept donations if anyone is interested in player heights or stability of squad... If you want to read the free excerpt on line, follow this link.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The King's Cup 2013 preview

Hidden away in the football calendar, competing for attention with the African Cup Of Nations, the King's Cup returns this week in Thailand. Not usually seen as a hotbed of football, this long-running tournament returns for it's 42nd edition on Wednesday.

This year sees a similarly Nordic-Asian line-up as 2012, with Finland, Sweden and North Korea lining up against the hosts (2012 saw a Danish league XI, Norway and South Korea). The format has changed however - returning to the knockout format, away from last year's round robin. The opening match sees Sweden take on North Korea (kick off at 9am UK time), followed by Thailand against Finland (12 noon in the UK).

The tournament is held to honour his Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and will be held at the 700th Anniversary Stadium in Chiang Mai.

The 700th Anniversary Stadium, looks recently renovated

Finland have taken a squad of players mostly based in the Nordic leagues, making do with the fact that the tournament doesn't fall in the FIFA international calendar (however FIFA have ratified the fixtures). Some old faces return to the squad, including recent HJK additions Teemu Tainio and Mikael Forssell. Perhaps the biggest surprise yet was announced on Tuesday night, when coach Mixu Paatelainen revealed that young Fulham stopper Jesse Joronen would start against the hosts.

Mikael returns to the blue and white

Something for fans of the obscure - the opening match is also billed as a match for the Unofficial World Championship. The tournament originated from the first international football fixtures between England and Scotland back in 1872, and has been calculated all the way to the current day, where North Korea are the current holders. A win for Sweden would bring the title back to Europe, where it hasn't been held since Argentina beat Spain in 2010. By definition, if Finland were to win both of their matches, against Thailand and the winners of the other game, they would be (Unofficial) World Champions! Finland's last effort at the title was in 2008, where they lost 2-1 to Greece.

Hughie, the mascot for the UFWC

For more information on the UFWC, visit their website here.

Thailand's coach Winfried Schäfer certainly has a tournament pedigree, he won the Cup of Nations with Cameroon in 2002, and lost narrowly in the final of the Confederations Cup in 2003 (overshadowed by the death of Marc-Vivien Foe). Sweden are hamstrung by the same squad limitations as Finland, with only four players with more than ten caps, and missing Ibrahimovic. North Korea surprised some in the 2010 World Cup by giving Brazil a decent game, and won't be pushovers either.

 Thailand (in yellow) take on South Korea in 2012

This promises to be a pleasant break in the pre-season plans for Finland, and should give a different challenge for Mixu's players. He claims the advantage over Thailand on the basis of the larger players, but we'll see if size really matters...

Follow Finland's attempts to become World Champions with the Escape To Suomi Twitter site.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Veikkausliiga 2013 - the key fixtures

Top division football returns to Finland in April, and the lopsided nature of the fixture list becomes a talking point again. However, now is merely the time to plan for the trips, moan about scheduling, and look forward to the matches that could decide the title, European places and relegation.

Matchday one starts with one of the big fixtures, champions HJK starting the defence of their title with a trip to Turku, at last season's runners-up Inter. This game is on Monday 15th April, live on Kutonen, but has caused some grievance. HJK fans Klubipääty are upset that they only have one away game (so far) scheduled for a Saturday, and the game is still due to clash with the tie between JJK and Jaro.

Klubipääty (and other HJK fans) vs Turku in 2012

Week 11 will see the first clash between two teams who are likely to be at the lower end of the table. Jaro entertain the returning RoPS on Saturday June 1st. Both teams have gone through a lot of change already, Jaro have lost Jussi Aalto and Heikki Aho while RoPS are trying to strengthen for their return, including signing Antti Okkonen from HJK. The fixture list means that Jaro get a slight advantage - the teams play three times, and Jaro are at home twice.

New RoPS man Antti Okkonen has to travel to Jaro twice

Troubled Honka start their Europa League campaign in the second qualifying round on Thursday 18th July. By a quirk of fate, their next opponents are at home to the team they beat in the 2012 cup final, KuPS. Honka's close season have seen the potential to be kicked out of the Veikkausliiga (and Europe), and their captain and star midfielder arguing about breaches of contract. Tammilehto is due to move to TPS, and the club have been very quiet. KuPS have seen several changes too, losing key defenders but bringing in Gambian internation Omar Colley.

Less Finnish Joey Barton, more Finnish Derek Zoolander

The return to domestic action after the early September internationals will feature Lahti's visit to Inter. Lahti ended 2012 in fantastic form, almost challenging for a European spot after their return to the top flight. They have made some splendid signings, including the coup of Joni Kauko from Inter after his contract expired. Lahti will have minimum ambitions of a top finish, and even Europe. The trip to Inter will be a big test of their medal credentials.

 Signing of 2013 so far?

The final day of the season will be played on Saturday October 26th (unless one of the European representatives makes it to a group stage, in which it'll move to Sunday 27th). It's heavily tipped that HJK will be crowned champions in their home match against KuPS - unless things get very interesting. HJK's transfer dealings have seen them prioritise experienced Finnish players, bringing back Mikael Forssell and Teemu Tainio. As noted in a previous blog, a fifth consecutive league title will be a minimum. The Sonera stadium will be almost certainly the place to be...

Will HJK be leaving KuPS behind to claim the gold?

A full list of fixtures is here, with potential changes and major events (Europe, internationals). I'll compile a more user-friendly version prior to the start of the season.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Guardian Football Weekly - Sami Hyypiä's wife

Frequent listeners to the Guardian's Football Weekly podcast may well tune in as much for the conversation about random everyday stuff as much as the latest football news.

This week's pod eventually landed on the conversation about the relative height of players, where contributor Gregg Bakowski talked about a meeting with former Liverpool captain Sami Hyypiä in a Merseyside sauna. After a brief chat, Gregg carried on about a 'pale, heavy-set woman' who had an argument with Sami in Finnish, and wondered if that's what Finnish women are like.

Needless to say, the other pod guests guffawed at the sweeping generalisation. It also caused quite the conversation at ETS HQ, where Mrs ETS (from Kuopio) then quizzed me for several minutes about whether that's what I thought. The general sort of chat where women usually win.

Anyway, to clear things up, I don't think Mrs Hyypiä (aka model Susanna Rissanen) could ever be described as heavy-set, and here is the photographic evidence.

In the interests of balance, here is Mr Bakowski, in his sauna outfit..

Football Weekly is recorded on Mondays and Thursdays. This week's episode can be found here.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Far-flung Finns - Përparim Hetemaj

After a winter break, the far-flung Finns series returns, looking at the Finnish international midfielder Përparim Hetemaj, now in his third season in Italy's Serie A.

While Hetemaj is not the stereotypical Finn (he was born in Serbia and has to bleach his hair blond), he is the sole Finn playing in the prestigious Serie A, and doing a fairly good job as well. With Serie A returning this weekend, Hetemaj has started 17 out of 19 games in the league and has accrued six yellow cards already (and a suspension).

In action against Napoli

He's certainly well-travelled, having played for AEK Athens, FC Twente and Brescia prior to his arrival in Verona. There have been rumours that he could be moving to Lazio, although it appears that they are solely from his admission that he is a Lazio supporter! That may explain the recent denial that he will be heading to Roma in January...

He made an impression on British audiences in August with a fantastic free-kick in the friendly against Northern Ireland in Belfast. He also scored in the 0-3 win away to Cyprus in November, his third goal in 18 full caps.

 The Finns celebrate the free-kick

Having just turned 26, he's at a good age for a transfer. But Chievo are in a decent 11th position in the league, and only Lazio finished 2012 stronger. He's still the only Finn to have scored a goal in Serie A.

His brother Mehmet currently plays in Serie B for Reggina, and they've played together for Finland U21. Thick as thieves? The photo below suggests so...

The last one to let go of the ball wins

Përparim is another name to keep an eye out for in January - will he end this season with Chievo? Watch this space.

Monday, January 07, 2013

ETS 2013 resolutions

A week into the new year, and I had an urge to write something. It was either a list of goals for 2013, or a round-up of transfers and gossip but I don't fancy going down that route.

Anyway, I'll be saving this, and coming back to it in December. Anyone offering assistance, ideas and exposure will be especially welcome!

Hello 2013

1. Podcast

In autumn 2012, plans were afoot with Oliver at the Frozen Pitch to plan a podcast on Finnish football. Unfortunately the season ended and other commitments got in the way, but hopefully this year will see some progress. There are enough good and great minds to make this work, even if it's a one-off. While there may not be threatening the charts, it may give some of you a podcast to listen to on the commute to work. This will be the bit I'm most keen on recruiting for...

 The first ETS podcast recording, hopefully with less hair and more laughs

2. Visiting Finland

June is looking good, driving from London with the dog in tow. Plan is to arrive in Helsinki for the international against Belarus on the site's first birthday, and then hopefully a Veikkausliiga match the following weekend (the return Belarus tie is the Tuesday after). I'll be stopping in Turku, Helsinki and Kuopio on the way, so there should be plenty of change. I wonder if I'll be the one man and his dog watching a match from the sideline? Hopefully the fixtures will be out soon so that I can start planning...

Woody my travelling companion

3. Writing proper articles and interviews

In the first couple of months, there were several blogs and articles written about some of the more newsworthy topics, and a huge research piece on the 1912 Finnish Olympic football side. Hopefully 2013 will see some more, and some initial contact has been made with some English based players for interviews. There is also a longer term piece on the 1985/86 European Cup, hopefully to hit soon. Just need to find the time to do it...

1986 European champions Steaua Bucharest - their QF opponents will feature soon

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

HJK's gamble on experience

For a team that has been champions of Finland for four years in a row, HJK have decided to take drastic steps in order to progress, and Wednesday saw the latest development in their new direction. Continually frustrated at failing to reach the group stage of the Champions League (they haven't since 1998), they've gone for experience over potential.

HJK announced the signing of midfielder Teemu Tainio (33 years old) after his release from the New York Red Bulls. Tainio hasn't played in Finland since leaving Haka in 1997, and has since gained experience at Auxerre, Tottenham and a short spell at Ajax. The move had been rumoured for weeks, and Tainio finally signed a two-year-contract to line up in midfield with the younger Mika Väyrynen (just 31).

Gives you wings

Back in October, just days after winning the title, HJK also unveiled Mikael Forssell (31 years old) for the 2013 season. Forssell was close to signing for English League One side Notts County, but was tempted back to his first club. There are concerns over his knee injury, and the fact that he has a large salary will bring increased pressure. While we're still in the January transfer window, it's difficult to speculate on whether Mikael could start the season up front with Joel Pohjanpalo... But a fully fit Forssell and a shop window Jolle would be some partnership.

Thank you, come again

Leading the good ship HJK is new coach Sixten Boström, having arrived from Örebro (relegated from the Swedish Allsvenskan). His brief is simple - win the title, get to the group stage. He's no stranger to the club having been a player and a youth coach, but has a big challenge ahead. Prominent blogger Juha Reini predicts a 15 point winning margin in the league. Can HJK make it past the Euro qualifiers? Some of the other early qualifiers are BATE, Elfsborg and Molde, and that's before the rest of Europe joins in.

The new Next model was perfecting the dugout look

There's still nearly four months until the league season starts, and a lot of potential movement to come - most notably Pohjanpalo's future. Come August, we'll have a good idea how much has changed.