Thursday, March 28, 2013

An introduction to Veikkausliiga 2013

With the 2013 Finnish Veikkausliiga (Premier League) season starting in April, it's a good chance to introduce the league, clubs and players to those with a passing interest, and to hopefully attract some new fans...

Respect is the theme of the 2013 season

The league was formed in 1990 as a professional league, replacing the Mestaruussarja, and is sponsored by the national betting organisation Veikkaus. It's a summer league, running from April to October, like most Northern European leagues, and continues to run throughout international tournaments. It's currently ranked 30th out of 53 in UEFA's national co-efficient (this is likely to drop further due to improved performance by teams from Slovenia and Azerbaijan).

The league winner enters the following year's Champions League in qualifying round two. 2012 champions HJK will play their first qualifier in July 2013. Europa League places also go to the teams finishing second and third (FC Inter Turku and TPS enter qualifying round one) and the winner of the Suomen Cup (Honka go to qualifying round two). As things currently stand, Finland are also due to receive an extra Europa League place through the UEFA Fair Play rankings, and if this is confirmed, the place will go to IFK Mariehamn who finished fourth in 2012.

The league itself is made up of twelve clubs, who play every other team three times. One match is at home, one away, the other randomly drawn. The teams who finished in the top six the previous year will play 17 home games, while the teams in the bottom half play 16 home matches. Until 2010, there were fourteen clubs in the division, playing each other team twice.

The Veikkausliiga trophy

At the end of the season, the club finishing bottom is relegated to the Ykkönen (division one), and is replaced by that division's winner. Haka were relegated in 2012, and replaced by RoPS.

In the UK, the only ways to watch the Veikkausliiga are through Bet365's in-play, or the occasional game shown on Kutonen (a Finnish channel with a streaming facility on their website). Pay-as-you-play website Urho also have rights to some Veikkausliiga games, charging around five Euros a match.

Since 1990, HJK (Helsinki Jalkopalloklubi) have been the most successful side, winning the Veikkausliiga nine times, including the last four championships. They're also the only Finnish side to have made it into the group stage of the Champions League, in 1998/99. FC Kuusysi made it into the quarter-finals of the European Cup in 1985/86, losing to eventual winners Steaua Bucharest.

The Veikkausliiga is also in charge of the league cup (Liigacup), which in Finland is only open to top division teams. The cup is used mainly as pre-season exercise for the clubs against similar opposition. The twelve clubs are drawn into three groups of four, playing home and away. The top two in each group, plus the two best third-placed teams, go into straight knock-out quarter-finals. This year's final was played on Saturday 6th April between FC Lahti and JJK, Lahti winning 2-1 with an injury time winner. There is no European place for the winner.

The twelve clubs in the 2013 Veikkausliiga are:


Current champions, and under new management. Former player Sixten  Boström has taken the reins, with the main brief to improve the club's performance in Europe. New signings for 2013 include former English Premier League players Mikael Forssell and Teemu Tainio. Certainly favourites to retain the title, but last year only won by six points. They'll need their new old boys to slot straight in.

FC Inter Turku

Second placed in 2012, and champions in 2008. Formed in 1990 by a local businessman, and named after Internazionale (they also play in blue and black striped shirts). Last year's league top scorer Irakli Sirbiladze remains in the squad, but their pre-season form has been poor. They've lost Mika Ojala and Joni Kauko, but new signings include JJK's Tamas Gruborovics and former Honka defender Tuomo Turunen.


Turun Palloseura are also based in Turku, and finished third in 2012. They've signed midfielders Duarte Tammilehto (Honka) and Wayne Brown (Bristol Rovers) for this year, and have looked good in the Liigacup. A solid core of young Finnish players throughout the squad, and with a history of producing quality players (including Finland captain Niklas Moisander).

IFK Mariehamn

Based in the Åland Islands capital, the club have only been professional since 2009. Losing all six group matches in the Liigacup was a poor start, but they've brought back Petteri Forsell on loan, and have made several new signings. The new guys will need to bed in quickly to keep their top half position. Europa League football could prove a distraction.

FC Lahti

Liigacup winners were formed in the merger of Reipas and Kuusysi, Lahti returned to the Veikkausliiga in 2012 and ended in fine style. They've since added two solid defenders in Pyry Kärkkäinen and Markus Joenmäki, and the biggest coup of the winter by signing Inter's Joni Kauko. They also have a decent core of youngsters, and have added Brazilian forward Vini Dantas. My tip for top three this season.


Sixth in 2012 - par form. Since winning the title in 2005, they've only come between 5th and 9th since. They've retained striker Pekka Sihvola (despite him having several trials all over Europe), and have signed HJK youngster Emerik Grönroos on loan for the season. They may not yet benefit from selling the naming rights to their stadium, but a solid mid-table side.


Winners of the Finnish Cup in 2012, Honka will be going into 2013 in a degree of turmoil. Losing their captain Tapio Heikkilä to HJK and Tammilehto due to contract disputes over unpaid wages, and they were in danger of losing their league place. They have signed former Marseille and Bolton defender Abdoulaye Méïté, and have retained promising young striker Tim Väyrynen - well worth following their exploits.


Vaasan Palloseura returned to the top flight in 2006, but haven't finished a season higher than 8th, and 2012 also saw them come 8th. Jamaican forward Steven Morrissey scored fifteen goals last season, but has moved to Denmark, and the club have struggled to find a replacement. Defender Jesper Engström is also suffering from serious illness, and the club will struggle in 2013.


JJK of Jyväskylä suffered a hangover in 2012, following their 2011 bronze medal with ninth place and the worst defence in the league. A maiden European campaign ended with defeat to Montenegro side Zeta, and they sorely missed forward Babatunde Wusu. Tunde has returned, and young Eero Markkanen looks a good prospect. Should do better, but the top half may be beyond their reach. Liigacup runners-up.


Kuopio's finest celebrated their 90th birthday recently, but will need clear heads. The 2010 runners-up seemed a long way off their best last season, where progress to the third qualifying round in the Europa League seemed to take over (before losing to Bursaspor). This year they have no such diversion, and have brought in HJK's former goal king Dawda Bah. Scored plenty of goals in pre-season.

FF Jaro

Escaping relegation on the final day with a surprise victory at TPS, Jaro again look like they will struggle to keep afloat in 2013. On-loan forward Sherif Ashraf has left, while Trinidadian Shahdon Winchester has come in and already looked dangerous. Young midfielder Simon Skrabb is also a potential match-winner, but is still only 18.


The 2012 Ykkönen champions, and won at a canter. Better known for match-fixing allegations and YouTube clips about cold weather, they're very much a yo-yo club, but they've invested well. Saxman, Otaru and Okkonen have come in, and prolific Boris Kokko remains, despite interest in Poland. May find adjustment hard, but they won their Liigacup group.

So those are the runners and riders. We'll be running reviews of every round of fixtures, with highlights and photos. The latest news will be published on Twitter, while we're also on Facebook. I'll be visiting Finland in June, hopefully returning with some good tales and new friends.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Luxembourg 0-3 Finland match report

After the immense performance in Spain, the Finnish squad had to return to planet Earth to face Luxembourg in the Grand Duchy. An away friendly against a side ranked 151st in the world is a different challenge, and one that required concentration in front of 856 paying spectators.

Spending 90 minutes defending against Spain is a totally different challenge to being expected to dominate, and Finland did a professional job against enthusiastic but limited opposition. The midfield saw plenty of the ball, with time to play key passes and make runs into the box to support the Golden Retriever-esque Teemu Pukki, who covered plenty of ground and deserves a treat.

However it took 43 minutes to get on the scoresheet, Alex Ring scoring his first international goal having already hit the post from close range. At half-time, Niki Mäenpää was replaced by Lukas Hradecky, and Pukki was withdrawn in place of Mikael Forssell. 

 Alex Ring takes the plaudits for his goal

It took four minutes for the goal tally to double, Kasper Hämäläinen was fouled in the box, and Forssell stepped up to score his 29th international goal from the spot (now only two behind Jari Litmanen's all-time record). Forssell's first goal for Finland was also in a friendly in Luxembourg. Good omen?

Forssell puts Finland 2-0 up

Luxembourg were reduced to ten men after Chris Philipps was harshly sent off for a late challenge, and a rash of substitutions and silly bookings slowed the pace of the game. Njazi Kuqi came on as a late sub and did his best to rack up as many offsides as possible. The third goal came in the final minute of regulation time, Joona Toivio having a clear run at a corner and heading into the net.

Kari Arkivuo gets stuck in

And so that's Finland's international schedule finished until June. While this win was expected, the draw in Spain has raised expectations for the side. The double-header against Belarus is crucial, and Finland still have a realistic chance of finishing third in the group. FIFA ranking points should also be boosted by the two matches, and hopefully a rise of a handful of positions at least.

The match did get some wider coverage for a bold piece of skill from Hradecky, captured by friend of the blog Tuomas Sonck (better known as Tumpero).

 Lukas Hradecky shows some silky skills

There are also highlights now available, feel free to watch below, again via Tumpero.

Highlights of Luxembourg 0-3 Finland

Teemu Pukki chases a long ball

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Spain 1-1 Finland: In numbers

I'll admit in the preview to this match, I didn't give Finland much chance. In the build-up to the game on Twitter, I forecasted that Finland would be solid, nick a goal on the break... I also said they'd concede three or four goals. But thankfully I, and most people, were wrong. Finland defended well and did nick a goal, and the goal was an equaliser to make it 1-1.

The Finnish squad celebrating in Gijon

Rather than summarise the game, I'll bombard you with some numbers that seem significant. There are also some gratuitous photos and highlights.

0 - Finland finished the game without earning a corner. Spain had 19!

2 - Two of the Finland starting eleven (Teemu Tainio and Alexander Ring) are based in the Finnish league, while Ring has only just returned from a loan spell at Borussia Monchengladbach.

5 - Teemu Pukki's goal was his fifth international goal, but only his first in a competitive match.

Teemu Pukki's goal (Finnish commentary)

18 - Finland had 18% possession of the ball throughout the 90 minutes. In comparison, Inter Milan had 14% possession in their 2010 European Cup semi-final at Barcelona.

28 - It's been 28 years since Finland scored an international goal in Spain. Mika Lipponen scored in a 3-1 defeat to the Spanish in a friendly in Alicante.

29 - Spain had 29 shots on the Finland goal in ninety minutes, but only four of them were on target.

Things get heated towards the end of the match

100 - The Spanish goalscorer Sergio Ramos earned his 100th cap for this game, aged 26.

168 - Days until the return match in Helsinki. Tickets are already selling quickly...

500 - FIFA world ranking points that Spain will earn for the draw, the same as if they'd beaten the USA in a friendly.

Highlights of Spain 1-1 Finland

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Spain v Finland, World Cup qualifier

Next week sees Finland's biggest test under Mixu Paatelainen, and perhaps their biggest game for many years. Facing the World and European champions in their own backyard (well, Gijon) is about as tough as it gets for any international side, let alone Finland.

The hosts won their first two games in qualifying group I, before dropping points at home to France in Madrid (a 94th minute goal by Olivier Giroud). The Finns however have only one point so far, a home defeat to the French and a disappointing 1-1 draw against Georgia, which saw Alexei Eremenko Jr sent off for two yellow cards. Finland's squad will then go on to face Luxembourg the following Tuesday.

2010 winners Spain are up next

Finland are taking a strong squad to Spain, the biggest absentee is the suspended Eremenko. Some young players will be benefitting from the experience, including Fulham's young goalkeeper Jesse Joronen, young HJK pair Rasmus Schüller and Mikko Sumusalo, Bursaspor's Petteri Forsell and Jarkko Hurme of TPS.

Spain's squad is announced to be announced on Friday (15th). They're unbeaten since a 2011 defeat to England in a friendly at Wembley. Spain are likely to be without captain Iker Casillas (hand injury), while Xavi and David Villa have recently been injured (but are likely to be involved). Their last match was a 3-1 friendly win over South American champions Uruguay.

Friendly international in 2007

Previous meetings between the two sides have been rare, the last fixture was a friendly in Helsinki in 2007, which ended 0-0. Prior to that, two non-competitive matches in 1994 were both won by Spain. The last competitive (and first of any) fixtures were in qualification for the 1970 World Cup, where Finland won the Helsinki match 2-0, but lost 6-0 in La Línea. Neither country qualified for that tournament, Belgium winning the pre-tournament group.

Highlights of Spain 6-0 Finland in 1969

Finland's recent international record is patchy. Not including the technically unofficial King's Cup, the Finns have lost to Israel, beaten Cyprus away and drawn with Georgia. Spain will be a huge test, and at the time of writing, Finland are 25/1 against to win the match and even a draw is 10/1. The Spanish are currently ranked number 1 by FIFA, Finland are 85th.

Most Finnish supporters accept that a group with Spain and France is so steep it's vertical, and that qualifying for the expanded Euro 2016 is slightly more realistic. But a chance to play against Spain will be an experience at least, and hopefully something the players and staff can learn from.

For Finns (and Spaniards) in the UK, ESPN are showing the match live on Friday 22nd March at 1945 GMT.

 Could Mixu pull off a surprise?

The full Finland squad to face Spain: 
Lukas Hradecky, Niki Mäenpää, Jesse Joronen; Joona Toivio, Niklas Moisander, Jukka Raitala, Jarkko Hurme, Markus Halsti, Paulus Arajuuri; Tim Sparv, Roman Eremenko, Mikko Sumusalo, Kari Arkivuo, Rasmus Schüller, Alexander Ring, Toni Kolehmainen, Perparim Hetemaj, Teemu Pukki, Petteri Forsell, Kasper Hämäläinen, Teemu Tainio; Mikael Forssell, Njazi Kuqi, Riku Riski.

The Spain squad to face Finland:

Victor Valdés, Pepé Reina, David de Gea; Álvaro Arbeloa, Raúl Albiol, Sergio Ramos, César Azpilicueta, Gerard Piqué, Nacho Monreal, Jordi Alba; Xabi Alonso, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fábregas, Sergio Busquets, Santi Cazorla, Javi García, Isco; David Villa, David Silva, Pedro, Juan Mata, Álvaro Negredo, Jesús Navas

Friday, March 08, 2013

The 2013 Liigacup story so far...

It's taken just under two months, but the group stage of the 2013 Liigacup is now at the quarter final stage. The schedule has conplimented the pre-season schedule for the twelve clubs involved, some have travelled far and wide in-between. Time for a quick re-cap of what we've seen so far.

2012 winners TPS have started strongly

Group 1

On paper the strongest group, with three of 2012's top five teams - but it was runners-up FC Inter who surprised everyone, picking up just one point from their six matches. Admittedly Inter were without top scorer Irakli Sirbiladze due to injury, but they conceded 15 goals, and finished bottom. 2012 winners TPS finished top, unbeaten in their games. They go through with Lahti (2nd) and JJK (3rd), who didn't pull up any trees but improved towards the closing stages of the round. Lahti only scored four goals in six games so will need to improve quickly.

Group 2

Champions HJK looked like winning this group at a canter, winning their first four matches at an aggregate at 13-0. But MYPA shocked everyone by beating them 1-0, and only finished two points behind in the end. Last year's 4th placed IFK Mariehamn lost all six matches, and conceded 10 goals against HJK. Suomen Cup holders Honka didn't do enough to earn a 'best 3rd placed' spot, with their two wins against IFK and a draw with MYPA all they achieved.

Group 3

The closest group of the three, and won by the newly promoted RoPS. VPS finished bottom and exited early, despite a final day win over RoPS, as KuPS finished second (level on 10 points with RoPS, but with an inferior head to head record). Jaro finished third despite a strong start, and made it through ahead of Honka. KuPS scored 14 goals in their six matches, only HJK scored more (19). KuPS managed to go between excellent and awful and back, so on their day will be a threat. RoPS have bought well, but Jaro's five goals in six is unlikely to put much fear into their next opponent.

So the quarter-finals, here is the schedule:

TPS v Jaro (Saturday 9th March, kick-off 1330 GMT)
HJK v JJK (Saturday 9th March, kick-off 1230 GMT)
RoPS v FC Lahti (Sunday 10th March, kick-off 1500 GMT)
MYPA v KuPS (Saturday 9th March, kick-off 1200 GMT)

The semi-finals will be (schedule TBC):

TPS or Jaro v HJK or JJK
RoPS or Lahti v MYPA or KuPS

The prize for this year's winner

Monday, March 04, 2013

Kuningas Litmanen Part IV - Internationals, injuries and family

The final part of the documentary summary will look at Jari's international career, more of his problems with injury, and a (little) bit more of an insight into his private life.

The first real coverage of Jari in the national team jersey is the final fixture of World Cup 98 qualification at home to Hungary in 1997. (To clarify the timeline, this section came after Jari was sent off for Ajax v Volendam). In group 3, Norway had run away with the group, but the final fixture was betwee the Finns and the former mighty Magyars on October 11th 1997.

Finland had already gone 1-0 up through Antti Sumiala, when Mixu Paatelainen had a shot on goal right at the end of the game, which was deflected over. The referee awarded a goal kick, and Jari's protestations earned him a yellow card. Jari says "I protested the situation as it was so obvious, we'd have played the corner slowly so they wouldn't attack. It's football, a small decision for the ref but it changed the direction of the game".

Getting booked for dissent against Hungary

Hungary go up the other end of the pitch from the goal kick, and earn a free kick on the edge of the box, which goes out for a corner. As a result of the corner, an unlikely chain of events caused the ball to go in the Finland goal.

Jari recalls "It doesn't change that we defended in an amateur way, and when the ball went in I could hear the raindrops on my head. It was one of the biggest disappointments of my international career, we were so close. Even if we'd practised 1000 times, that wouldn't have happened again."

On his return to Ajax, he said the room went quiet, Edwin van der Sar came and hugged him.

Highlights v Hungary

The next match to get covered in detail is the Euro 2000 qualifier against Turkey in Istanbul. In October 1998, the Ali Sami Yen Stadium (then home to Galatasaray) was an intimidating place to visit, and made harder by Turkey's win against Germany four days earlier. Finland had started their campaign with a win against Moldova, and defeat to Northern Ireland. Jonatan Johansson talked about the atmosphere, the massive noise, the Police escort required, and he'd been hit on the head by a coin (you could see the bandage when he celebrated a goal later).

The match itself was brutal, several of the Finnish players were on the receiving end of harsh fouls, including Jari himself (see photo below). He was off the pitch receiving treatment at the same time as Johansson, while Mixu Paatelainen also received a knock. Keeper Antti Niemi was also hurt after a great save...

Johansson says he could sense a change in the atmosphere after he scored the second goal to put Finland 2-0 up, that some of the home fans were cheering them. Finland eventually won, Litmanen scoring the 3rd goal in injury time, and the game ended 3-1. Timo Walden, the national team's PR man, describe Jari's standing ovation, and how Jari got himself a Turkish flag to leave the pitch in.

Back at the team's hotel, Niemi broke a glass door near the swimming pool, but when the security guard came to investigate and saw Jari Litmanen, he seemed happy to meet the team. Johansson didn't remember that bit though because he'd had a bit too much to drink...

Fouled in Istanbul

 Highlights v Turkey

Within the next section of the film, in Jari's spell at Liverpool, there is coverage of an injury sustained for Finland against England, which took place funnily enough at Anfield. As Jari was showing us around the pitch, at the Anfield Road end, there was the place where he fell after a challenge with Rio Ferdinand. "I fell a lot in my career, and this was the unluckiest one".

Sami Hyypiä tells the story "Unfortunately we lost 2-1 after a good game. Jari could have made it 2-2, but it was unbelievable to hear what happened to his arm. I heard the bone was in several parts." Finland physio Jari-Pekka Keurulainen said "It was only when we got to the dressing room that he started passing out from the pain. It was the adrenaline which kept him going." That injury caused Litmanen to miss Liverpool's final wins in the FA, Carling and UEFA cups in 2001.

Tussling with Rio Ferdinand, prior to breaking his wrist in 2001

Throughout the last part of the film, there are a few brief clips of Jari sat in a doctor's office, dressed in a gown, with crosses on his knees indicating where to operate. In May 2011, he's told he has a tear in his right knee. In January 2012, it's the left knee. "It's balanced". At the end of the film, we see Jari getting ready for surgery again, and probably not for the last time.

Prepped for surgery

As his second spell at Ajax was coming to an end, Finland faced the Netherlands in Amsterdam. Antti Niemi was amazed at his following - after the pre-match training session at the ground, 500 Ajax fans surrounded their bus, letting off flares and waving flags, all to say farewell to their hero. "Everyone on the bus realised what he means to the fans, you get emotional even for someone else's moment".

With family

The first time we see Litmanen with his family is at the 2007 Independence Day President's reception, only a fleeting sight. Talking about his children, Jari says "A friend told me it will turn your life upside down. But it does change your life, your values change." He talked about having lived with half a suitcase packed since 1992, ready for the next destination.

Hanging out with Dad (and grandad)

Jari's two children only feature twice, in the photos above, and aren't introduced. His partner again features twice, and doesn't say a word to the camera.

There is footage of the funeral of Jari's agent Heikki Marttinen in November 2010. Jari was a pallbearer at the funeral, while the camera films proceedings from a distance. Jari speaks (away from the funeral), and again he struggles to hold back the tears. He describes Heikki again as a father figure, who took care of his business, and supported him as a friend. "It was thanks to him that I transferred to Ajax, he was priceless help and support for me".

Returning to football, Hungary again had a part to play. After a defeat in Helsinki to Hungary in 2010, then-coach Stuart Baxter joins in. "There was a desire to change the team, that we should take away some of the more experienced players, so I wasn't sure which role Jari should have." Baxter recalls talking to Germany manager Jogi Low after a World Cup qualifier in 2009, where Low said Litmanen was his man of the match, as Germany needed a last minute equaliser to end 1-1.

Baxter was replaced, for one match only, by Olli Huttunen, for the home match against San Marino in Helsinki (the match was in November 2010, not October as the DVD caption states). Jari said "When Baxter left, the general atmosphere was that we needed to make the team younger, a new era". He seemed slightly irritated, ending with "there's no place for me".

 The final international

Finland beat San Marino 8-0, Jari scored the sixth goal from the penalty spot. Antti Niemi says he's sure that Jari will play football for as long as he's alive, he loves the game so much. After the match, Jari is interviewed about the banners, big pictures of your face - "What sort of moment was that?". Litmanen was visibly moved, nearly in tears again, "You can probably see".

The music starts in the background, and David Endt, for one last time speaks, "Not even I know him completely, there's always something mysterious".

We end with a list of honours won by Litmanen throughout his career, over footage of numerous goals we've seen throughout the film. This montage is also available in the extras section. There's not a lot in there we haven't already seen, just some extra footage of clips, statue unveilings and tours.

We'll be giving away a DVD copy of the film in the near future - be sure to follow the site on Twitter or Facebook for more information on how.