Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Caption competition - Win an Escape To Suomi mug!

Jari Litmanen played in a charity match in Geneva on Tuesday evening against a team of Swiss legends... Doing the rounds in the Swiss media are a number of photos (you can see them on our Facebook page), but one picture in particular is begging for a worthy caption.

If you feel like stretching your comedy muscles, let me know on Twitter/Facebook or email (see contact tab for information) by Sunday 19th January 2014. I'll pick the best one then, and the winner will receive a very limited edition Escape To Suomi mug. Entries in English or Finnish please!


Good luck!

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Aulis Rytkönen - ‘Monsieur Magician’

A rarity on Escape To Suomi - this is a guest post by football tourist James Drobka. If you'd also like to contribute to the site, feel free to contact me on the tab above.


Aulis Rytkönen. Heard of him? Didn’t think so. Aulis was the first Finnish footballer to turn professional in 1952 when signing for Toulouse in France. 

Aulis was born on 5 January 1929 in Kartulla, Kuopio and it was here where he started his journey to in becoming a legend of Finnish football. At the age of six, he was given a leather football as a Christmas present, somewhat a luxury as many families could not afford footballs for their children. He was an athletic youth and when he was 12 he joined Kuopion Työväen Urheilijoihin, a local sports club. Aulis was intent on playing football, however his father was not so supportive and wanted him to play other sports as he did not consider football an appropriate sport. However Rytkönen’s persistence paid off when he joined his first club KuPS aged 16.

Aaro Heikkinen, then the manager of KuPS, recognized his talent and gave him his debut against Kuopion Pallotoverit as a striker. Aulis scored both goals in a 3-2 defeat. He played a further three games in the 1945 season, and according to him it went well even though he was a bit lightweight. The 1946-1947 was a productive season; he scored nine goals in the National Championship, but it was curtailed by a season ending leg break in a game against Matfors IF of Sweden. He came back the next season much stronger and fitter, with newspaper Urheilulehti remarking ’18 year old business assistant, one of the best players for KuPS’. He scored another nine goals, thus keeping his team in the national championship. His form throughout the 1948-49 season led to an offer from Helsinki based club, Kiffen that would pay him 120,000 marks. Rytkönen refused the move and reaffirmed his desire to play for KuPS. He ended the 1949 season in great fashion, culminating in winning Finnish footballer of the year for the first time.

The season of 1950 started well, losing the first game of season they went on to win the next five matches in a row. In their seventh game of the season, they lost 5-2 to Kiffen. The game was attended by an agent on behalf of many Italian professional teams. He would be paid 630,000 marks, however he would not tell Aulis which club he would be playing for. For this reason he refused to turn professional and to stay as an amateur, and KuPS finished in the silver position that season, the first medal of his career. He also won best Finnish player for a second year in a row.

Before the start of the 1951 season, Stade Français made an approach to sign Rytkönen, with the club's president flying to Finland to sign the contract that would pay him three million marks. The clubs signed the contract, but the transfer was blocked by the Finnish FA due to their belief that becoming professional was not good enough, and he was forced to stay in the country. He scored 11 goals in the season as his team finished fifth in the league. In December he married his long term partner Anneli Puranen, but was unable to afford his wedding so the club struck a deal with him. The club would loan him money, if he agreed to play for them in the run up to the 1952 Olympics. He agreed. Again the 1952 season KuPS finished fifth, and he scored 10 goals. Rytkönen once again won Finnish footballer of the year for a third time, a feat that wouldn’t be broken until 1965 when Juhani Peltonen won his fourth. The 1952 would be his last season with KuPS, and ended with a ratio of better than a goal every other game (66 goals in 126). 

The 1950 KuPS side (Aulis third from left on the second row)

The 1952 Olympics was a disappointment for Finland as they were knocked out in the first round by Austria losing 4-3, having led 3-2 at half time. Rytkönen scored the third goal in front of a partisan crowd of 33,053 in the Olympic stadium in Helsinki. After the Olympics, the transfer was agreed for Rytkönen to join an ambitious Toulouse side in the French second division in December 1952. This move would make him the first Finnish professional footballer. Shortly after moving to France, a letter arrived at his parent's house from Atletico Madrid with proposed contract negotiations. Rytkönen attempted to cancel his contract with Toulouse but the president refused to budge. He made his debut in January against Cannes and set up the first goal. Toulouse went on to win the league and were promoted to Ligue 1 in his first season.

With Toulouse in the top division for first time in two seasons, they replaced their coach with Jules Bigot. They beat title favorites Nice, containing a young Just Fontaine, with Rytkönen grabbing both goals. He suffered a lot with injuries in the season and only managed five goals, however his performances were of such a standard that clubs were looking at other Finnish players. Toulouse themselves bought in two more Finnish players Nils Rikberg and Kalevi Lehtovirta (the second and third professionals, who only lasted one season at Toulouse before moving onto other French sides).

Rytkönen felt that his time in France was hampering his international career and is quoted as saying It is true that I would have at least 50 more caps in the statistics if I'd stayed in Finland, I was leaving in the opinion of some, a renegade who betrayed the people of Finland’. He felt that his performances were some of his best and due to playing in France, the Finnish coaches had no idea if he was okay or not, due to not being able to attend games.

1954-55 was a good season for Toulouse, with the club touted as favourites for the league title. However for Rytkönen, the year was hampered by injuries and he could only make eight appearances, providing two goals for the team. Toulouse finished in second, missing out on the title with a final day 1-1 draw against Reims. The following season was a disappointment, the club finished seventh and he only scored twice. He was deployed as left winger and was soon to make this position his own after overcoming his injury troubles.

Rytkönen’s best season of his career was 1956-57, when he won his first piece of silverware, winning the French cup. The side struggled in the league and labored to an eighth placed finish, but the cup was another matter. After getting through the dearth of the amateur clubs in the cup, they found themselves in the quarter final against Sedan. The match went to extra time, and Rytkönen scored the crucial winning goal to win 3-2. They beat Nice in the semi and got to the final for first time in their history, where they beat Angers 6-3 with Rytkönen getting four assists. It was this performance that earned him the title ‘Monsieur magician’.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Redemption for RoPS - from Perumal to Europe

In 2011, Rovaniemi Palloseura (RoPS) made international news as they were dragged through the courts after Singaporean criminals were found to have fixed certain outcomes in as many as 28 matches involving the side. Wilson Raj Perumal received a two-year prison sentence, while nine players (seven Zambian, two Georgian) were also implicated, and raised several issues over the integration of foreign footballers moving to Finland.

The Zambian players in court claimed that no-one coerced them into their actions. It was circumstances that led them down their path, that they felt no connection to the club or town, and they were bored. The RoPS coach at the time, former Wales youth player John Allen, told the Daily Telegraph “The first time we had any idea that something was going on was when Christopher Musonda was taken into questioning after morning training." Some of the players involved still ply their trade, Chanda Mwaba even had a trial with Ykkönen side Viikingit last March. The fixing issue most commonly bet on was the concession of late goals - Perumal's organisations made huge sums from goals conceded by RoPS between the 76th and 90th minutes.

Perumal also had links with two other Finnish clubs. Two Zambian AC Oulu players (the Yobe brothers Dominic and Donewell) admitted taking bribes with the intention of giving away a penalty. Dominic had moved to champions HJK afterwards, but the contract was terminated shortly afterwards. Tampere United, Finnish title winners as recently as 2007, were suspended by the Finnish FA after taking large sums from a Singapore-based firm with ties to Perumal, and were subject to a money laundering investigation as a result. As of the start of 2014, the club are still officially banned.

Forward to September 2013, and RoPS have defeated Kuopion Palloseura in the Finnish Cup final in Helsinki, and with it earning a place in the 2014/15 Europa League, returning to Europe for the first time since 1990. The club had gone through several changes in the intervening two years, including relegation from the top division, a change of leadership in the boardroom, and an overhaul of their scouting policy. In the aftermath of the cup success, I spoke to Mikko Perälä of TopSpot, the company entrusted by RoPS to overhaul player recruitment and integration.

Mikko told me, over a herbal tea in St James's Park, about their mission - it's not just scouting footballers for a club. It's to encourage African players to integrate into a new way of life, in particular the challenges of being a professional sportsman in Rovaniemi, near the Arctic Circle in the north of the country. He says " I hope we can keep on working with them and together research and improve the process of integrating African players to the European style of training, playing and most importantly living. It is always the outside pitch factors that in the end matter the most. It is a learning process for us, for the player and for the club."

TopSpot's track record in Finland is impressive - previous discoveries Dominic Chatto (Inter Turku) and Dickson Nwakaeme (KuPS) were big successes at those clubs. But issues about their development arose after concerns that they were only utilised for their physical and instinctive qualities, and they did not become better footballers as a result of their coaching.

Dickson Nwakaeme soaking up the Kuopio sun

Mikko told me about another of his African prodigies, whose raw talent could see him compete in one of Europe's stronger leagues, but whose only motivation was money and that his attitude would prevent true success. But there are signs that RoPS' new strategy is paying off - the Suomen Cup victory and retaining their Veikkausliiga status was key, and hiring respected coach Juha Malinen all lead to progression for the club. The more recent African imports to Rovaniemi have been of good stock, with central defender Faith Friday Obilor (another TopSpot find) making a huge contribution to the defence. Mikko says there are only a handful of coaches in Finland who he'd trust to develop the players his group finds, Malinen being one of them.

RoPS have been busy signing new Finnish players for 2014, and the club themselves have signed a long-term deal with FC Santa Claus to use them as a 'farm club' to develop future players. The club are understandably cautious, with CEO Antti Hietakangas saying in 2011 “signing foreign players is not the wrong way, it’s just not my way.” RoPS finished 11th (out of twelve teams) in the Veikkausliiga in 2013, having been promoted in 2012, and spending the previous decade between the top two divisions.

Unfortunately the RoPS Europa League adventure, which will begin in qualifying round one in July, will need to take place away from home - UEFA have deemed their Keskuskenttä home as unsuitable to host continental football, and Oulu (over 100 miles away) is likely to become their temporary home. The prize money for taking part (around 140k EUR) will be a bonus, while the local city council have publicly stated their admiration for keeping Rovaniemi on the map.

RoPS continue to survive as an advert for caution, but also with cautious optimism. The club still have a long way to go, and won't go from 11th to top half overnight... But Malinen did exactly that with Lahti last season - and as long as Europe doesn't become too much of a distraction, the darkest days could now be far behind them.