Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Interview with Finland futsal captain Panu Autio

In the latest ETS interview, I spoke to the captain of the Finnish futsal national team Panu Autio. Some very in depth answers, thanks again Panu. I'll also add that the interview was done in Finnish in order to get the full breadth of answers.

You’ve played both football and futsal at high levels – which is harder?
Personally football is a lot more difficult for me because the ball bounces more, the pitch is bigger and there are more players. Futsal is a simpler game, where decision making means the basic principles of the game are more pronounced in relation to physics for instance. Futsal is more wholesome. Attention is more focused on small details of the game and the conducting those with skill is the thing that makes the difference.



How did you get into futsal?
I played football for FC Espoo and my fellow player Janne "Boogie" Laine got me to go along. "Boogie" was the captain of the national team at that time, as well as the GFT player coach. When I got the hang of it, I realised futsal was the perfect fit for me. You could say it was love at first sight!

Do you think that more professional footballers should try futsal during winter?
It is fun and it gives you new points of view on the game. On the futsal pitch, you learn technical tools in a smaller space such as using the soles of your feet, protecting the ball and a lower playing stance. So why not? I am fairly convinced that one reason why Brazilian and Spanish footballers have a better understanding of the game than Finns is partly because they have played futsal as kids.

You and Pekka Sihvola spent time playing in South America, what did you learn from it?
I learned about how many different footballing cultures there are in the world. I learned how to work in a different changing room and how it is to show yourself to a completely strange foreign team where other players are completing with you for the same work and game opportunities. I also learned Spanish.



As you’re also working with JPY (Finland's player union), what are the biggest challenges facing young footballers?
I currently work for JPY as a Contact Manager. To work as a professional footballer is challenging in Finland and wages (that were never that high to begin with) have come down in the last couple of years. Compared with other countries, in Finland the status of a professional footballer in society's hierarchy is lower than in other countries. Here even the cleaner of the stadium often earns more than the youngest players in the league. It is an absurd situation and explaining it to a Spaniard, an Italian or a German might be difficult. A different career path may therefore seem an easier and smarter choice. On the other hand, because of these reasons, you can say that in Finland the top footballers are working with total commitment.

What role can sport play in helping integrate refugees and immigrants?
This is a big question. Sport, and football in particular, is probably the best way to help refugees into the Finnish society. Football is a universal language and on the pitch everyone is equal in front of the game. We already have so many positive stories of players who have risen to key roles in our national teams. U21 national team captain Mosa Yaghoubi for example is a brilliant example that we can be proud of here in Finland. If football becomes important in the refugee question, this can also help the popularity of the game in Finland. The player organisation has for several years organised a "Football Belongs to Everyone" campaign that concludes with a national championship tournament between the reception centres.



Do you think futsal can become as pivotal as street football in developing talent?
Futsal is very similar to street football. Making distinctions between the street game, football and futsal is extremely difficult and often quite unnecessary. In Finland the street, park and yard footballing culture is fairly non-existent. I believe that futsal could bridge this gap in Finnish football and sports culture. I especially hope that futsal tournaments at different levels could become more common in Finland.

In recent years, futsal has become more popular – what will happen next?
The growth in popularity will most likely continue for a while. The Finnish national team is the Nordic Cup and the Baltic Cup champions so we could act as a kind of pathfinder for other Northern European countries. I also hope that futsal is more actively chosen in the school sports curriculum. Afterwards I would like to see Finnish futsal leagues getting more professional and the media get increasingly interested alongside it.

How much support do you get from Palloliitto (Finnish football association) for resources and facilities?
Palloliitto does a lot of good work for futsal and they have understood futsal's value and potential. Of course there is always room for improvement. For instance when it comes to conditions, Palloliitto could take a more active stance with the public sector and ensure that all towns have enough safe futsal pitches for the players. In Finland there isn't a single outdoors futsal pitch for example.


Could Finland qualify for a major futsal tournament soon?
That is the dream and we strongly believe in it. The last couple of qualifiers under Mićo Martić have been extremely close. In the next Euro qualifiers our team will be strong and we will be tactically more mature than before. We also hope that more than one individual national team player gets a chance to play professionally in the top leagues in Europe. That would make us even more prepared to play against the best countries in the world.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Finnish Football Show episode 2

Monday 14th December sees myself, Mark and Mark return to our respective hotseats for the second episode of the Finnish Football Show. After the surprisingly good reception of the first episode, we will be looking at the Finland national team, with new boss Hans Backe due to start in three weeks time.



As before, we will be recording using the Blab platform, so it'll be a live video broadcast (effectively a video call) before the edited recording hits your podcast devices later in the week.

Please join us at 7pm GMT (9pm in Finland), where you can help contribute messages and tweets using the hashtag #FFS2 - see what we did there?

Subscribe to this link - Finnish Football Show episode 2

See you then!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Finnish football mugs

I saw a tweet this week which seemed to strike a chord with me and one of my more recent hobbies. Since my first visit to Finland with Mrs ETS in 2008, we've been picking up a few Arabia Moomin mugs, also finding a few places that sell them in London. The collection is quite big (but not as big as Suvi's).

Egan has mentioned on several occasions that a lot of people, including foreign visitors, would buy and keep various items of merchandise, especially mugs. I own a couple of mugs (KuPS, SJK, HJK) but thought it'd be nice to see what else is out there. So I asked on Twitter, and got some tremendous replies.

Here they are.


AC Oulu, thanks to Heikki Mertaniemi

HIFK, thanks to Henrik Fagerström



Nyt kunnon kupposia ostettavissa MPS Storesta! Omaksi työpaikalle tai vaikka kodin kahvitteluun. Hinta tutuille 8€ :)
Posted by Malmin Palloseura on Tuesday, 20 October 2015



VPS, thanks to Johanna Keturi

As you can see, there's plenty of choice available - now to start buying...

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Interview with Finland U21 forward Vahid Hambo

The latest interview for the site is with Finland U21 striker Vahid Hambo, who in summer 2015 signed for English Championship club Brighton and Hove Albion. At the time of writing this, Brighton are top of the table and still unbeaten. Vahid started 2015 in scintillating form to earn his big move. Thanks again to Vahid for his time, you can follow him on Twitter here.

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Brighton have made a great start to the season, what is the atmosphere like at the club?
We are still top of the Championship and unbeaten this season, and that's always good. I think everybody has developed a strong winning mentality, so people at the club will be very disappointed if Brighton doesn't finish in the top three places this season.


What are your personal ambitions for the season?
I had a long ankle injury at the start of the season, then I was fit for two weeks and played in one under-21 game. Unfortunately I now have a knee injury (torn meniscus) and will be out for another two months... So we will see again after that.


You earned the nickname “Finnish Zlatan” before your move – what do you think of that name?
Haha it's funny, but I don't take any pressure from it - because there is only one Zlatan!

Has having (Finland goalkeeper) Niki Mäenpää at the club helped you settle in?
The club have helped me a lot. I now see Niki almost everyday at training ground. If I need something, I can always ask Niki.

Brighton has a reputation for being a very liberal place to live – what’s your favourite part of the city?
I'm living in Hove, around 15 minutes walk to the town centre, and only two minutes from the sea front. I don't have a favourite place yet, but I love being close to the sea.


What was the best experience of playing for Sampdoria’s academy side?
I don't know, probably everything! I learnt a lot about how strikers should move in the box and during the game. That was maybe the biggest thing. But also playing against the best young Italian players, that is where you see the level of play compared to Finland.

There was some talk of Bosnia showing interest in your career (Vahid's parents are from Bosnia, he was born in Finland) – is it something you’ve considered?
Yes of course, but I've always played for Finland, and I've never had any proper contact from Bosnia so there's nothing to think about at the moment...

Who was your footballing idol growing up?
When I was younger, I liked to watch Ronaldinho. But at the moment, I don't really have an idol.


Brighton re-signed Bobby Zamora in the summer, has he taught you anything yet?
I haven't really trained with him because of my injuries, but you can see in him that he has a lot of experience and is such a good professional. He has already scored a lot of important goals for us.

Have you had any Brighton Rock yet?
Haha no I haven't, yet!

My thanks again to Vahid - coming soon, an interview with Finland's futsal captain Panu Autio, once I get round to translating...

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Finnish Football Show podcast

I've been threatening this for a few months now...


There's going to be a Finnish football podcast starting this week! I'll be joined by Mark Wiltshear of the Explore Finland Radio Show and Mark Hayton of FC Suomi to talk about the various goings on in Finland and beyond. Seeing as we're all English, but with various links to Finland, we'll be speaking our native tongues.

But it's not just a podcast - there is also an interactive element. The show is being hosted on Blab, which means that while we're recording, we can also reply to questions you ask during the show. So, if we mention something you'd like us to clarify, or you have some fresh feedback, join in! At least this could be a two-way street, something different from your usual podcasts.

On the first podcast, we'll be focusing on the 2015 Veikkausliiga season and the current state of the Finnish national team. We're aiming for a new podcast every 4-5 weeks, lasting around 30-40 minutes.



So if you'd like to join in, subscribe to our Blab feed from 7pm GMT on Monday 16th November (9pm Finnish time) and help us help you. Don't forget our very catchy hashtag #FFS!

We need you!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Veikkausliiga 2015 - SJK triumph

The curtain comes down on another season of Veikkausliiga, and it was a hum-dinger. Not many leagues in Europe reach the final day with all the play for a both ends of the season. The last round of 2015 got plenty of people excited, not just for the prospect of a different champions for the first time in since 2008. HJK had won six titles in a row, yet they still had a slim chance of retaining their crown.

The bottom end of the table still had unresolved issues too. VPS had looked in danger of relegation for most of the season, but a good run (after a change of manager) meant that while they could still be dragged into a play-off against PK-35 Vantaa, they just needed to better KTP's result. Jaro had slipped to last place after a rotten run with one win in fifteen games, they needed to win at SJK to have a hope of avoiding automatic relegation.

Finnish champions SJK (image via Facebook)

In the end, SJK scored in opening and closing minutes to win 2-0, securing a first ever league title and sending Jaro down. It was a nervy match, Jaro threatened but couldn't make it. A draw would have gifted the title to RoPS, who won 1-4 at Lahti, helped by a third hat-trick of the season from Aleksandr Kokko. HJK managed a hard-fought 0-1 win at KuPS but could only secure bronze.

All outcomes covered at Lahti (image via Risto Oksanen)

The relegation play-off will feature KTP, who lost 1-2 to Ilves but due to Jaro's loss, they finish 11th. VPS lost at IFK Mariehamn but will be relieved to open their new stadium in Veikkausliiga. The two-legged match between KTP and PK-35 Vantaa will be tense, but potentially entertaining if Shefki Kuqi's side come up.

So how was the league won and lost?

Well I saved the "HJK in crisis" blog until the season was over. I think better writers than I have done good work on this topic, while it feels like I'd just be sticking the boot in. Ultimately they were decimated by injuries to key players, but a transfer approach resembling a closing time trolley dash in Lidl was just as damaging. The shameless attempt at attracting Japanese fans resulted in Atom Tanaka (who did well) and Mike Havenaar (shockingly poor), African journeymen Taiwo, Jallow, Mendy, Moussi and Kandji were a mixed bag, and little confidence in goalkeepers. HJK had been so wonderfully run off the field, but this year has been a smack in the chops. Expect wholesale changes for next year.

SJK retained the majority of the squad who performed so well to come second last year. A solid spine of Mikhel Aksalu in goal, Savić and Gogoua in defence with Mehmet Hetemaj, Brown, Vasara and Tahvanainen in midfield provided solidity and some spark going forward, while the addition of Akseli Pelvas provided goals, but it was two summer signings who added the final solution. Brazilian midfielder Allan Souza joined on loan from Liverpool and Roope Riski added eight goals in 13 matches up front.

I doubt Allan is ready yet for Premier League football, but SJK have acknowledged that they may not be able to keep him for next season. But they too will move into a new stadium, with Champions League football and a championship trophy to show off.

Allan key to SJK title win?

Ultimately, SJK were the most consistent side over the season and were well deserving of their win - but what about the other challenger?

RoPS hadn't been great in 2014, finishing ninth in the table and hardly looking like title candidates. But it was already evident that coach Juha Malinen was building something. Faith Friday Obilor was one of the top defenders and continued to develop, attracting interest from big clubs in Turkey. Aleksandr Kokko had been out of contract but re-signed for the season, ending up as top scorer with seventeen goals (including three hat-tricks). The creative addition was Finland U21 midfielder Moshtagh Yaghoubi, who had been stuck in contract limbo between Latvia and Russia. Mosa provided a threat from set pieces (scoring a number of free kicks), a spark and a little bit more fire in the centre of the park. Of course he deserves to be docked points for taking a selfie after his goal against KuPS in October, but hey ho, he did well and will surely get a more solid move now.


Special mention needs to go to two of the promoted clubs, HIFK and Ilves. HIFK's entirely Finnish squad competed well at the top level, while their fans brought a lot of noise and smoke, making next season's Helsinki derbies the hottest tickets in town. Ilves came up after the demise of MYPA, against the wishes of some fans, and while they hit the headlines for strange reasons (the sacking of TV star Keith Armstrong), another great set of fans and solid performances ensured top flight football again in 2016.

Off the pitch, Veikkausliiga had a good year. The availability of every match live via Ilta-Sanomat was a huge hit, other than the matches where the technical gremlins prevented broadcast. State broadcaster YLE also showed games on terrestrial TV, including the "Futiskierros" format of showing goals as they go in from all the other grounds. Average attendances were good with a total of over 500k attendees, boosted by the three HIFK v HJK games and some good turnouts at Ilves. The league are still lacking a decent international broadcast partner, even I have to use less-than-legal means to watch games as the approved streams are via little screens on betting sites.

Ultimately 2015 was a great season, with plenty of drama and as always, eccentric moments on and off the pitch. I'll come back later with summaries, while I've no idea what I'll do until the new season kicks off in April. I'll leave you with a picture of my dog Woody in an SJK shirt. Perhaps next time I bump into Wayne Brown in a cafe at the top of my road, I'll get him to sign it...


Unfortunately SJK unfollowed me on Twitter (which I've yet to moan properly about), I suppose they've got better things to do. For shame.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Interview with Finland goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky

The latest ETS q&a is with Finland and Eintracht Frankfurth goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, who has been generous enough to give some fantastic answers. He joins a growing list of big names, click on the interviews tab along the top of the page for more. Thanks again Luke for your time!

Finland’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign ended strongly but you just missed out. How is the mood in the camp ahead of the World Cup qualifiers?
I believe every team needs to go through a tough time to grow together, so the way we came back after the four consecutive defeats; and the change of the coach indicates our strong mentality. So the mood is optimistic and we have no reason to believe that we can't qualify next time.


Lukas celebrating the win over Greece in September 2015

There has been a long tradition of great keepers from Finland, what’s the secret?
I've no idea actually, maybe it's an easier position to develop talent more than for the outfield players. More and more clubs have a goalkeeper coach available, which means three or four keepers have a coach to themselves, so compare that to outfield players and the ratio and effectiveness of personal coaching is not so big. Wow, this was actually a pretty deep answer by me! But it all starts and ends with the personal desire to make it within each keeper, maybe Finns are crazy enough to want to be keepers...

Which goalkeeper was your idol when you were growing up?
It has kind of changed, as a younger kid and a keeper I saw the keepers differently to how I do now. Now I actually analyse while watching a game and see if they are making a mistake or something worth learning. But if I have to mention Jose Luis Chilavert's freekick taking, which was one of my first memories and the keeper I started to idolise. Then came Casillas, Buffon and the others, now I'm with Neuer ;) 


In the book about Robert Enke (A Life Too Short by Ronald Reng), there was a lot of mentions about the friendly rivalry between keepers in one team – how do you try to help the kids learn?
I've never actually read the book, don't know why. Some of my friends who read it recommended that I not read it, so I never did. But to answer your question, it's seen to be universal. I mean the thing they call the "goalkeepers' union", you fight for the same position and you're almost best friends on the team, that might be paradoxical to believe for many people; but that's how it is here as well. I always tell everybody that you don't want to succeed at somebody else's expense, if and when you get the chance and take it, then you've made it on your own. Lot of work has to be put in to even get a chance as a goalkeeper, I learned that during my first three years in Esbjerg when I was mostly on the bench. 

Now you’re at Eintracht Frankfurt, what is the biggest difference between Danish and German football? 
Different clubs might play different styles within a league as well, but it feels like most teams here want to be better offensively than defensively, when in Denmark it was usually the opposite. No wonder they score more goals in Bundesliga, and I only have one poor clean sheet in nine games, madness! 

Your brothers (Tomas at RoPS and Matej at TPS) are also doing well at their clubs, is there any more Hradecky talent to come?
Most definitely, there must be something useful in our blood sportswise. We used to play everything together, hockey, floorball, volleyball, tennis, you name it. The pride of not losing has developed our talent, just ask our mother how many things the loser always broke around the house. When I was growing up, Tomas had to find a new way to beat me and the same applies for Matej, who I rate the most game-intelligent and talented in our family, because he was the youngest and had the "roughest" patch. 

Some footballers play Xbox, some make music, what are your hobbies?
I don't even own a PlayStation or anything like that, definitely not my thing. I watch a lot of movies and TV series, they're a great way to relax your body and mind. 


Luke celebrating winning the Danish Cup with Esbjerg in 2013 (photo via Liselotte Sabroe)

With Slovakia (Lukas was born in Bratislava) qualifying for the Euros, do you follow their progress at all?
I do! I'm happy to see how well they're doing, but I'm merely a fan, if there ever had to be a choice to make, I hadn't even considered playing for Slovakia. In football, I really only care and feel for Finland, our system produced me and made me the player who I am. 

Manuel Neuer has shown that goalkeepers to be as talented as an outfielders – would you fancy playing in midfield?
No way! Too much running. The beauty of being a goalkeeper is for me to be versatile, and I'm proud and happy that I can play with my feet and be more part of the game than some other keepers. Football is the sport where I'm the worst in the outfield, I always played outfield in every other sports tournament back in school. Strange. 

Do you think you’ll ever return to TPS?
If it's only up to me then yes, most definitely. Right now I can only imagine living in Turku after my career. It would be great to play for the team and city that raised me. For me it's a haven with all the good memories, friends and family. That's where I feel home. 


Luke visiting TPS (photo via TPStv.fi)

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Many thanks again Luke, good luck for the future. Watch this space for more interviews!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Euro 2016 - too little, too late

The list is getting smaller. More people are RSVPing to the invitation. Despite the break-up of Europe in the last quarter of a century, these latecomers are promptly accepting. The list of European countries who've never played at a major tournament is getting smaller. Yet Finland remain on that roster.

San Marino.
Malta.
Luxembourg.
Liechtenstein.
Estonia.
Lithuania.
Moldova.
Armenia.
Macedonia.
Montenegro.
Cyprus.
Faroe Islands.
Georgia.
Kazakhstan.
Azerbaijan.
Belarus.
Finland.
Andorra.

With 24 teams qualifying for next summer's tournament, it seemed almost harder to fail than to make it. But a lot of countries have risen to the challenge, boosted by confidence and perhaps the (early) complacency of the bigger nations. Iceland and Wales were improving prior to this competition, while Northern Ireland, Austria and Albania qualified ahead of expectations.


Finland's group, at the time of the draw and with the benefit of hindsight, was the best possible. The top seeds were Greece, who'd made the last 16 at the World Cup in Brazil. Hungary and Romania were tough with good (great?) historical teams. Northern Ireland hadn't qualified for anything in 30 years. Faroe Islands are still a level above the true minnows.

After winning the opening match away to Faroe Islands 1-3, the hard way after conceding a sloppy opener, it was all going perfectly to plan. But it was all downhill from there. One point from the next five matches, a draw at home to a dreadful Greek side, was terminal.

In defeats to Hungary home and away, in Belfast and to visiting Romania, Finland looked pedestrian, ponderous and without the perspective to see what was wrong. Mixu Paatelainen was the manager with the backing of the Finnish FA, but looked utterly clueless and left behind while other sides played to their strengths. He persisted with the Christmas tree formation (4-3-2-1), designed almost to hamstring the players rather than improve them. A good coach should make the team better than the sum of their parts - how can a side with Roman Eremenko, Tim Sparv and Niklas Moisander look so impotent? The blind faith is admirable, but did Teemu Pukki do enough to deserve his regular starting place? 

Paatelainen was sacked after the Hungary defeat in June, where a very public recruitment process led to former New York Red Bulls boss Hans Backe's appointment - but not until January as he had more pressing television commitments (he'll do well in Finland with that). Long time assistant Markku Kanerva stepped into the breach, to his credit he did well with two wins followed by two draws.


Maybe it was due to the handbrake being removed, or the players being allowed more freedom in those four fixtures. The side moved to a 4-4-2, Pohjanpalo scoring three times and there seemed a bit more vibrancy. Despite the loss of Eremenko to injury, Moisander only featuring once and suspensions at various points to Sparv, Hetemaj and Halsti; there was more positivity and it's got to be a good sign at the disappointment of conceding a late equaliser in Bucharest.

The Olympiastadion is now closed for renovations and the 2018 World Cup qualifiers will all be played at the Ratina stadium in Tampere. It's a much tougher group (Iceland, Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey) with only one guaranteed qualifier. Due to the poor performances under Mixu, Finland's FIFA ranking dropped so low that they are the bottom seed in that group. Had the draw been made with October's rankings, Finland could have been as high as third seeds.

Most of the players (if not all) will still be available for selection come September 2016, while the year will give extra development time to prospects like Thomas Lam and Jere Uronen. Lukas Hradecky and Pohjanpalo cemented their places as starters and the U21s have made a decent start to qualifying for their Euro adventure.

Ultimately the qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 is a failure. Mixu should have been relieved of his job earlier, if not after before. I don't know a lot about Hans Backe, my main doubt is of the FA's selection process, going for an easy option, possibly the cheapest. Kanerva restored some pride and performances, it's unclear yet if he'll remain on Backe's staff.


Onwards and upwards, OI SUOMI ON!

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Keith Armstrong's Day Off

I've been following Finnish football for a while now, it's provided me with an awful lot. Friends, excitement and some very odd stories which have to be seen to be believed. But one of the strangest events I can recall from Finland (or anywhere else for that matter) occurred on Sunday 4th October...

Ilves in Tampere are one of my favourite clubs in the country. The atmosphere at their ground is fantastic and I've enjoyed myself each time I've visited. They were promoted last season into Veikkausliiga after the demise of MYPA, they had a small budget and have performed well throughout. Their new manager was the Englishman Keith Armstrong, who has been involved in numerous clubs throughout the country and coaching HJK to three titles at the turn of the century.


Sunday saw them visit the league leaders SJK in Seinäjoki, Ilves still not mathematically safe from a relegation play-off. A big game affecting both ends of the table, so of course the players would need a Braveheart-style rousing speech before the match to inspire. So how did the coach motivate his team?

He appeared on television as a pundit for the English Premier League matches being played at the same time.

Admittedly these are huge games, Everton v Liverpool and Arsenal v Manchester United... The broadcaster clearly wanted an English perspective, but did it have to be Keke? Anyway, as Ilves said in a statement on Monday, his absence was a big surprise to the CEO and that his TV appearance had not been authorised.

Armstrong on TV, during his side's defeat at SJK

As a supervisor in my day job, I'd be severely concerned if one of my employees failed to turn up for work. What had happened to them? Were they ok? Could I do anything to help? Nah, they bunked off to dick about. Book thrown at him.

Ilves announced on Wednesday afternoon that Armstrong's contract would be terminated. The players had lost confidence in their coach, such behaviour was unacceptable. What next for Ilves? They go into the final three matches of the season without the man who led them to (probable) safety.

Meanwhile, K€k€ will go onto something else. His video diary with IS:TV earlier in the season was reminiscent of Brendan Rodgers on Being: Liverpool.

Being: Ilves

A sorry, amateur affair all round.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Interview with Finland midfielder Perparim Hetemaj

Apologies for the recent lack of posts, it appears the Rugby World Cup is having a serious impact beyond the oval ball as well... Anyway, here is the latest interview, with Finland and Chievo midfielder Perpa Hetemaj. Enjoy and share etc.

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Chievo have made a good start to the season, your goal against Juventus has been a highlight. What are the team's goals for 2015/16?
The team’s goal is the same as always, that is staying in the division, though the start of the season has been really good and now we’re trying to get the points we need as quickly as possible to ensure staying up, then we can think about other things!



As for Finland, there is still a chance of qualifying for a Euro 2016 play-off - what was the mood of the squad like after the Faroe Islands match?
Qualification isn’t in our hands, but we are going out to win the next two games and then we can see where we are! There’s always a great atmosphere when you win a match, though after a game you can’t hang around for too long as everyone goes their separate ways, getting showered and changed before heading home because you usually have an early flight back to your club's training.

You took centre stage with the Pohjoiskaarre megaphone after the match (not for the first time) - what is the bond like between the players and the fans?
The fans are important to us and after a match, it’s fun for the whole team to celebrate with the fans, and I think they also enjoy that! We have a great relationship with them. There’s a great atmosphere in Pohjoiskaarre (North end) and you can feel the support from the pitch!


Your brother Mehmet has returned to play in Finland this season with SJK and is doing very well - do you think you'll play for a Finnish club again?
Yes, my brother is a very good player and I will be glad if he wins the Finnish Championship with SJK. He has had a good season, as have SJK in general. I have been able to see SJK from close-up; they’re doing good work with their feet on the ground and a step-by-step attitude. It’s a shame my brother hasn’t had the chance to play in the Finnish national team because he’s a good player.

I would like to finish my career in Finland; I was raised by Klubi (HJK) – I have never represented any other team in Finland so the ideal option would be to finish my career with HJK where I started my footballing career. I would like to win the Finnish Championship wearing the HJK jersey – I’ve yet to get that medal!

With big name players moving to the Middle East, USA, China etc, would you like to play outside Europe?
I would rather not go to China or the Middle East, but I would be interested in playing in MLS, Australia or Japan at some point… Of those countries, I’d most like to go to Japan.

The new Finland manager (Hans Backe) starts in January, what new ideas do you hope he'll bring to the squad?
I don’t know this coach, but what I have heard has been positive and he knows his stuff! We have two more matches with Rive (Kanerva), Nurre (Nurmela) and Tintin (Johansson), so we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves.

Your recent tweet about Finland being a welcoming place for refugees was very well received, were you surprised at such a positive reaction?
I really only use Twitter to read UFC news, I hardly ever tweet, but I wanted to put out that tweet because it is a feeling that many former refugees have. But as to whether I was surprised – yes I was.


Kosovo played some friendly international matches in 2014, did they ask if you would play?
I have spoken with the coach of the Kosovo national team, but we have decided not to comment on this in public.

Who has been the best player you've played against in Serie A, and why?
It’s hard for me to say who has been the best, there are a lot of good players and a lot of annoying players…



Eero Markkanen told me that he'd like a rematch of the wrestling match you won last year - do you accept the challenge?
I have read that Eero put on 16-18 kilos since the last wrestling match. I could consider a rematch against him if he put on another 16-18 kilos! Seriously speaking, I don’t think Eero has much of a chance against me. Petteri Forsell has asked a few times about a wrestling match, but he is such a nice guy that I don’t want to make him angry at me after he loses!


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Thanks again Perpa for your time, I wish you the best for the coming matches. There are a few more interviews in the pipeline, hoping to get them on soon. Assuming the rugby finishes at some point.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Crossing the Finnish Line - guest blog

This is a guest blog written by Greg Matthews, who got in touch by email after reading my article in Football Weekends magazine. He, his wife and his son travelled to Finland at the start of August and watched a few games. Greg has written an account of his trip and included some photographs. Many thanks Greg!

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Football is more akin to a marathon than a sprint. Each games lasts 90 minutes and a season lasts months. However, if you're having fun, they can fly by without you catching breath. Having booked my family holiday to Finland (with a brief sojourn in Estonia), I wondered if five matches in five days could result in my marriage 'hitting the wall'.

My 12 year old son Joel and I could manage it no-problem. It's in our DNA. We'd been training years for this - aimlessly watching not only our local team, Swansea City's first eleven, under-21 and youth levels, but also supplementing these with games on TV and the Welsh League. Mrs M on the other hand had come to football late. Although both knowledgeable and enthusiastic for the Swans, I feared this enthusiasm may not extend to travelling one hour out of Helsinki to sample the delights of FC Lahti v Jaro on a wet Sunday night. 

Our first fixture was the Champions League qualifier between HJK and FC Astana of Kazakhstan. A glorious Nordic summer's evening spent in the impressive Sonera Stadium right at the start of our holidays. What more could we want? HJK are the Manchester United of Finland, however, their club shop wouldn't look out of place at FC United of Manchester. Still, Joel was happy as he got a pin badge and we took our seats in the North Stand. 


That initial exuberance was tested as it turned out to be one of the worst games of football I'd ever witnessed, and I can assure you that I have quite a back catalogue of no-score bore draws. Neither team created any meaningful chance until late on in the first half, while HJK's Japanese pairing of Tanaka and Havenaar ran around like headless chicken. What surprised me most was that the Helsinki side's coach, Mika Lehkosuo, must have been very happy with the performance because he only made one substitution and that was not until the 92nd minute. Just shows that football is all about opinions. 

Things could only get better. Unfortunately, they didn't, as two days later we went to Estonia and viewed the Tallinn derby between FC Flora and FC Infonet. Suffice to say another goalless draw and some pretty uninspiring football was beginning to test even my resolve. The only saving grace was when the three of us accidentally made it onto Estonian TV after taking a wrong turn in the stadium and stumbled into the players and officials in the tunnel as they made their way out of their dressing rooms and on to the pitch. 

As we made the 90 minute ferry ride back across the Baltic Sea the next day, I hoped our luck would change soon as an already flagging Mrs M would likely declare herself unfit to continue if she didn't at least see one goal. If I could get through today, then we were nearly home and dry. At 4pm was Helsinki's other team, HIFK v Ilves at the Sonera Stadium and then, after refuelling at a nearby pizza restaurant, a friendly between HJK and Liverpool at 7.30pm in the Olympiastadion. 

Luckily, over 90 minutes sat in the North Stand (Pohjoinen) of our first offering saw our love for the beautiful game reignited. The HIFK fans sang, bounced and flag waved, whilst the players tried their best to match the entertainment in the stands. Joel bought a HIFK badge and shirt and Mrs M came out saying she'd "been thoroughly entertained". The game ended 2-2, after HIFK had been 2-0 up, and the true acid test of a good atmosphere is when you are still humming the terrace anthems the next day. It was then decided that HIFK would be our 'Finnish team'.


The reason why the Finnish domestic league (Veikkausliga) struggles was best demonstrated at the evening kick off between HJK and Liverpool. There were over 20,000 in attendance and the vast majority of these were sporting the red and white of the Merseysiders, yet speaking Finnish. I find it bizarre when any football fan picks a glamorous foreign outfit over their local team and the sad reality is that I'd probably visited Anfield more times than many of the Liverpool shirted Finns in attendance. The Olympic stadium is an impressive venue. However, having hosted the 1952 Olympics it was now looking it's age and the open stands are exposed to the elements, whilst it's running track didn't exactly make it spectator friendly. The flat atmosphere and uninspiring football of this friendly were in sharp contrast to that witnessed a couple of hours earlier in the HIFK match. The game ended 2-0 to Liverpool and although I was now beginning to dislike HJK after two moribund games, I secretly willed them to win, if only to shut up the Finnish Reds sitting around me.

Our final encounter made me a little wary. FC Lahti v FF Jaro was taking place in a city that had been nicknamed the 'Chicago of Finland,' due to its somewhat dodgy reputation and not because it's a particularly windy city. As we took the train from Helsinki, I figured that in such a peaceful nation being labelled hostile probably amounted to no more than raising your voice at a waitress if your rye bread was a little stale. We needn't have worried, having had a knife pulled out on me at Millwall v Swansea in 1990, Lahti was more Cheltenham than Chicago. Everyone was welcoming, my son picked up a FC Lahti shirt and badge for €19.50 and the game was enlivened by two teams trying to play football in rather damp and difficult conditions. 


The score was 1-1 at the end of play, but we saw two superb goals, a controversial disallowed effort and it really was a fitting end to a footballing extravaganza. The Finnish people we encountered were all friendly, and Helsinki is a beautiful place. We hired bikes, kayaked, went stand-up boarding, shopped and drank lots of coffee. I love the way the fans get over-excited at every set piece, but frustrated at Clubs lack of merchandise and appalled at their need to stick advertising on anything and everything. I will have wonderful memories of a marvellous country, my son will have the kudos of having the only FC Lahti and HIFK shirts at football training and my wife - well, she deserves a medal.

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Many thanks again to Greg for taking the time to write this fine blog and for allowing use of his photos.

If you'd like to write something for the site about a trip you've made, or to share your photographs, then please get in touch via the usual channels.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Interview with RoPS manager Juha Malinen

In the latest interview for ETS, I spoke to RoPS manager Juha Malinen about his views on various aspects of Finnish football and beyond.

Juha Malinen

RoPS are exceeding everyone's expectations in Veikkausliiga this year. What key changes have you made to get such good results?
It's not because of changes, but long-term work. In this case, one and a half years. Last year I had the opportunity to exchange half of the players, so change in these areas. Of course, after the beginning of the season there have been minor adjustments, but before the team had already shown its skills by reaching the League Cup final.

You recently expressed an interest in the Finland manager job - what system do you think would get the best out of These players?
In my view, it's not fair to begin an election campaign in the media. One reporter asked me to apply, and I decided to answer honestly, and a small media campaign was born, It does not mean that I would like to start doing my tactical plans publicly.

Are there any teams in the world who you look to for inspiration? Which is the best team you've ever seen?
Teams who, on their day, can surprise, or do something exceptionally well. There have been many over the years. Ajax, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Barcelona, ​​Bayern Munich, Dortmund, All of these have had their time. I am not a fan of comparing teams. Comparison between the different teams over the years are a romantics job.

Juha's Eleven

How would you describe the style of play of your teams use? Do you have a "philosophy"?
Goal-oriented, ambitious, willing to develop, intellectual resources are all important. I also hope that the right kind of precision to be found, because that's what makes the difference! Every coach always wants the best, but the skill is governed in the head. Sure, I will try to adjust the team to meet different challenges.

How did you find working in Kazakhstan? Would you like to manage abroad again one day?
It was colourful, because the area is very Russian, but located in Asia, China is a neighbour and the people would like to be part of Europe, a cultural shambles. A lot of great memories, a lot of quirky things. But a man can handle it, if you know how to be your own person. Recently I received a message from my former boss where I got good feedback and a proposal to meet again somewhere.

What are the most notice things you'd recommend to someone who wants to be a football manager?
Young people should start at the grassroots level. Educate yourself, tour the clubs and the world. Inquire about everything and be curious. At the same time, visualise every position to expand and begin to develop your philosophy. Be brave and true to yourself, but be aware that sometimes you're certainly wrong!

You've managed players from many different countries - how do you communicate your instructions?
At one stage I figured that I've coached or had a beer with almost one hundred different nationalities. The first time I started using English as a second language in training was with MyPa in 1999, and with the exception of a couple of seasons, I've done it ever since. Sometimes I take a smaller language group apart and discussed matters in greater detail and then check between them, to make sure things are understood.

Juha the teacher - photo via Veli-Jukka Mustajärvi

Is there anything about modern football that has changed for the worse?
At the top level, wages are already quite unimaginable. Of course I do not want to take anything away from anyone, but if a footballer in their twenties has a weekly wage better than a highly qualified professional person earns in a year, there are some certainly issues and risks to arise.

Do you think social media is a good way for players and fans to talk to each other?
Of course, but there are limits. We must be able to remember the difference between online and real life, and that all social media posts can be misinterpreted.

Faith Obilor has been one of the best defenders in Finland this year - do you think they can play at the top level?
I know he can! Obi is physically at a very good standard. He wants to learn all the time and is therefore a good man. He can still learn more skill and tactics and therefore it would be fantastic if there was a team and a coach in a harder league for him more to harness. The most important part in a player's development is that the environment provides a good challenge all the time.

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I'd like to thank Mr Malinen for his time and honesty, some interesting views. I'm still looking for people from a variety of different backgrounds to interview, any recommendations welcome!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Jaro fans reunite Serge Atakayi with long-lost family

Lost among the transfer rumours, corruption scandals and kit launches last week was a truly heartwarming story that proves that there is still plenty of compassion in football, in this case coming from the fans of one club in the Finnish Veikkausliiga.

Jaro, who are based in the Western town of Jakobstad (in Swedish, or Pietarsaari in Finnish), have had a rather inconsistent season so far, unable to put together any sort of run - but the undoubted highlights have been the emergence of two sixteen year old prospects. Sergei Eremenko, son of coach Alexei is one, while the record-breaker of the pair is Serge Atakayi - who has become both the youngest ever goalscorer in Veikkausliiga and the youngest player to get sent off...

Jaro's two future diamonds, Eremenko and Atakayi (right) - photo Jyrki Johannes Tervo

Serge was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1999, and came to Finland in 2010 (aged 11) to take part in the internationally renowned Helsinki Cup tournament. With the opportunity of a lifetime, to escape an unstable country, Serge took the life-changing decision to claim political asylum in the country, leaving his family behind. He hasn't seen them since.

No fan wants to see a key player unhappy and without a crucial support network. But Jaro fans are a different breed. They raised funds amongst themselves and the local community to fund a trip for Serge to visit his family in DR Congo at the end of the season on a scholarship, meaning he won't have any problems returning to the place he's called home for five years, while he's represented various Finland junior teams.

Serge on international duty

They surprised Serge at the end of a training session last Wednesday, marching onto the pitch to present him with the relevant paperwork.



Jaro's media man Viktor Enbacka told me "This is what FF Jaro is all about. Everyone wants to help somehow, by volunteering or doing things like this." Club captain Jonas Emet said "We don't have the biggest group of fans, but they all have a big heart".

Meanwhile, Serge said on Instagram "Thank you Jaro fans, for the gift you have given me today. I'm so glad that I don't know how to thank you all, I will never forget you".

Heartwarming.

Monday, June 29, 2015

My visit to Finland - more questions than answers?

I've just got back from a two week trip to Finland with Mrs ETS, involving six matches of different levels, 2600km driven and far too much coffee for one man. Those hire car journeys need some sort of conversation, so I thought I'd share some of the points with you - feel free to comment on the usual channels with your views, it'd be nice to get as many opinions as possible.

1. The casual supporter isn't catered for
I'm almost a professional football watcher - I've seen hundreds of live games all over Europe, and always want to watch more. But Mrs ETS isn't, nor is her seven-year-old godson. Imagine having to explain to them that you can just pick any seat (but not those ones, they're for sponsors) and if you go to the toilet/bar, someone else may take it. There aren't enough female toilets too. I love that I can stand at a game, if I want - but what if the only seating is a wet wooden bench? I don't care, but I bet a lot of potential future fans would...

View from astroturf in Turku

2. A little decent merchandise goes a long way
The laugh of the chap in Pori's Intersport will stay with me for a while. When I asked if they sold FC Jazz jerseys, he cackled like a witch. Once he calmed down, he did say that the local department store had some. Which amounted to a screen printed t-shirt and a baseball cap. Maybe I've been spoiled with Premier League megastores, but is it too much to be able to buy a replica shirt? Something to make the boys at 5-a-side jealous? Even if it doesn't have the sponsors on, that's the international currency people recognise. Apparently HJK have sold a lot of jerseys in Japan - I bet those fans wouldn't buy some crappy thing made in a garage.

3. Saying "it's always been like that" is terrible
"But it's Finland" was another common phrase I heard. It's hard enough to explain to people why I follow Finnish football, beyond that it's a hobby... I know people prefer Barcelona and Liverpool to Honka and RoPS, but at least try. It's a phrase common in most workplaces around the world, and most football clubs too. But a bit of risk, a bit of ambition, a bit of innovation. Some clubs use social media well, some market very well. Dream big.


4. Engage with fans, not online gamblers
Some of the scheduling is weird. It seems that some fixtures are arranged with the main purpose of appealing to the people who like to stick a quid on the games in the summer when there's no other football on. Few top division fixtures are played at a weekend, making it harder to travel and establish a culture. The Ilves v HJK game last week was outstanding, a Friday night, full house, fans could relax a little bit with the working week over (for those who weren't on summer holiday) and the atmosphere showed, with the game ending early enough for people to go out after.

5. How many sponsors is too many?
This corner kick is sponsored by Yadda Yadda. Adverts for injury lawyers while a player is injured. Squeezing an extra logo onto socks. Calm down dear. I know times are tough, especially in the lower divisions. But please, sometimes, less is more.


6. If someone is trying to help, don't be rude
There's an old episode of the Simpsons where movie producers want to make a Radioactive Man film in Springfield. But the city take the piss so much that the filmmakers scuttle back to Hollywood after being levied a "leaving town tax". I don't get paid to do ETS. In real terms, it costs quite a lot, both in my time and arranging holidays, visiting family and the money I have to shell out to watch games. I've received quite a lot of hostility and a "take, take, take" attitude, with little in return. I reckon I probably do as much to market Finnish football as a lot of people who get paid to do it. I know I don't speak much Finnish, but please - a reply to an email or tweet, or even a thank you, makes it all worthwhile. There were times on the trip when I considered packing it all in due to the attitudes of some, it could be said that the trip to Tampere probably saved ETS. But then, what else would I talk to people about in the sauna?