Saturday, April 25, 2015

Atletico Malmi ready for Kolmonen 2015

For those of you who have been following ETS over the winter months, you'll have read about our partnership with Helsinki-based club Atletico Malmi. Atletico begin their league season this weekend in the Kolmonen/2 division, the fourth tier of football in Finland (the league structure becomes area and region-based underneath the top two leagues). Their first match is on Saturday April 25th against HIFK/2, the second team of the capital's new club in Veikkausliiga.

It's been a momentous pre-season for my new friends, reaching the fifth round of the Suomen Cup for the first time ever, while preparing for another season in a new division, hosting and winning a friendly tournament in the Mosa Cup and competing in the Regions Cup, a cup competition for lower division clubs (a sort of FA Vase).

The 2015 Mosa Cup champions!

The Ketonen brothers Jesse and Jonne have been the big scorers up front, with nine and eight goals respectively, but there's a big squad of players who have all been contributing goals and assists. It's the teamwork that led the side to the last 32 of the Finnish Cup, where they met Veikkausliiga club FC Lahti, who came third in the top division last season and will compete in this year's Europa League. Unfortunately the match ended 2-0 to Lahti, but Malmi made a big impact on a national level, including someone landing on this site searching "Who are Atletico Malmi?" - hope it helped!

The boys training hard - a Finnish 'rondo' - rondi?

Malmi general manager Janne Vottonen told me how vital it is that the club rely on sponsorships and working with local organisations - 100 Euros pays for three training sessions on artificial pitches, while website and jersey sponsorships are also available if you're that way inclined. Any interest is greatly appreciated, feel free to contact me if you want me to get that ball rolling. It's a lot more rewarding to help a team improve and grow, rather than being just another customer at some clubs.

Janne said this week that while there are no official targets for the club this season, but conceded that "the top three would be realistic for this team". With the ground covered already this year, the trajectory will surely continue upwards. ETS will be bringing regular updates on the season, but you can follow Atletico Malmi on Facebook and Twitter.

Tico Tico!

Thursday, April 09, 2015

2015 Veikkausliiga season preview

It's that time of year again - the new Veikkausliiga season begins on Sunday 12th April 2015.

It's been a winter of big changes, not least that we have three new teams joining us. HIFK (Helsinki) were promoted by winning the 2014 Ykkönen division after a last minute winner in their final match. Meanwhile, KTP (Kotka) were then themselves promoted when Honka were refused a licence after their financial chaos (they will now play in Kakkonen) while MYPA currently don't exist in any form, with Ilves of Tampere taking their place.

HIFK will play their matches at the Sonera Stadion (home of HJK), while KTP are scheduled to play their first two home matches at MYPA's ground as their pitch probably won't be ready. Needless to say, HIFK and Ilves have already had their first matches postponed, while Jaro's first home match will be played at an alternative pitch due to the weather.

For the first time, Veikkausliiga referees will be using 'vanishing' spray for free kicks, although I've not heard an alternative for the snowy conditions... Meanwhile all teams will now be using the Select Brillant Super football, after the expiry of HJK's deal with Adidas; with the referees rocking the 1980s finest in Patrick.

Once again, HJK will be the Finnish entry into the Champions League qualifiers, they join in round two. In the Europa League, SJK, FC Lahti and VPS will play in the qualifying rounds, while KuPS await confirmation that they will receive the UEFA Fair Play place.

I'll do a quick preview of each club, along with a photo of their new jersey. I must warn you in advance - I don't bet on football, so don't hold me responsible for any bets you place on the information I write... I'm completely independent! I will admit to being a supporter of KuPS, but there won't be any bias - I don't do predictions. Feel free to gawp at the kits, in all their sponsored glory. Most of the clubs have online shops, see the tab at the top of the page for links.

HJK (2014 position - 1st)

Champions yet again last year, but they started badly under coach Sixten Boström and he was promptly sacked and replaced by former player Mika Lehkosuo. Klubi made it into the group stage of the Europa League and didn't disgrace themselves, Robin Lod and Gideon Baah the star performers. They've made huge inroads into the Japanese market signing midfielder Atom Tanaka (left) and striker Mike Havenaar, along with experienced Swedish keeper Daniel Örlund and former Nottingham Forest midfielder Guy Moussi. Massive favourites to win a seventh consecutive title, and will look to make a more competitive tilt at the Champions League group stage. Won the pre-season Liigacup.
SJK (2014 position - 2nd)

The team from Seinäjoki surprised many by claiming the silver medal in 2014, their first season in the top flight. They are in a stronger financial position than most, perhaps performing at par with the budget table. A new stadium is on the way, but will play their Europa League games in Helsinki. They brought in English midfielder Wayne Brown (left) from TPS last autumn, while former Celtic striker Bahrudin Atajić will be the key man up front. Manager Simo Valakari is constantly improving the side, who last year looked intelligent and progressive. Hard to see anyone beating HJK to the title, but they'll be chasing hard. I interviewed their Welsh defender Richie Dorman over the winter, well worth a read.
FC Lahti (2014 position - 3rd)

Another side who had an indifferent start to 2014, but sufficiently rallied to make their first European campaign in their current form. They were led by the veteran Brazilian striker Rafael, who scored 13 goals in 28 matches and will turn 37 this summer. They have lost promising midfielder Matti Klinga to HJK, but former Werder Bremen man Pekka Lagerblom replaces him. They too have stadium issues, a campaign led by Jari Litmanen to refurbish Kisapuisto is taking a long time, while the famous ski jump stadium is in a poor state of repair. They have extended the Brazilian contingent at the club to include Fluminense loanees Leandro Motta (left) and Matheus Alves. Europa League is likely to be the most realistic aim for this year.
VPS (2014 position - 4th)

More pitch updates (their new stadium has been approved, their Europa League games will be played in Oulu) but still making the top half last year. They won the first leg of their tie with Swedish club IF Brommapojkarna but were defeated 3-2 on aggregate, qualifying for this year's competition after HJK won the Suomen Cup, ensuring they took the final place. They aren't the biggest scorers, awful luck with Jamaican striker Steven Morrissey being ruled out for most of 2015 with a knee injury, after missing most of last year with an arm injury. Pictured left is new signing Jerry Voutilainen, a graduate from the KuPS school of midfielders. Talismanic captain Seba Strandvall has moved to Austria, will be a huge miss.
IFK Mariehamn (2014 position - 5th)

The entertaining Islanders from Åland have started their pre-season in their usual style, with 17 goals (SEVENTEEN) in their two Suomen Cup ties at the time of writing, Jamaican striker Dever Orgill with seven of them. They had re-signed former hitman Aleksei Kangaskolkka but he was struck down by injury. The mean looking man to the left is Kenyan midfielder Amos Ekhalie, who provides plenty of power along with a goal threat. Their key man continues to be Petteri Forsell, who'll shoot from anywhere but resembles a younger (slimmer) Tomas Brolin. His move to Turkey in 2012 didn't work out, but he'll surely end up elsewhere if he continues.
FF Jaro (2014 position - 6th)

The latest in the Eremenko dynasty, 16-year-old Sergei (left), looks set to take centre stage this season as my friends in Pietarsaari take the field. His dad, coach Alexei, remains in charge despite being previously linked with HJK, while the team are one of the most inconsistent in the division. The loss of Hendrik Helmke to Al Ahly and Shahdon Winchester to the United States leave big shoes to fill - but they kept last year's top scorer Jonas Emet, who did have a trial with English club Fleetwood but remains. They have one of the more cosmopolitan rosters, with players from Guyana, Canada, Kenya and Brazil. I will put on record I'm not keen on the Sagafurs sponsor on the jersey, you can probably figure out their business without Google...
KuPS (2014 position - 7th)

Now world famous after their capture of former prodigy Freddy Adu, there is plenty else to be excited about in Kuopio. Former maalikuningas (league top scorer) Irakli Sirbiladze joins from Inter Turku, with ETS interviewee Dani Hatakka arriving from Honka and the "Savon Riquelme" Petteri Pennanen from RoPS. They looked doomed at the start of 2014, but Esa Pekonen was soon replaced by Marko Rajamäki and fortunes picked up. A likely tilt at the Europa League beckons, assuming the almost-guaranteed Fair Play place comes to Finland as per usual. The new shirt sported by Juha Hakola (left) will be emblazoned by a rather large cockerel from a drink manufacturer.
FC Inter Turku (2014 position - 9th)

A disappointing couple of years has seen Inter drop from title contenders to flirting with relegation. Job Dragtsma continues as manager, they reached the Finnish cup final and lost on penalties to HJK after a dreary 0-0 in normal time. Sirbiladze is gone, but the so-called "Finnish Zlatan" Vahid Hambo (left) will take his place up front, having previously been at Ilves and Sampdoria's academy side. The other major arrival was former TPS keeper Jukka Lehtovaara, greeted at the Turku derby cup tie with a banner saying "Once our captain, now a traitor - fuck you Lehtovaara". The tie also saw Hambo get a red card for a tasty retaliation. If this is a sign of things to come, Inter could be rather fun to watch this season...
RoPS (2014 position - 10th)

Look familiar? It's Hradecky, but not as we know it. Midfielder Tomas, brother of Finland keeper Lukas, is the poster boy. The team from the North reached the Liigacup final in pre-season before losing to HJK, but have added one very exciting asset - U21 midfielder Moshtagh Yaghoubi was finally freed from his Latvian contract purgatory and was snapped up despite interest from HIFK, where he was training. That is a tremendous signing which could easily propel the club a few places higher. They were pretty solid in defence last year, while keeping Aleksandr Kokko up front is also crucial. Not going to threaten the European places, but I reckon they'll do better than last year. Don't quote me on that...
HIFK (2014 Ykkönen position - 1st)

Their dramatic promotion saw scenes of jubilation, from more than just the HIFK supporters - the prospect of a proper Helsinki derby in the top division will be a welcome return. The club have taken great pride is assembling an entirely Finnish squad, picking up plenty of experience, such as former MYPA captain Tuomas Aho (left), along with former HJK prospect Fredrik Lassas and Youness Rahimi, who once had a trial with PSV Eindhoven. Surely the sole aim will be to consolidate their Veikkausliiga status, but they could certainly upset the applecart - they didn't reach the semi-finals of the Liigacup for nothing, including a 6-0 pumping of Inter Turku in the group stage. The games against HJK will see a tremendous atmosphere, well worth catching if you can get a ticket - the first meeting will be on April 23rd.
KTP (2014 Ykkönen position - 2nd)

A proper Devon Loch job after leading the second tier for the vast majority of the year, with just three wins in their last ten league matches. They benefit from the demise of Honka, recruiting with quality in Joel Mero, Tamás Gruborovics and Nosh A Lody. They too have existed in various forms in the past, they seem to have a new name almost every week (the latest incarnation was a merge between FC KTP and KooTeePee). Ville Oksanen is the man to the left giving the Blue Steel look, while this year's jersey is sponsored by SteveCo, I imagine NigelCo, DaveCo and SebastianCo were already taken. Their April fool joke of changing their colours to orange and green fell foul of the club president, who had a public moan on Twitter.
Ilves (2014 Ykkönen position - 3rd)

Taking MYPA's place at the top table, despite the wishes of some of the fans who felt the club weren't ready, the top division returns to Tampere. Former HJK boss Keith Armstrong has come out of semi-retirement to manage the side, who will have the smallest budget of all twelve clubs. Early indications are that the club will struggle to compete, even the pitch isn't ready to host matches with the first game against KuPS being postponed. Nigerian forward Chido Ugwunna is giving the thumbs up to our left, he joins from Haka. Ilves' final match of 2014 saw them defeat already relegated Viikingit 10-0, just enough to see them finish above AC Oulu... Would Oulu have even been allowed back? I'm sure the Ilves fans will provide plenty of noise at their games, the Tammela Stadion is a rustic little ground, well worth visiting.

So that's my effort for this year - I'm still waiting to find out what the plans are for hosting footage of matches, as I've previously been allowed to provide highlights on the site. I'll update as and when. Every game will be available live on ISTV Extra, with a few select fixtures throughout the season free to air on YLE TV. Be sure to follow ETS on Twitter and Facebook for all the latest information.

Good luck to all of those taking part - it's going to be a fun six months, see you on the other side.

Friday, April 03, 2015

The Tragedy of Freddy Adu

Psychologists and fans of the late Michael Jackson would frequently refer to him as a "child in a man's body", whose life was nothing like that of a normal adult due to his upbringing and being famous the world over from his early years. His view of life would be completely skewed and in many circles would become as famous for scandals and eccentric living as his once-magnificent music career.

With another American landing on my radar in the last week, the comparisons between Freddy Adu and Michael Jackson seemed to scream at me throughout his interviews, along with the publicity generated by his signing for Kuopion Palloseura (KuPS). The widely-publicised press conference he gave on Thursday allowed him to give probably the same quotes as he'd given on signing for each of his previous ten clubs. Bear in mind, Freddy is just 25 years old.

Freddy in his new KuPS away jersey (photo by Juha Poutanen)

However, Freddy spoke to state broadcaster YLE afterwards and gave some moving quotes. When asked why he moved to Kuopio, his body language saddened, his smile remained as he replied "KuPS gave me a great opportunity to come here and just play football - that's something I haven't really had a chance to do in a long time, and I really missed it". Going back to 2004, Freddy said in an interview to Sports Illustrated ahead of his MLS debut (still aged 14), "I'm not always going to have the greatest game of my life. There's going to be games when I absolutely suck. That happens to everybody. So it'll be up to me to regroup and try to find a way to bounce back." This is a young man who has had a lot of media training from an early age.

New Pele and old Pele

Prior to last Saturday's announcement of his signing, he had previously been spotted apparently acting as a nightclub promoter in Washington DC, news which went around the world as a "where are they now" joke. Yet shortly afterwards, I spoke to a KuPS employee who said that Freddy just wanted to go somewhere away from the circus. I'm sure he was fully expecting his new clubs to suddenly become the talk of ESPN, while this very website had a large surge in traffic searching for information on KuPS and the Veikkausliiga.

Freddy said in the YLE interview that it wasn't about the money (it certainly wouldn't be a big factor in Finland), but was amazed to find that coach Marko Rajamäki actually spoke to him in English about his game and tactics. KuPS probably would be a nice place for him to get back into playing, they have signed a proven goalscorer in Irakli Sirbiladze to shoulder the scoring burden, while they certainly won't be expected to challenge for the title. A likely place in the first qualifying round of the Europa League could provide some excitement, with potential trips to Azerbaijan, Malta or Luxembourg.

Adu spoke passionately and with humility about having grown up, "learning things the hard way" and his joy about being asked his opinion on football. His eyes lit up at the thought of having some value in a European football dressing room. Plenty of journeyman footballers rock up in leagues over the world, claiming to be turning a corner. When asked about pressure, Freddy smiles and talks passionately about having nothing to lose, missing the day in, day out lifestyle of a footballer.

For a twenty-five year old footballer with seventeen international caps, it feels like Freddy's dream of representing the United States team at a World Cup is just a fantasy, something born in Neverland. After so many false dawns and cynicism at the speed in which KuPS jerseys bearing ADU 11 became available, it's easy to assume that this will just be another stop on the world tour. But with every Veikkausliiga match available to watch online and the slowly-increasing status of the league, there could be just enough in the season for the gawpers to think again.
Freddy on international duty in 2012

It's not the most Off The Wall thing to suggest. 2015 could be a Thriller.

You can see the original YLE interview (in English) here.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Interview with Veikkausliiga's Risto Oksanen

With the 2015 Veikkausliiga (Finnish Premier Division) officially launching today, ahead of the first round of fixtures on April 12th, I had a chat with the league's marketing executive Risto Oksanen about the league and it's aims and goals.

How important was it for the Veikkausliiga to secure a broadcasting deal with ISTV and YLE?
Broadcasting on YLE has been our long term strategy. We understand the power of free-to-air TV in increasing the popularity of the Finnish football. YLE Futiskierros is totally new way to watch football, with the possibility of seeing all of the important events from each match, which then widens the target group to the whole of Finland. The broadcast is more entertaining even for people who are less interested in football. On the other end, ISTV (Ilta-Sanomat TV, who will stream each game online to subscribers) offers the chance for supporters and hardcore fans to follow every match of their own club.
What challenges do the Veikkausliiga face to attract new fans, faced with the wider appeal of domestic football from England, Spain or Germany?
One challenge is that Finlandhasn’t been able to raise international interest towards Veikkausliiga. We have only a few internationally known active players. After Sami Hyypiä and Jari Litmanen, we haven’t had many players with star status. The clear strength for Veikkausliiga is that it is played in summer, when most of European leagues are on break. For people who want to watch football, Veikkausliiga can be great alternative. Betting is also raising the interest towards Nordic football in summer.

What are the Veikkausliiga’s goals in foreign markets?
So far our goals have been in domestic markets. The international markets have been considered more of a bonus, so we don’t have fixed goals for this.
There have been various suggestions for changes to the league structure – does the relegation play-off aim to make things more interesting?
There are cons and pros with relegation play-offs. Definitely the matches will be interesting with a lot at stake and its important to have our doors open for strong first division clubs.  On the other hand, the matches will be played in autumn when the conditions might be terrible for football in many cities. Any short term injuries might have a fatal impact for a club's prospects.

What they're all playing for

How does the fixture planning take fan groups into account, relating to travel and pricing?
We are trying to consider all aspects of fixture schedules and listen to the clubs when planning our match programme. Even though we are trying to optimise the matches into right places, the result is always a compromise between groups.

Do many foreign firms enquire about marketing with Veikkausliiga? How would such firms benefit?

There would definitely be room for more sponsors. The targets differ from sponsor to sponsor, but they all are related with their target group and how to have positive impact to those people. In customer products and services, the best results can be achieved if the brand can share the feeling and emotions with the fans. It’s should not be short-term, one way advertising. It should be long-term participating at all levels. At the end of the day, the results will be evaluated in business terms. Increased exposure is important for Veikkausliiga’s sponsors and also for the main sponsors at club level. It supports our common targets.

HJK’s Europa League campaign last year and move into Japanese markets has increased their profile internationally – do Veikkausliiga work with other clubs to provide advice and infrastructure?
Veikkausliiga is an organisation for the domestic market, therefore our main focus is here in Finland. Of course we do our best to help our clubs with any international issues. Teams are also sharing their foreign experiences with each other, which is encouraging. 


After Honka and MYPA’s financial problems, are there any safeguards to help other clubs with similar issues?
Veikkausliiga is an association, formed by top league teams. Decisions are made with one vote for each club. The board decides everything in Veikkausliiga. We try to prevent the problems with our licensing system, ensuring that a club entering Veikkausliiga must be able to meet the various demands of a Veikkausliiga season.