Thursday, February 25, 2016

Interview with Finland international Sebastian Strandvall

It's another interview on ETS, with a player who has taken a step into the (virtual) unknown. Former VPS captain Sebastian Strandvall, now of Rah Ahan in the Persian Gulf Pro League (Iran's top division), has taken time out to give some incredibe insight into life as a footballer, and as a person, in a very unique part of the world.


How are you finding Iranian football? How did you end up in Iran?
Iranian football is all about passion and heart. That's the first thing that comes to my head. Perhaps not necessarily the same type of passion and energy as the lower British leagues. The passion here also includes doing beautiful and technical things. Otherwise comparing to Veikkausliiga, the tempo is very very high, at least at its best. You have little time on the ball and the technique and physique of the players is also good. What the Iranians lack the most is tactical knowledge. They clearly don't get the same tactical schooling as most European players get at a quite young age. This often leads to poor decision making, especially in attacking play. If you mess up a three v one counter attack in Europe, most likely you get slaughtered. But here that happens all the time and no one seems to care too much. Anyway, the Persian Gulf Pro League is a very good league compared to many European leagues. When you consider that Iran has around 80 million inhabitants and an absolutely huge interest in football, it's quite logical. 

I ended up here as a result of great agent work. Our plan was to find a good club in Central Europe, after having a good spring in Austria last year. But the small, yet badly timed ankle injury I suffered just before the end of the season, made us change our plans. We had some really good things going on but they fell apart when I wasn't 100% fit to play in the month of June. After none of these good offers in Europe succeeded, we slowly turned our focus to this side of the world. My agent is half German, half Iranian, so he had some contacts here. Then, after seeing me on videos, Rah Ahan's new owner really wanted me here and he even flew to Munich to meet with my agent. This gave me the signal that the club really wants me and also the plans for the club seemed interesting. In the end, things moved very quickly.

Seba in action in Iran

The culture in Iran is vastly different to Finland – what are the strangest customs you’ve encountered?
Of course there is the fact that you can't dress exactly the way you want, which is weird for us Europeans. But otherwise to be honest, I haven't experienced too many strange things at all. It can be very confusing though, with the Persian peoples politeness. There is a thing called "taroof" in Iran which basically means that you offer your help to anyone you meet, but with no intention of actually providing help... The person that is offered help is expected to decline several times. If you don't know that it's a matter of "taroof", you might think that you are actually going to get help or a favour from the person offering. Essentially, you get offered help but you don't actually get it. It's just a Persian cultural thing to always act politely. The most "dramatic" thing must have been when sheep have been sacrificed... A couple times at the training center and a couple times outside the hotel on the morning of a game, sheep have been sacrificed in order to keep bad spirits away...

Is it true that local women aren’t allowed to attend games? Does that make the atmosphere obviously different?
It is true yes. I think this will change in the future, as foreign women are already allowed in the stadiums. I'm sure that it will change at some point but it's very difficult to guess when it will happen. I wouldn't say the atmosphere is obviously different, but of course it would be nice if everyone who wants to could come and watch the games.

With Hans Backe now in charge of the Finnish national team, are you hoping to get back into the squad?
The Finnish national team has always been important to me, it will be my goal to be part of the squad for as long as I play at a professional level. The biggest reason I wanted to play outside Finland was that I felt I needed to play in a tougher league in order to claim a regular spot in the national team. Now when I play here, I feel like I'm better prepared to play international games, if the call-up would come. My head is already set to a quicker and more technical level of football, with little time on the ball. So yes, I'm hoping that I will get a chance with Hans Backe and I'm also confident I will get my chance at some point if I continue playing well here. There are quite a few international friendlies scheduled before the World Cup qualifiers start, so I'm sure I will be given a chance to take a spot on the team.

Photo via YLE

Your old club VPS had a slow start to 2015 but recovered well – how easy is it to follow their progress from abroad?
Yes they had a really bad season, close to catastrophic but luckily they managed to stay in the league. It doesn't really matter if you have a bad season, as long as you learn from your mistakes and try not to make them again. I follow their progress as best as I can. The Internet is very slow in Iran but it still gives me a chance to follow the progress. I read updates on different sites and also I'm still in touch with both players and staff of the teams. With the new stadium in Vaasa coming, I really hope the club will try to step it up once again and achieve a lot of success in the future.

How do you think Veikkausliiga football compares to that in Iran or Austria?
The biggest difference is in tempo. In the Austrian Erste Liga, the quality was not the best but it was a very physical style of play with quick attacks and a lot of running up and down. It was developing in the sense that I improved my ability to win duels and tackles. Also I learned how to think faster, since you really had to do that, otherwise you would get tackled for sure. Erste Liga compares to the lower English divisons, while Austrian Bundesliga also is physical, but a lot more technique and composed tactical playing. Not so much up and down all the time. I would really have liked to play in that league, since I feel it would be a really suitable league for me, and also for other typical Finnish players. In Iran the tempo is again a little higher, at least against the better teams in the league. Technical and fast guys with incredible passion and will. The Iranians have a lot to learn tactically, but for now they compromise the lack of tactical knowledge with passion and spirit. In Finland we need to develop and try to make the tempo of the games a lot higher, then we can get closer to other leagues.

Has your move abroad broadened your horizons? Would you encourage young Finns to travel away from the traditionally big leagues?
Absolutely. You need to know that the league you are about to go to is not completely shit, so to speak... But the leagues in both East and West are constantly improving. The NASL in North America for example, I would guess that's a league that is constantly getting better now since the MLS is also doing so well. Also in the East with leagues like China signing big names. Therefore I can imagine that other leagues in Asia are also going to improve. I honestly think that you don't have much to lose. A footballing career is short but if you don't like a place, I'm certain that no one will force you to stay. So if you get an opportunity, I definitely think you should try.

Photo via Veikkausliiga

What is the biggest thing you miss about Finland?
The people. My fiancé, my family and my friends. I can live without all the other lovely things that Finland offers for some time, like sauna and rye bread. I can enjoy those things when I come back. But the people I miss for sure, especially my fiancé, even though she has visited me for a total of almost two months over here.

Which player did you grow up idolising? And is there a player in the world you enjoy watching most?
Eric Cantona and David Beckham. But also of course Jari Litmanen. After 1994, Tomas Brolin from Sweden. Schweinsteiger is a favourite at the moment. But I also try to watch other players who play in my position, especially Modric, Rakitic and Thomas Müller. 

Your brother Matias is a world champion skier – were you ever keen to get into winter sports?
I actually used to compete in cross country skiing myself. It kind of goes in the family... Our parents allowed us to try every sport we wanted to. I was pretty good at skiing and I have a lot of medals from when I was young. But around the ages of 14-15, when the other boys started to train harder and get better, I fell behind and quit, because I never really liked the training. I just competed. But the technique is still there and nowadays I enjoy going for a ski when I have the time. Anyway, my number one winter sport was ice hockey. I used to play until I was 16-17 and I was pretty good at that too. At first I considered quitting football and going all in with the hockey, but I changed my mind after some coaches told me I would make the youth national team in football if I'd just quit ice hockey. My first call-up to a national team didn't happen until the age of 21, but I am still very happy with my choice.


My thanks again to Sebastian for a superb set of answers, this already ranks very high on my list of favourites!

As always, any suggestions for future interviews or help in contacting interesting people, let me know on the usual channels...

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Interview with Finland U19 international Kaisa Collin

Time for another interview, this time my friend Henry Hakamäki has joined in again by speaking to HJK's Kaisa Collin, who also plays for Finland's U19 girls side. Thanks again to both.

What first got you interested in football? What made you decide to become a professional?
I got interested in football already in kindergarten. I liked to score goals and humiliate opponents with fancy skills... The only thing that has ever really interested me is football. School or work does not make me happy, football makes me happy and I want to be happy.

Kaisa (#10) in international action - photo via Tapio Tuomela

Who is the player that you've always wanted to be like?  Who was the player you loved watching the most?  And who is the best player you've ever played with or against?
I've always wanted to be like Zlatan. Of course I love to watch Zlatan, but also Ronaldinho is one of my favourites to watch. The best player who I have ever played with is Minna Meriluoto. Minna is a great leader, an unbelievable goalkeeper and also a good person who really cares about her team.

How does playing in Finland specifically affect how you play the sport? What would you like to be different?
In Finland, our season is from April to October because of the weather. Women's football is not very appreciated so we don't have a lot of audience in our games. I would change the women’s season from summer to winter to get more respect for women's football and to get more fans to come! It would also be nice if women in Finland could get more money for playing football.

What's the best advice you have for your career, and who gave it?
Maybe when my good friend, and also a very good footballer, Olga Ahtinen, said to me "Don't ever change your personality, because that is your strength in football".

What part of your personality would be your biggest strength for football?
I’d probably say my self-confidence.

What does it feel like to represent Finland for football? How important is it for you to represent the country?
It's great to represent Finland in football, I am really proud to be part of the youth national team. The first time I played for the youth national team, it was exciting and also great because I had so many good players around me. Playing for the national team is very important for me. This spring, we have qualifiers for the U19 European Championships in Holland, and that has been one of my biggest goals for two years. Some day I also want to play for the senior women's national team.

How is playing for Finland different than playing for your club?
In the club, we work everyday together, but in the national team we do not have a lot of days together. National team is maybe more professional than club.

What's your goal for Euros coming up, personally, and what is the goal for the team?
Well, the team goal is of course to win qualifiers and then have success in the finals. My personal goal is to help the team on the field and I want to be one of the best goalscorers at the Euros.

Is there any part of your game that you want to improve during the Euros?
During the winter, I have worked a lot on my physicality, and I hope that in the Euros I am physically at the international level.


Thanks again to Henry and to Kaisa, as always it's very much appreciated.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Veikkausliiga live on Ruutu+ in 2016

Veikkausliiga and Sanoma's co-operation has extended to cover the period 2016 onwards. All league matches will be shown on IS Extra (Ilta-Sanomat) in addition to Nelonen Media's Ruutu+ service. During 2015, Veikkausliiga matches were screened on IS Extra, Ilta-Sanomat's pay channel. IS Extra and Ruutu + will be joined for Veikkausliiga 2016 on free-to-air TV broadcasts on TV channel Nelonen. The Veikkausliiga and Sanoma agreement covers the periods 2016 and 2017.

Veikkausliiga CEO Timo Marjamaa

"Our cooperation with Sanoma has started well and we are pleased to be expanding our co-operation. Ruutu+ is one of Finland's most popular streaming services, potentially our reach can get better and better" says Veikkausliiga's CEO Timo Marjamaa.

President of Nelonen Media Kari Laakso "I'm really pleased with this agreement. Veikkausliiga is a great product and it significantly improves the sports content of Ruutu+. In the upcoming season, Ruutu+ shows all the games and once a month, Nelonen will stream football free-to-air, so the domestic soccer gets further visibility."

This article originally appeared on Veikkausliiga's website.

If anyone would like to give me money towards a subscription, that'd be lovely.

Monday, February 08, 2016

New balls for 2016

Select's completely new Elite matchball will be introduced in the upcoming Veikkausliiga season. This is Select's first synthetic ball and Veikkausliiga is the first league where the ball will be introduced.

Elite is lighter to handle than Select's hand-sewn balls. The ball is very resistant to moisture, with a golf ball-style bumpy texture bringing the ball's distinctive trajectory, buoyancy and stability. Select Elite has received FIFA's highest approval, which means that it is available to all at the highest level top matches.

"Elite is the youngest member of the Pro Series selection, which is intended for top-level professional football. The fact that the Veikkausliiga has been chosen to use the Select Elite matchball is a significant recognition of the league's innovative developments and high quality standards" commented Peter Knap, Select's CEO.

Veikkausliiga's CEO Timo Marjamaa says "We are proud of our collaboration with Select and is just an awesome thing that we get this completely new model first". 

HIFK striker Pekka Sihvola, also chairman of the Players' Association is familiar with the new ball. "It's looking good. Only a couple of sessions so far, but the first impression is very good. This new synthetic ball is lighter. For me, of course, it is ideal as a forward", laughs Sihvola. "The surface looks good and the size is appropriate. We've not tried it in damp weather as we were in the hall. It'll be interesting to see how the ball behaves in a damp field. A common game ball is a great thing for our players' point of view".

This article originally appeared on the Veikkausliiga website.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Go cruising with HIFK

HIFK Fotboll and Matkapojat have organised a pre-season cruise vessel for their fans on St Patrick's Day, March 17th.

The club brings together aboard HIFK supporters and the players. Reserve your place as soon as they are limited!


- Ship's departure from Helsinki on Thursday at 21:30, return to Helsinki on Friday at 10:40. (Local time)
- Along the price from 32.50 Eur / person. 
- Cruise price includes B-class four-bed cabin, as well as the Bistro Buffet dining at 21:30.

Tickets can book a cruise directly Trip Boys' website.

This article originally appeared here at the Veikkausliiga website.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Behind Closed Doors - a Liigacup story

Here is another guest post by our friend Henry Hakamäki, fresh from his Liigacup preview. Henry has written about the recent Lahti v HIFK match, which was played with no fans in attendance, through choice rather than as a punishment...

Is there anything more strange in the world of sports than a game where fans are prohibited from attending? Something just seems wrong when a game is being played and no fans are there. There is an eerie silence, only broken by the occasional strain of effort, command by one player to another, or instruction from the manager. Regardless of the stakes of the match, the importance is seemingly much less when there aren't ravenous fans cheering, screaming, and singing in unison, trying to will their team to victory with their support.

Action from Lahti v HIFK, photo via Mirja Hussain

Imagine El Clásico, Barcelona and Real Madrid, playing with no noise. Imagine turning on the TV and hearing silence as the likes of Messi and Ronaldo play their hearts out. If those stakes aren’t high enough, imagine they are playing in the Champions League final, the grandest stage for clubs. In your head, you know the importance, but without the mobs of screaming fans, the atmosphere is that of a small club pre-season exhibition game.  

The reason I decided to write this piece is because of the Liigacup fixture between FC Lahti and HIFK. Lahti was victorious, 1-0, but at the expense of the seeming importance of the fixture and the enjoyment of fans. In case you haven’t heard, FC Lahti made the decision to play the fixture behind closed doors. According to sources at Lahti, the decision was made because HIFK fans are regarded as “higher risk”, due to their exuberant behaviour at games in previous seasons. Lahti determined that it was “not economically feasible” to hire enough security personnel to ensure safety for their fans at this particular home fixture. 

HIFK fans at a Stadin Derby v HJK in 2015

While the game was televised, fans were not allowed to attend the game, meaning empty stands and an atmosphere that makes attending games so meaningful was missing. Even watching on TV, listening to fans yelling and screaming makes the game that much more enjoyable, even though a TV minimizes much of the crowd’s noise. A game playing behind closed doors, without the team being sanctioned to do so, is absolutely bizarre. To me, this is something that I have never heard of and I wanted to dig into the topic a bit more.

I have watched games played behind closed doors before, so I knew they were not totally unheard of. Clubs or national teams, facing sanctions by either their football league or federation, is not uncommon in some places where fans are punished for racism and violent displays at the match relatively frequently.  Eastern European teams and African teams are often sanctioned to play behind closed doors, as is the occasional case in large South American derby matches.  Some other examples of matches being played behind closed doors were a Hungary v Romania World Cup qualifier in 2013, Inter Milan’s Champions League home group stage fixtures in 2005, and various Russian and Turkish league fixtures (where matches played behind closed doors are surprisingly common). The logic behind sanctioning a team to play a home game behind closed doors is three-fold, it punishes the team by eliminating the main factor of the home field advantage (the crowd), it hurts he team financially as they take in no ticket revenue for the fixture, and it also removes the potential for crowd trouble, be it violence or racism.  

Playing matches behind closed doors voluntarily for the purpose of fan safety is logical, and is the proper thing to do. Unless the safety of fans can be reasonably assured, fans should not be permitted to enter the grounds, only to expose themselves to potential harm. Beyond the obvious quality of increasing fan safety, it also reduces the risk that the club/federation will be held liable for any injuries sustained by fans or damage to the grounds. Another justifiable reason for voluntarily blocking fans is if repeated conduct violations by fans have led to threats by the federation to punish the club with points penalties. Having the game behind closed doors due because of extreme or violent opposing fans and/or a terror threat makes sense, but there are also less obvious examples of why it would be justified to hold fixtures behind closed doors. 

In 2009, the Mexican football league held a round of fixtures behind closed doors nationwide, due to the H1N1 influenza pandemic that the country was gripped with at the time. In 2013, Rhyl FC of the Welsh Premier League nearly played their last home fixtures of the season behind closed doors, even though they were league leaders at the time. After five fan conduct violations, the Football Association of Wales threatened the team with a points penalty if further violations occurred. Rhyl FC let supporters knew if there were any detrimental fan conduct, the rest of the season would be played behind closed doors. After this threat was issued, fans behaved more civilly and were allowed into the matches. The club would have been justified in closing doors to fans, if those fans would have jeopardized the championship for the club. These are examples where it is clear that playing games behind closed doors is logical, though still detrimental to the football atmosphere.  

Back to Lahti v HIFK. The justification of FC Lahti for playing the fixture behind closed doors was that it was not economically feasible to have adequate security personnel to ensure fan safety. Yes, HIFK fans do have a reputation of being a bit over-enthusiastic, though never cases of extreme violence or other safety situations. They are very loud, with occasional flares being lit, and some general over-exuberance, but in reality, outside the flares, they don’t create a situation where fan safety is of concern.  Fans are supposed to be loud, filled with enthusiasm and team spirit. To play a game behind closed doors, because you are worried that a normal amount of security will not be able to handle some noisy HIFK fans, is unbelievable. 

Typically, the home team encourages fans to be loud in the hopes that they will have louder cheering for their team. However, when you have a situation like this, where fans are not allowed to even enter the grounds, what precedence is being set? It is a bit scary that a cup fixture can be played behind closed doors for a marginal reason as finances.  Only time will tell if more Finnish football fixtures will voluntarily play behind closed doors, in anticipation of loud opposing fans. I, for one, certainly hope not.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Interview with Finland midfielder Kasper Hämäläinen

In the latest ETS interview, I spoke with Finland's Kasper Hämäläinen, who recently caused controversy in Poland by moving from Lech Poznań to their fierce rivals Legia Warsaw. Many thanks to Kappe for his replies.

Congratulations on your move to Legia – did you find it difficult to move to a rival club? Has some of the reaction been a surprise?
Thank you. I knew exactly how much rivalry they have between these two clubs and I had to give serious thought before I signed for Legia. I knew there would be some kind of reaction and I was prepared for it, so it didn't come as a surprise for me.

Did you have offers from clubs in any other countries?
I had few options from different countries but as a whole package, Legia's offer suited us the best...

You’ve got a league title medal with Lech, is that the best achievement of your career so far?
After winning two silver medals, to win the league title was something extraordinary. It was my first league title and the feeling was unbelieveable. I hope that wasn't my only league title! Yes, that's my best achievement of my career so far.

What was the atmosphere like at Lech? Did the fans celebrating backwards seem strange at first?
Lech Poznan is known for its good atmosphere and for the fan culture. So I got to know it really quickly and there was a lot of noise. I knew about the "Lech Poznan dance" so it didn't come as a shock for me but still to experience that with my own eyes was something special.

Now that Hans Backe has taken over the Finland job, have you spoken to him about the future?
I spoke with him after our last qualification game against Northern Ireland and we had a good chat. Quite short, but still a little chat. He wanted to know if I'm still eager to play for the national team and I said of course I am.

Do you think the side could qualify for a major tournament in the near future?
Absolutely. We just need a little bit of luck and a good start to the campaign. Just look how Iceland managed to win their group. Everything is possible. We must believe.

As yet another TPS graduate, do you think you’ll ever return to play there?
It depends a little bit where I'm going to settle down after my journey abroad... If it is Turku, then of course I would like to play there.

You played a lot of Veikkausliiga games before moving abroad, would you recommend that to youngsters who get offers at a young age?
I was actually quite old when I moved from Veikkausliiga to Sweden. But I had some serious injuries and my development halted for a moment so I was sort of a late bloomer. But my advise is to stay and play in Veikkausliiga for a few years and then move forward. Don't rush with anything but still try to keep yourself motivated for wanting to move to one of the bigger leagues.

What was the experience like of playing in the 2003 U17 World Championships? How did it prepare you for senior football?
Back then I didn't really realize how big that was. I just played for fun and didn't think about it so much. It was a really nice experience for me and I'm sure it has helped me a lot later on.

Some footballers play video games to unwind, some make music, how do you relax away from football?
Well now we have a little baby so most of the attention goes to him... So I'm quite busy at home! But if I have time, I like to go and hit some golf balls or just go for a walk with my dog.