Monday, October 24, 2016

IFK Mariehamn - Finnish champions

In many ways, 2016 was a pretty typical year in Veikkausliiga. Points deductions for financial mis-management (PK-35 Vantaa), wins annulled due to incorrect paperwork (SJK) and police overreactions to football fans (too many to list).

But for IFK Mariehamn, from the autonomous Åland Islands, lifted their first league title - just one year after their only major honour (the 2015 Suomen Cup). Champions League football is now on the menu, IFK will enter next season's competition at the second qualifying round. They clinched the title with a 2-1 win at home to Ilves, scoring the opener after just 52 seconds.

Their season was based primarily on a solid defence - keeping 18 clean sheets in their 33 matches with keeper Viitala and defender Kojola playing in every match. Albin Granlund received his first call-up to the Finland squad thanks to his performances, while captain Jani Lyyski was superb, weighing in with five goals as well.

Up front, the main source of goals (12) came from Jamaican striker Dever Orgill, who has already confirmed that he'll be leaving in the winter. Diego Assis, scorer of the winning goal on Sunday, has also hinted at his own departure but the two of those have been at the core of Mariehamn's attack for the last three seasons. They will be missed.

Mariehamn itself is a small town, with a population of just 11,000 people. To put it in perspective, that's the same population of the local area I work in (Kew in South-West London) and roughly the number of people in each of the 624 electoral wards of London. Åland issues it's own stamps, it's in demilitarised zone and even Vladimir Putin owns land there, to the bemusement of locals. 4335 people squeezed into the Wiklöf Holding Arena on Sunday to witness the title decider - over a third of the population of the town. 
Over the winter, I'll be speaking to various people involved in the club to get a richer picture of the magnificent achievement. I'm sure there are a number of sore heads this morning - all well deserved.