A rarity on Escape To Suomi - this is a guest post by football tourist James Drobka. If you'd also like to contribute to the site, feel free to contact me on the tab above.
Aulis Rytkönen. Heard of him? Didn’t think so. Aulis was the first Finnish footballer to turn professional in 1952 when signing for Toulouse in France.
Aulis was born on 5 January 1929 in Kartulla, Kuopio and it was here where he started his journey to in becoming a legend of Finnish football. At the age of six, he was given a leather football as a Christmas present, somewhat a luxury as many families could not afford footballs for their children. He was an athletic youth and when he was 12 he joined Kuopion Työväen Urheilijoihin, a local sports club. Aulis was intent on playing football, however his father was not so supportive and wanted him to play other sports as he did not consider football an appropriate sport. However Rytkönen’s persistence paid off when he joined his first club KuPS aged 16.
Aaro Heikkinen, then the manager of KuPS, recognized his talent and gave him his debut against Kuopion Pallotoverit as a striker. Aulis scored both goals in a 3-2 defeat. He played a further three games in the 1945 season, and according to him it went well even though he was a bit lightweight. The 1946-1947 was a productive season; he scored nine goals in the National Championship, but it was curtailed by a season ending leg break in a game against Matfors IF of Sweden. He came back the next season much stronger and fitter, with newspaper Urheilulehti remarking ’18 year old business assistant, one of the best players for KuPS’. He scored another nine goals, thus keeping his team in the national championship. His form throughout the 1948-49 season led to an offer from Helsinki based club, Kiffen that would pay him 120,000 marks. Rytkönen refused the move and reaffirmed his desire to play for KuPS. He ended the 1949 season in great fashion, culminating in winning Finnish footballer of the year for the first time.
The season of 1950 started well, losing the first game of season they went on to win the next five matches in a row. In their seventh game of the season, they lost 5-2 to Kiffen. The game was attended by an agent on behalf of many Italian professional teams. He would be paid 630,000 marks, however he would not tell Aulis which club he would be playing for. For this reason he refused to turn professional and to stay as an amateur, and KuPS finished in the silver position that season, the first medal of his career. He also won best Finnish player for a second year in a row.
Before the start of the 1951 season, Stade Français made an approach to sign Rytkönen, with the club's president flying to Finland to sign the contract that would pay him three million marks. The clubs signed the contract, but the transfer was blocked by the Finnish FA due to their belief that becoming professional was not good enough, and he was forced to stay in the country. He scored 11 goals in the season as his team finished fifth in the league. In December he married his long term partner Anneli Puranen, but was unable to afford his wedding so the club struck a deal with him. The club would loan him money, if he agreed to play for them in the run up to the 1952 Olympics. He agreed. Again the 1952 season KuPS finished fifth, and he scored 10 goals. Rytkönen once again won Finnish footballer of the year for a third time, a feat that wouldn’t be broken until 1965 when Juhani Peltonen won his fourth. The 1952 would be his last season with KuPS, and ended with a ratio of better than a goal every other game (66 goals in 126).
The 1950 KuPS side (Aulis third from left on the second row)
The 1952 Olympics was a disappointment for Finland as they were knocked out in the first round by Austria losing 4-3, having led 3-2 at half time. Rytkönen scored the third goal in front of a partisan crowd of 33,053 in the Olympic stadium in Helsinki. After the Olympics, the transfer was agreed for Rytkönen to join an ambitious Toulouse side in the French second division in December 1952. This move would make him the first Finnish professional footballer. Shortly after moving to France, a letter arrived at his parent's house from Atletico Madrid with proposed contract negotiations. Rytkönen attempted to cancel his contract with Toulouse but the president refused to budge. He made his debut in January against Cannes and set up the first goal. Toulouse went on to win the league and were promoted to Ligue 1 in his first season.
With Toulouse in the top division for first time in two seasons, they replaced their coach with Jules Bigot. They beat title favorites Nice, containing a young Just Fontaine, with Rytkönen grabbing both goals. He suffered a lot with injuries in the season and only managed five goals, however his performances were of such a standard that clubs were looking at other Finnish players. Toulouse themselves bought in two more Finnish players Nils Rikberg and Kalevi Lehtovirta (the second and third professionals, who only lasted one season at Toulouse before moving onto other French sides).
Rytkönen felt that his time in France was hampering his international career and is quoted as saying ‘It is true that I would have at least 50 more caps in the statistics if I'd stayed in Finland, I was leaving in the opinion of some, a renegade who betrayed the people of Finland’. He felt that his performances were some of his best and due to playing in France, the Finnish coaches had no idea if he was okay or not, due to not being able to attend games.
1954-55 was a good season for Toulouse, with the club touted as favourites for the league title. However for Rytkönen, the year was hampered by injuries and he could only make eight appearances, providing two goals for the team. Toulouse finished in second, missing out on the title with a final day 1-1 draw against Reims. The following season was a disappointment, the club finished seventh and he only scored twice. He was deployed as left winger and was soon to make this position his own after overcoming his injury troubles.
Rytkönen’s best season of his career was 1956-57, when he won his first piece of silverware, winning the French cup. The side struggled in the league and labored to an eighth placed finish, but the cup was another matter. After getting through the dearth of the amateur clubs in the cup, they found themselves in the quarter final against Sedan. The match went to extra time, and Rytkönen scored the crucial winning goal to win 3-2. They beat Nice in the semi and got to the final for first time in their history, where they beat Angers 6-3 with Rytkönen getting four assists. It was this performance that earned him the title ‘Monsieur magician’.