So the new season is now well and truly upon us. But as a West Ham fan the football never really stopped. We had to endure 3 rounds of Europa League qualification games against apparent part timers the last of which managed to knock us out of the competition. Despite these distractions I did manage to squeeze in a little holiday and as most of you reading this probably headed south for Mediterranean sunshine I packed my bags and made my annual summer trip northwards to Finland to see my family & friends.
Now just in case you were unaware in Finland football is a summer sport. If you wanted to play in winter you’d need more than an orange adidas tango due to the 2metres of snow and -25°c temperatures that cover the entire country, so each July I check the fixtures before booking my flights and I generally manage to fit in a couple of games during my summer holidays.
My local Finnish team is JJK of Jyväskylä. Located in central Finland and playing in the second tier JJK are a well supported club generally attracting up to 2000 fans at home games and with a hardcore fan group known as Harjun Pojat.
Football culture has been steadily growing over the years and nowadays most Finnish clubs have an ultra style fan group. FC Ilves’ Niilon Pojat, Helsinki IFK’s Stadin Kingit, Inter Turku’s Amarda & Seinäjoki JK’s Klopit are some of the most organised.
These various supporter groups as well as the national teams fans SMJK are all doing their bit to raise the profile of the beautiful game in a country where football comes a poor second to ice hockey in the battle for the attention of kids and media outlets alike.
This season has seen Finland’s capital Helsinki with two teams in the top flight for the first time in a very long time. On 23rd April 2015 Helsinki IFK took on Helsinki JK at the Sonera Stadium for the first time at the top level since 1972. 10,000 people packed into the stadium to see the game end in a 1-1 draw and both sets of supporters, most of which were not even born for the previous derby, made the most of their day with tifosi displays and marches through the city singing at the top of their voices. This was something unprecedented in Finland and finally the media were taking notice with newspaper column inches now being devoted to the incredible atmosphere as well as the result on the pitch.
The return fixture was played out on July 6th, another 1-1 draw and again fans from both clubs put on impressive displays, this time using pyrotechnics and filling the Sonera Stadium stands with smoke.
Following this second derby there was a reaction from the Finnish FA. They released a statement saying that each club would be fined €7000 and threatened stadium closures stating that games would be played behind closed doors should further incidents of fans using pyrotechnics occur. Now let’s get this into perspective, we are talking about a few smoke bombs and flares and nothing like what is seen week in and week out in stadiums just across the Gulf of Finland in neighbouring Sweden! The Finnish FA’s stance has been condemned by fans as draconian and they have been accused of being old men in blazers who are out of touch, not dissimilar to the FA in England! It has also been highlighted that fan groups across Finland are doing more to raise the profile of the game with their marches, tifo and pyro displays than the SPL ever have, effectively doing the FA’s job for them!
HJK’s Swedish goalkeeper Daniel Örlund even waded into the debate with a tweet in support of the fans saying ‘this is absolutely forbidden to say but the flares in the football stadium are fabulous and can stir up the atmosphere’. Örlund spent 7 years at AIK in Stockholm so he is more than familiar with the use of smoke bombs and flares from his time at Råsunda Stadion and he added that unlike at AIK’s Friends Arena the smoke released at Sonera dispersed quickly with no delay to play.
FC Ilves’ Niilon Pojat are also doing their bit to bring colour and atmosphere to their Tammela Stadion home. They have not been discouraged by the FA’s stance and continue to display their distinctive yellow and green smoke wherever they go. Ilves have been subjected to FA fines but the club has not had to bear the financial burden themselves, both ultras and players having chipped in the help pay. FC Ilves CEO Toni Hevonkorpi having been a player himself knows the importance of supporter participation and the advantage that an intimidating atmosphere can give.
With away attendances in Finland traditionally very small to non-existent fan groups are now concentrating more effort in supporting their clubs away from home. Fan groups are busy organising buses for away trips up and down a country with notoriously expensive train travel. I attended JJK’s recent home game versus FC Jazz and a mere 2 away fans made the trip from Pori to Jyväskylä’s Harju Stadion to see their team steal a 2-1 win but other clubs have a much larger away following.
Just a few days after that home defeat I travelled with Harjun Pojat to the Helsinki suburbs to see JJK record a momentous away win at Shefki Kuqi’s high flying PK-35 Vantaa. Around 40 of us made the 4 hour bus journey and we ensured that we subjected the home fans to 90 minutes of constant singing and flag waving!
You may well chuckle at these attendance figures and feel that 40 away fans at a second tier match is ripe for ridicule but Finnish clubs are not only competing with Ice Hockey for supporters. Football is in fact the largest participant sport in the country but many Finns prefer the lure of the televised big money English Premier League rather than heading out to support their local clubs, indeed over 20,000 people turned up to the Olympic Stadium to see HJK play a recent friendly against Liverpool FC, almost all of them clad in red and belting out you’ll never walk alone. I’m not sure many of them had travelled from Merseyside, more likely from Espoo or Riihimäki! The match was boycotted by hardcore HJK fans as this hastily arranged friendly impacted on their scheduled away fixture versus IFK Mariehamn on the island of Fasta Åland with many fans having already booked expensive ferry tickets!
I certainly hope that despite the recent comments coming out of the dark towers of the Finnish FA & the attempted globalisation of the English Premier League fans of HIFK & HJK as well as the many other clubs across the whole of Finland continue to embrace fan culture and continue to raise the profile of the game attracting more fans to local clubs along the way!
this article first appeared in STAND fanzine issue #15