Finnish Football, the progress and the hope of some African players

From Soccertime Africa

Nowhere have football fans felt the impact of the outbreak of the COVID- 19 virus than the northern European nation of Finland. Finnish football fans will have to wait until next year to be able to watch their senior national football team make a maiden appearance at the Euros.

“All the hotel and flight bookings together with match tickets acquired will have to wait till next year”, lamented Anssi Ollenberg, an avid football fan.

Theirs is a country where football has played second best to ice hockey in terms of popularity. However, the historical feat of the national team in securing Finland’s first qualification to a major tournament may signal an impending paradigm shift.

Before the turn of the century, Jari Litmanen was the face of Finnish football. A member of the Ajax team that won the European Cup in 1995, he was the star around whom the national team was built.

The 2000s saw the rise of Sami Hypia, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Aki Riihilathi, Mikael Forssell and Teemu Taino who many expected to break the ice and qualify Finland to a major championship but recurrent injuries to key players made it impossible to have a full-strength squad to face stronger European nations in key qualifiers. As this generation phased out, Finland turned to the development of young talents with the aim of charting a new path. Youth teams proliferated and to boost the popularity of the game among young footballers, Finland offered to host the FIFA U-17 world in cup in 2005.

Finland U 17 taking on Northern Ireland U 17 at the Sami Hypia Soccer Academy late last year.

Football infrastructure development also became a priority of the FA. The multipurpose Sami Hypia Football Academy was built to serve as a training center for youth footballers from the age of 10. The center also serves as a camping base for all the national teams before major games.  Friendly matches between the youth national teams and other European nations are constant arrangements to enable young talents to compete with the best.

“We are inspired by the success of Iceland at the last Euros and we want to become a force in the European game”, Jarko Antilla a football intermediary said to Soccertime on the sidelines of a friendly game between the Finnish U-17 and Northern Ireland U-17 team. Jarko like many Finnish football fans, is optimistic about the future of Finnish football.

 

The attention to nurturing young talents and developing infrastructure have been complemented by young home-grown talents moving to some of the major leagues in Europe to gain the experience of playing in more competitive environments. This has further strengthened the national team.  

The new poster boy of Finnish football Teemu Pukki is an example. Transferred from FC KPT in 2008 to Sevilla, he has been playing his best football in the past year in the EPL where he has scored 11 goals in 28 Matches for Norwich.   His contribution in scoring 9 goals in the European qualifiers proved vital in ending Finland’s 108 year wait to qualify for a major tournament.

Whatever progress Finland football is making can also be partly attributed to the influx of foreign talents leading to the competition for places in teams and the need for most teams to adopt a much more multicultural approach to club management which has created a healthy atmosphere for talent to flourish. This has enhanced the quality of the Veikklausiga even though it has a long way to go compared to the leagues of its Nordic neighbors.

African players have not been left out as local Finnish clubs reach out to attract talent from abroad. They have embraced the league as a good first step in launching a professional career in Europe. The catch for most of them is the attention given to player welfare issues which is key to helping a new player adapt and find his feet in Europe.  Omar Colley of Serie A side Sampdoria is one African player who has made the smooth transformation from the Veikkausliga to higher leagues. Others like Jude Ekow Arthur of SJK are hopeful of doing well to attract the attention of bigger clubs in Europe.

 “I think I have adapted well after the first season”, he said to Soccertime when we met him in a quiet café in Seinajoki.

He had been on a season’s loan from Ghanaian premier league side Liberty Professional and has since made a permanent move to SJK.  Technical Director of SJK Richie Dormon believes Arthur is talented enough for bigger leagues if he keeps working hard. Another young talent who has found home in the league is Abu Sanunu. The 22 year-old moved to Finland at the beginning of the season after 3 seasons in the lower levels of the Spanish football. He has since emerged a key figure in the midfield of KPV after a couple of cup games. Former Ghana National U-20 midfielder has also signed for Pargas IF in the Kakkonen. He is seeking a revival after spending three years with Belarusian League champions Dynamo Brest.

Two young African footballers who have moved to Finland in recent times. Sjk’s midfield anchor Jude Ekow Arthur, Saliw Babawo and KPV’s Abu Sanunu.

In the meantime, preparations for the Euros will have to a back seat for now as football fans in Finland prepare to welcome the return of football after the start of the season was suspended because of the outbreak of Covid-19. Whatever happens in the Euros next year, Finland would have succeeded in sending a note to the football world that it is a team on the ascendency.

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