Finnish province overcome challenges

icon ifk20 May ~ IFK Mariehamn's Europa League debut, achieved by topping Finland's Fair Play standings, will be the first time a men's club from the self-governing province of Aland has taken part in European competition (women's team Aland United took part in the Women's Champions League in 2010). Some Alanders feel they could sustain a national team just as the Faroe Islands does but FIFA's attitude to new nations ensures that is unlikely to happen any time soon. Instead, islanders have poured their energy into IFK Mariehamn.

Since back-to-back promotions in 2003 and 2004 took them into the top division Veikkausliiga, they have consolidated their position as an unusually solvent, stable member of the league. Their coach Pekka Lyyski has been in post since 2002, making him one of the longest-serving managers in Europe.

The club's rise was initially bankrolled in part by Aland's betting monopoly, PAF. Unfortunately for IFK, Veikkausliiga is sponsored by Finland's own betting monopoly and once they reached the highest level that sponsorship had to stop. A local crisp manufacturer stepped in to become a major sponsor.

That conflict, ended decisively in favour of the mainland company, demonstrated the challenges IFK face because of their unique constitutional, geographical and cultural context. Situated off the Finnish coast, Aland has long struggled to articulate its distinct identity. Demilitarised in the wake of the Crimean war, and confirmed as part of Finland in 1922 despite linguistic ties to Sweden, the province is culturally and geographically closer to Finland's western neighbour than regions such as Karelia or Savo in the east.

That has practical implications for the football clubs dotted around Aland's 6,500 picturesque islands and skerries. Many Alanders speak very little Finnish at all, for one thing, and the distances they have to cover are a wearying factor. For example this year they faced a six-hour ferry journey followed by 14 hours on a train on the first day of the season to get to a match against RoPS in Rovaniemi, inside the Arctic circle. They still won 3-1, although that was the first time the away team had won that match-up in Lapland or Mariehamn.

Clubs lower down the pecking order have to choose between complicated ferry timetables to reach Finnish lower-division games, or simpler two-hour trips to Uppland in Sweden. Lemlands IF participate in the Swedish leagues, while Jomala, SIFFK, Hammarland and IFK Mariehamn play in the Finnish system.

IFK have now decisively buried memories of the derbies of the 1970s and 1980s, when large crowds would gather to watch them take on IF Finstroms Kamraterna, who represented the second largest municipality in the province. Over IFK's nine seasons in Veikkausliiga their crowds have averaged between ten and 20 per cent of Mariehamn's population of 11,000. In their first season after promotion, 2005, they averaged 2,598—nearly a quarter of the town's population.

Now the club has to organise the biggest matches in Aland's football history. The Wiklof Holding Arena's capacity will be reduced to just over 1,600 for European ties and UEFA will only allow the club to play there in the first two qualifying rounds of its Europa League campaign. If they progress further they will have to host "home" matches in Turku or Helsinki, a journey of several hours for their loyal support. That's unlikely to deter them, given the challenges they have overcome to get this far. Egan Richardson

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