A night of European glory has given Tampere United, from their country’s third city, a major lift. But football in these climes has its own particular challenges, as a well wrapped-up Egan Richardson reports

When Tampere United clung on to a 1-0 lead at home to Levski Sofia in the Champions League second qualifying round in July, they shocked themselves, their fans and Finland’s journalists. Levski qualified for the group stages last season and nobody had given Tampere much of a chance. It was still unclear whether the return leg would be televised in Finland until the day before it was played, as most channels had thought the tie would be over by then and hadn’t bothered bidding for the rights beforehand. In the end, a small free-to-air sports channel cobbled together a sponsorship deal with a local hotel and paid the rights fee in the nick of time. A good job too, as the game in Sofia was a famous victory with Jari Niemi scoring the only goal in another 1-0 win.

Tampere lost their next two European ties to Rosenborg and Bordeaux, but the experience increased belief in their squad and awe in their domestic opponents. Their autumn form blew away the chasing pack, including Mixu Paatelainen’s TPS Turku and nine-time champions FC Haka. HJK Helsinki, who had finished a close second in 2006, ended the season in disarray. In September they sacked Keith “Keke” Armstrong, a former Newcastle United trainee and star of Finland’s version of Strictly Come Dancing. Keke has become something of a Finnish celebrity, offering Geordie-accented punditry on televised games. He claims to have arrived in Finland by chance, as he was sitting in Bill McGarry’s office when the then Newcastle manager promised to send a player on loan to Oulun Palloseura. As there was nobody else about, Keke agreed to go for a couple of months.

That was in 1979 and he has been in Finland ever since, coaching several clubs after his playing career ended in 1993. Having won three titles in a row while at Haka, Armstrong was shortlisted as possible national-team manager before Roy Hodgson was appointed, but he had clearly run out of ideas at HJK.

Tampere’s European run caused all manner of problems for the league (Veikkausliiga) and the Finnish FA (SPL). Finnish winters are long and cold, so to get all the games played it takes careful planning or very good facilities. Pre-season games are played indoors right up to the end of March, and the season began three weeks after it did in Sweden this year because of the harsher winter and lack of undersoil heating. Fixtures had been played too slowly between April and June and when Tampere had to postpone some games it caused a fixture pile-up and the suspension of the ­Finnish Cup until the end of the season.

Luckily Tampere play in a stadium with good floodlights, something that can’t be taken for granted in Finland. RoPS Rovaniemi spent all season leading Ykkönen (the second division) and having an increasingly public spat with Veikkausliiga over their poor facilities. Given that they play in Lapland, where days are short to non-existent from October onwards, floodlights and undersoil heating are vital if they are to play top-flight football at home. This season in Ykkönen they played seven consecutive home games in July and August to avoid possible postponements in the spring and autumn, something Veikkausliiga are unwilling to countenance without ­assurances that facilities will be upgraded.

Clearly, Finnish football needs major investment if it is to move forward. That is unlikely to happen; indeed Tampere is more likely to get a new ice hockey arena for the 2012 world championships than a new or renovated football stadium. This is a shame, as Tampere United have come a long way since they began in 1998, effectively as a name change from the old FC Ilves, founded in 1931. Tampere have won three titles in the past nine years, with this year’s championship clinched with two matches to spare.

With a combination of hungry, talented youngsters and older heads such as Jarkko Wiss and Mikko Kavén, they are looking to become the “Rosenborg of Finland”, using Champions League money to usurp HJK as the major Finnish club. It is a big task. Tampere’s business plan requires drastically increased crowds and income multiplied by five, an unprecedented improvement in Finnish football. An indication of the scale of the task is that Tampere’s budget this year was €1.8 million (£1.2m), while Rosenborg’s was €25m. Speculation after the title win centred on how much they would ask for 21‑year-old starlet Tomi Petrescu, not whether he might decide to stay anyway. They have a long way to go before they can start relying on that Champions League revenue. 

From WSC 250 December 2007

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