Northern Lights

Henrik Manninen reports on how a side in Lapland have benefited from a long-established relationship with Zambia

In January 1994, two Zambian footballers touched down at the Arctic Circle for a trial with Finnish side RoPS. Returning home after two weeks in the snow and freezing conditions of Rovaniemi few expected this to be the start of a partnership that is stronger than ever today.

At the start of August this year, RoPS, chasing promotion straight back to the Finnish top division, the Veikkausliiga, took on OPS from Oulu at home. The 1-1 draw wasn’t much to write home about. Far more interesting, however, was the RoPS teamsheet, which included three Finns, a Georgian midfielder, a US central defender and six Zambians.

‘“RoPS have always been a club in Finland that had to attract foreigners, because there isn’t the number of players in this area to get by in the top division,” says RoPS coach John Allen, a former Chester City striker, with nearly 24 years’ experience in Finnish football. “But there is also a battle to keep the best players here and to get good ones to come up here, because even hearing the name Rovaniemi frightens off a lot of them.”

RoPS, short for Rovaniemen Palloseura, were formed in 1950, when the Lapland town was still recovering from the scars of the Second World War. Having languished in the lower leagues for three decades, they won promotion to the Finnish top flight in 1980, and were then punching well above their weight for the next decade. They won the Finnish Cup in 1986, reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup-Winners Cup in 1987-88 and finished third in the league in both 1988 and 1989.

In those days, most of the foreign players in Finland were British journeymen. Former England international Brian Greenhoff played a handful of games for RoPS back in 1983, but the ones who stayed on a long-term basis were far lesser known players. This includes current coach Allen, who played for five different clubs in the Finnish top flight after arriving from Bangor City, or Birmingham-born Steven Polack, who spent 11 seasons at RoPS.

Football in Finland changed during the early 1990s, when sponsorship income started playing a more significant role. RoPS, on a tight budget and from a small town in the periphery of the country, were falling behind their wealthier rivals down south. It was then that, through a contact in London, RoPS got in touch with an agent representing Zambian players, at a time when the country was in mourning after losing almost an entire generation of their best footballers in the 1993 Gabon air disaster.

Although Emmanuel Siwale was the first Zambian to play for RoPS, it was his compatriot, Zeddy Saileti, who became the embodiment of the club during his 16 years in Lapland. Saileti had been one of the two Zambians (David Mutale the other) who arrived in Rovaniemi for a trial in January 1994. Saileti then played at the Africa Cup of Nations a few months later and scored in the semi-final for a new-look Zambia, who finished runners-up to Nigeria. He went on to play almost 400 games for RoPS and opened the door for more Zambians at the club.

Ari Hietala, head of the RoPS supporters club, compares Saileti’s legacy to “what Maradona as a player meant for the Argentina, or Pelé for the Brazilians”. And having a primarily foreign team doesn’t bother him one bit. “African players ask for reasonable wages. A Finnish player would ask for one and a half times more to play for RoPS compared to HJK in Helsinki, just because of the location,” says Hietala.

Head coach Allen is also content with the contribution of his Zambian players in the Finnish first division, where regulations regarding the use of non-EU players are very relaxed. “They make my work easier, as they are hungry to go further. Twenty years ago you would never even got looked at because no one came up here, but today there is a chance to move on as a player in Finland,” he said.

Meanwhile, Zeddy Saileti, who hung up his boots at the age of 40 when RoPS were relegated last season, is currently in Zambia running his own RoPS Academy while getting his coaching badges. His third coming to Lapland is already being widely anticipated on the streets of Rovaniemi.

From WSC 283 September 2010