Soccer City: Helsinki – Nordic gem

AT THE end of October 2018, HJK were crowned Finnish champions for the sixth time in the last eight years and the 29thtime in their history.

Football has to compete with other national pastimes in Finland, such as Pesäpallo, which is often referred to as “Finnish Baseball”, a fast-moving bat and ball game that was invented in the 1920s. And of course, there’s Ice Hockey, which is actually the most popular sport drawing average crowds of around 4,500 versus the average Veikkausliiga attendance of 2,300.

From a football perspective, Finland has rarely made an impact on the international stage. They have never qualified for the World Cup or European Championship finals and their clubs have barely made a mark on the major European competitions. The only time a Finnish club has reached the group stage of the Champions League, for example, was in 1998-99, when HJK managed to beat and draw with Benfica.

Despite its size, Finland has a population of 5.5 million and its attractive capital Helsinki has around 650,000 people. The city accounts for around a third of Finland’s GDP and its GDP per capita is around 1.3 times for national average. There was a time when Finland’s Nokia was a dominant global force and the envy of many European countries, contributing 4% of Finland’s GDP. Today, it doesn’t have the profile it enjoyed in 2000, but it is still the world’s third largest network equipment manufacturer.

HJK play at the modest but attractive Telia Arena, a stadium that sits in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium, a functionalistic building that was originally constructed for the 1940 Olympics, which of course did not take place. Instead, the stadium had its moment in 1952 and has always been recognisable by its 72 metre high tower.

The stadium is, traditionally, the home of the Finnish national team, but has been undergoing renovation work. You catch glimpses of it when you walk around the area, but at present, it is not possible to get too close to what appears to be an impressive piece of work.

There’s quite a lot of eye-catching architecture in Helsinki, from the cave-like railway station at the airport to Alvar Aalto’s gleaming white Finlandia Hall. The Telia Arena, which was built in 2000, has a capacity of just under 11,000 spectators. HJK draw crowds of around 4,800 for their league games.

HJK were the only Helsinki side in the top division in 2018, but they share the Telia Arena with HIFK, who completed a successful season for the capital by winning the second division (Ykkönen) after being relegated in 2017. HIFK played in front of 1,500 in 2018, but when in the top flight, attendances are double that figure.

HJK’s fan base has, historically, come from the city centre, while HIFK was known as the club of the middle classes. HIFK was also the club of the Swedish-speaking population of Helsinki. In Helsinki, street signs are in both Finnish and Swedish – around 6% of the population speaks Swedish. The rivalry between HJK and HIFKmanifests itself in the form of the Stadin Derby. The derby will resume in 2019!

HJK were comfortable champions in 2018, finishing 16 points clear of RoPS and losing just three of their 33 games. The “Klubi” conceded just 19 goals and scored 61 times, with young Brazilian Klauss, on loan from Hoffenheim, netting 21. Their coach is former Finnish international Mika Lehkosuo, a science graduate who took over in 2014. While HJK continue to stand astride Finnish football, their European results underline the challenge they face in trying to make a breakthrough – they were beaten by BATE Borisov in the Champions League qualifiers and then comfortably disposed of by Olympija Ljubljana in the Europa League ahead of the group stage.

Helsinki is a striking city, but it could never be called a hotbed of football. With reindeer on the menu, salty liquorice to clear the nasal cavities and some very notable buildings, it is no wonder it has become a go-to place for weekend tourists. You get the impression that the game is perhaps not as important as it is in other parts of Europe, but try telling that to the loyal followers of HJK and HIFK.

Main photo: The Olympic stadium in all its 1952 glory.


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