FC Copenhagen win the Superliga and strengthen the brand

THE strongest sporting brand in the Nordic region – that’s how FC København describe themselves, and after winning their 14th league triumph in the 30 years of the club’s existence, it’s hard to disagree. On the day that FCK clinched the Superliga title, the wonderful city of Copenhagen was awash with supporters heading to Parken for the final game of the campaign against Aalborg, a 3-0 success that made it impossible for Midtjylland to catch the team from the heart of the capital.

Although FCK’s rivals in the west of Copenhagen, Brøndby might disagree, there’s something about the club that’s rather compelling. Maybe it is the brilliant white and royal blue colours, perhaps it is the stadium, but it could also be the identity of the club, which carries the name of one of the most popular cities in Europe at the moment.

The world loves anything Nordic: the laid-back attitude of its people, the simplicity of innovative design from Denmark, Sweden and Finland, the healthy and down-to-earth lifestyles and the rather acquired taste of new Nordic cuisine. If a Danish club is ever going to look the Germans, French and English in the eye in the 21st century, it could be FC København from the well-heeled area of Østerbro.

FCK finished just three points ahead of Midtjylland, a club owned by Matthew Benham, who is better known as the owner of Brentford. Benham’s analytical approach to team-building and transfers was tried out in Denmark before he applied his methods to Brentford, the club he had supported for many years. Midtjylland were formed out of a merger between Ikast and Herning Fremad and have won three Superliga titles, the most recent in 2020. They looked good for another championship for much of 2021-22, but FCK overtook them late on and then dominated the decisive Championship round. Nevertheless, they are considered to be one of Europe’s smartest clubs.

There was compensation for Midtjylland in the form of the Danish Cup (Sydbank Pokalen), which they won on penalties against OB. Rather uniquely, they played in all three of UEFA’s competitions, starting in the Champions League before dropping into the Europa and then Conference. Midtjylland’s relatively small squad includes half a dozen Brazilians, one of whom, Evander, netted 17 goals and was among the SuperLiga’s top scorers and finished third in the player of the year voting.

Evander was beaten to the award by Spain’s Pep Biel, FCK’s leading scorer with 18 goals across all competitions. Biel, who comes from Majorca, was the most expensive signing in Superliga history when he moved to Denmark from Zaragoza for a € 5 million fee. He took time to settle, his relatively small frame strolling to adjust to the physical Danish league, but he not only scored goals but created a few for his team-mates. “At first it was difficult for me,” he said. “I’m not the tallest or strongest, but is also played with movement and skill with the ball.”

Biel secured 25% of the votes from fellow professionals and in second place was the league’s top striker, Nicklas Helenius of Silkeborg, who scored 17 SuperLiga goals. The 31 year-old, who nudges almost two metres in height, had an unhappy spell with Aston Villa between 2013 and 2015.

One very positive aspect of the 2021-22 season were the crowds. FCK, for example, recorded the best ever average gates in the Superliga, a very impressive 24,300 and also drew 35,000 for their title-winning game against Aalborg. That game was also marred by a pitch invasion. Interest in the club appears to be gathering momentum and already they have sold 16,000 season tickets for next season.

Less successful were AGF from Aarhus, who took the bold step of hiring former Arsenal and England midfielder Jack Wilshere. He managed 14 appearances, although very few 90 minute performances, and was never on the winning side. AGF were in danger of relegation but stayed up by a single point, which was fortunate given they are about to benefit from a redevelopment of their stadium. Vejle and SønderjyskE went down to the first division, to be replaced by Horsens and Lyngby. Horsens will open the season against the champions at Parken on July 17.

Denmark won many friends for their performances in Euro 2020 and also for the way they reacted to the trauma suffered by midfielder Christian Eriksen. They have qualified for the World Cup in Qatar and will come up against France in the group stage and they will also face them in the UEFA Nations League on June 3, 2022. Although the Danes are rarely named amongst lists of possible winners, to underestimate them would be a mistake!

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.