Finnish Football Show #6 – An upturn for Huuhkajat? And Veikkausliiga so far.

Join Mark (@explorefinland), Rich (@escapetosuomi) and Mark (@MaHa_FCSuomi) for monthly episodes, where 3 old blokes sit and talk about football. In Finland.

Download an MP3 of Finnish Football Show #6 – An upturn for Huuhkajat? And Veikkausliiga so far. Show Notes & Video

Finnish Football Show #5 – The Worst Time to Start a Podcast About Finnish Football?

Join Mark (@explorefinland), Rich (@escapetosuomi) and Mark (@MaHa_FCSuomi) for monthly episodes, where 3 old blokes sit and talk about football. In Finland.

Download an MP3 of Finnish Football Show 5 – The Worst Time to Start a Podcast About Finnish Football?

Show Notes & Video

Finnish Football Show #4 – ‘Cupsets’ and Finns in Action Overseas

Join Mark (@explorefinland), Rich (@escapetosuomi) and Mark (@MaHa_FCSuomi) for monthly episodes, where 3 old blokes sit and talk about football. In Finland.

Download an MP3 of FinnishFootballShow #4 – ‘Cupsets’ and Finns in Action Overseas

Show Notes & Video

Finnish Football Show #3 – Football In The Desert & Pre-season Transfers

Join Mark (@explorefinland), Rich (@escapetosuomi) and Mark (@MaHa_FCSuomi) for monthly episodes, where 3 old blokes sit and talk about football. In Finland.

Download an MP3 of FinnishFootballShow3 – Football In The Desert & Pre-season Transfers

Show Notes & Video

Apollo FC and Finland’s ‘Pink Revolution’

Season 1 Episode 16 Mikael & Jarl Matti proclaim Finland’s
‘Pink Revolution’

Listen to this podcast episode here

Guests: Mikael Muurimäki and Jarl Matti Antilla, Apollo FC players

There is something in the air in Seinäjoki. What started as a small idea among a group of friends is blooming into something altogether more touching, caring and beautiful – not words that you usually associate with the game of Association Football. That ‘something’ is named Apollo FC. It is the rebirth of a team that existed in Seinäjoki back in the 1980’s. Now with a purpose, a cause that has caught the imagination of everyone that hears about it.

It began when a group of former players from Seinäjoen Jalkapallokerho (SJK), decided that they wanted to continue playing organised football with players of a similar standard. They cast around for team-mates, found that they had over 20 possible names, and so registered to play in the lower divisions of the football pyramid in Finland, securing a place in the 6th division.

This squad includes former fan favourites Mikael Muurimäki, SJK’s record goal scorer from it’s days in Kakkonen (Finland’s 3rd tier) and Luis Fernando, SJK’s oldest player who played in the 2014 Veikkausliiga aged 35. In fact, the age of the players in the squad ranges from 25 – 55 years.

Apollo FC club badge, resurrected from the 1980's and now in pink

Apollo FC club badge, resurrected from the 1980’s and now in pink

I spent some time discussing Apollo FC players Mikael Muurimäki and Jarl Matti Antilla.  Jarl Matti is also managing the team’s media work around his busy day job. The fact that a new team, playing in the Finnish 6th division needs a media manager says a lot. The first hint that they may have hit on something special was when they attracted 1000 Facebook ‘likes’ within the first week. No mean achievement.

Jarl Matti explained that Apollo FC ‘manifesto’ has now has two aims;

  1. to be a place for players of a certain standard (including some former professionals)  to continue competing alongside old friends.
  2. to use the interest in the team to raise money for charity.

Once they realised that there was interest in the team from around Finland, they decided to divert that coverage and exposure elsewhere. Somewhere it could do good. The charity they will support in 2015 is Roosanauha ( the breast cancer charity that is identified by a Pink Ribbon. The team will play in bright pink shirts and have the nickname Pinkitkoirat, the Pink Dogs. In 2015, Apollo will also use the slogan ‘For All Womankind’. – The Pink Ribbon, 2015-style – The Pink Ribbon, 2015-style

This is what has really grabbed the attention of people in the Etelä-Pohjanmaa region. Encouraged businesses to sponsor the team. Made people buy merchandise for a team that has hardly played a game.  Look forward to seeing them play in the Regions Cup – like the non-league, FA Trophy in the UK! It is because ‘there is no good reason not to support the cause’. Everyone has a Mum, a Wife, a Daughter, everyone can relate to this cause.

SJK has worked hard over the past few years to build a real football culture in the town and Matti feels some of this is now reflecting on Apollo. This, and the fact that the Apollo squad also includes people in regular jobs, who have some ability but never played in the pro-game. That the squad includes a local bank manager, for example, helps build a connection with potential fans.

At the start of the season, Apollo FC decided it would aim to raise 5,000€ for the Roosanauha charity. That is pretty ambitious for year one, but after just two practice games, it seems they might have to adjust their sights. By the middle of April, only two months since launching the club, Apollo has raised 3,700€ and it shows no sign of stopping. Jarl Matti and Mikael were, unsurprisingly, proud and humble at what had been achieved so quickly, but they still have a ‘hundred’ fundraising ideas. The only limit is the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day.

SJK has been supportive of Apollo, but it doesn’t stop there. It has already been announced that there will be an event in summer 2015 involving Apollo, SJK and HJK Helsinki. That’s HJK who will be playing in Champions League qualifiers and SJK, who will be playing in Europa League qualifiers, taking the time to support the efforts of this new team from Seinäjoki.

That said, it is not just Apollo that is trying to redefine what a football club should be. Aki Riihilahti, the current CEO of HJK Helsinki, is one of the founder members and honourary ‘captains’ of Peace United. The former Crystal Palace and Finland player founded the club following a visit to the Za’atr refugee camp in Jordan, where he was inspired by the work of Finn Church Aid.

You can read more about Peace United here, and the work of Finn Church Aid here

Although Apollo FC and Peace United have different aims, they have a similar ethos, one of giving, one of doing things for others. A revolution? Well maybe not strictly speaking, but clearly there is something in the air, something rather refreshing in the era of £5 billion TV deals. You never know, there might even be a few good games of football as well.

If you want to learn more about Apollo FC or, better still, want to support the fund-raising efforts, you can contact them at any of the following places;

  • Facebook
  • Twitter   @pinkitkoirat
  • Instagram
  • Website

You can find all of my previous content on SJK here

SJK Update: April 2015

Article number two in the series of articles about Seinäjoen Jalkapallokerho (Seinäjoki FC, SJK). You can find all the articles in this series here

Cup campaigns

Several eyewitness accounts suggest that SJK were unfortunate to exit the Suomen Cup (Finnish FA Cup)  to Kuopio Palloseura (KuPS) within weeks of being knocked out of the Liigacup. Popular consensus is that SJK dominated the game but, in failing to score more than one goal, they left themselves vulnerable, and KuPS took advantage with a penalty and a ‘worldie’ into the top corner, sending SJK out in the 6th round – SJK’s first game in this year’s competition.

This is a similar story to the Liigacup game against Rovaniemi Palloseura (RoPS), which RoPS won on penalties following a 2-2 draw. This is a habit that SJK will, clearly, be trying to get out of by the time the Veikkausliiga starts.

The video below shows highlights of the KuPS match, followed by an interview in English with Wayne Brown at 9mins 20.

Veikkausliiga season 2015

SJK’s new season kicks off  on Sunday 12th April with an away game in Turku against FC Inter, with a good crowd expected as Inter have marketed the game with lots of free tickets. 2014 was a challenging season for FC Inter, as they languished in the bottom half of the table before finishing 4th from bottom. That said, they fared better than some others. Of the 12 teams in the Veikkausliiga last year, three of them dropped out at the end of the season;

  • TPS (Turku Palloseura) finished 12th and dropped down into the 2nd tier, Ykkönen.
  • FC Honka, managed by Shefti Kuqi in 2014, finished 11th, amid legal disputes and financial problems. At the end of the season they decided to drop down two divisions, to where their reserve team plays, presumably to start over.’
  • Going one step better (worse?) was MyPa, they finished 8th but this wasn’t enough to stop them going bankrupt. There are two other teams from their area in Kakkonen, so they’ve decided not to continue. A sad demise for a the Veikkausliiga champions of 2005!

The three replacement teams in 2015 will be HIFK (Idrottsföreningen Kamraterna, Helsingfors) from Helsinki, who have a large, rowdy fan base which necessitates them playing home games at HJK’s Sonera Stadium – which will be busy this year with SJK also using this venue for Europa League games. HIFK won the Ykkönen division on the final game of last year and will be a useful addition to the Veikkausliiga. The two other sides are KTP from Kotka (runners-up to HIFK last season were) and Ilves from Tampere (Tampereen Ilves) who are managed in 2015 by Geordie, Keith Armstrong.

SJK, by contrast has bigger targets for 2015. The club has stated it’s aim of winning the Veikkausliiga and ending HJK’s (Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi) 6 year stranglehold on the trophy. In fact, the club inserted a clause in manager Simo Valakari’s contract that the team will play to win every competition it enters, something that fans of many mid-table teams would surely endorse! This is, clearly, a high ambition but after last year’s impressive 2nd place finish, this shows the board’s desire to continue pushing the club onwards and upwards.

SJK captain, Pavle Milosavljevic, modelling the new 2015 kit

SJK captain, Pavle Milosavljevic, modelling the new 2015 kit

The club will also make it’s debut in the Europa League at the beginning of July. While this always seems too early for British clubs, it fits right into the middle of the Finnish season, when they players should be at their peak. Unfortunately, SJK’s stadium is not able to host UEFA matches, so there will be a 4+ hours commute to Helsinki to play the match(es?) at HJK’s Sonera Stadium.

The excellent Escape To Suomi blog has a good overview of each Veikkausliiga team in it’s 2015 Season Preview

Which leads us nicely to…

A New Stadium in Seinäjoki

“Seinäjoki Council has unanimously approved the contract for the  construction of the football stadium with SJK.”

And so it was announced, by the Mayor of Seinäjoki, Jorma Rasinmäki, on 23rd April that SJK and the town of Seinäjoki had reached an agreement over the plans for a new football stadium. It is in a, slightly different location to the original plan, which would have been on the hillside near the Wallsport Areena, a tricky and more costly plan due to the need for explosives to make space for the stadium and building planning zones.

The new plan will see the stadium positioned closer to Wallsport and the Ice Hockey rinks, also closer to existing infrastructure. The area outside the main stand will be slightly lower than the level of the pitch, which should give the effect of the stand looming high above you when approaching the stadium. The stadium will be an all-enclosed design, with a capacity of 6-6,500 to fit in with UEFA requirements, at least for the qualifying rounds, and possibly the Europa group games (depending on the draw). The Champions League group games are have different requirements, and we shouldn’t try to run before we can crawl 🙂 It should, however,  prove to be a great venue for all those future European matches (especially if the teams does succeed in winning the Veikkausliiga this season!)

Freddy Adu

When I heard that Freddy Adu, the former child prodigy of football from the USA, had been released from his team in Bosnia, I thought ‘why not the Veikkausliiga?’ SJK manager Simo Valakari, having steadily built his squad through the winter, clearly had other ideas and passed up the opportunity. Adu was signed, however, by the aforementioned KuPS, not in time to make his debut against SJK, but he did have an immediate impact on the club’s online following, adding over 300,000 Twitter followers to KuPS.

Whether things work out for him remains to be seen but, surely, most football fans wish him well, and will look forward to seeing him in actions in 2015. You can see an interview with Freddy, in English, on the YLE Areena website here

Escape To Suomi also has some more detailed musings on Freddy Adu

Coaching in English and English Training

Something that Fredy Adu mentioned in his interview was something I’d also noticed on some recent SJK videos, which is that the training sessions are held in English. Apparently, this is another sign that English is becoming the language of international communication. So many overseas players coming to Finland already speak English, that it’s the easier for everyone to speak in this second (or third) language they have in common. No, it’s not because Finnish is too difficult for the average footballer to learn – I’ve heard SJK’s first-team coach Chris Cleaver give interviews in excellent Finnish – it just allows the team to focus on football rather than trying to overcome language barriers.

SJK feels this is an important life skill for young, Finnish players coming through the ranks at SJK. That learning English will prepare them for a future career overseas and it’s the duty of the club to help them develop as people, not just as players. That said, it does sound strange to hear that SJK has arranged for at least one overseas player to have English lessons, rather than Finnish, since they arrived in Seinäjoki, so as to better understand the training, tactics and match day instructions!

You Want More?

Here are a couple more links if you still want to learn more about Finnish football

  • The new, online magazine Ostrobothnia in English delves a little deeper down in the Finnish league, introducing teams for the Ostrobothnia region
  • You can see more videos on the SJK TV YouTube channel.


Many thanks to Lari Paski, Supporters Liaison Officer at SJK for his help on this article, and his contribution to my podcast episode on the history of SJK. Many thanks also to Antti Huhtamäki and SJK for the use of the photos.

◊◊◊ Mark ◊◊◊

SJK Update: March 2015

This is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of articles on happenings at Seinäjoen Jalkapallokerho (Seinäjoki FC, or SJK to it’s friends).

New players

As mentioned in my previous post about the Liigacup, SJK has signed several new players, in the closed season, to strengthen the squad;

  • Mehmet Hetemaj midfield – Mehmet is well known to some of his new team-mates already, having played at FC Honka with Jussi Vasara. He’s a strong, intelligent central midfielder who is both an aggressive, strong tackler and has an eye for an intricate pass. He has experience of playing in Italy, and should prove a valuable presence in the Europa League campaign, while also bringing extra quality for the Veikkausliiga.
  • Ariel Ngueukam forward – Known as ‘Tuco’ to his team-mates and fans, this is another player that will make a difference to the team, adding quality to the existing squad. Having seen him play, he has a style similar to Diego Costa, maybe not so aggressive (and b****y annoying!) but he is a real nuisance to the opposition, always battling for the ball and never letting his opponent settle. You will see him dropping deeper to collect the ball, switching wings, as well as pushing further forward. He’s a clever player who reads what his team mates are doing and adapts his play to them.
  • Bahrudin Atajic forward – Firstly the pronunciation, which I’m advised is ‘Aa-ta-chik’, Bahrudin was signed from Glasgow Celtic, having been based in Scotland from age 16-21. He is Bosnian but was born and raised in Sweden, so should ease into into both Finnish football and the Finnish lifestyle. A skilful, creative player he offer speedy combinations of passes to bring others into a game. Initially joining on trial, a tally of 3 goals and 2 assists in 4 Liigacup games led to him being offered a 1+1 year contract. Despite this recent scoring record, Atajic is not first choice as a striker and is more likely to play wide or as a number 10.
  • Jussi Vasara midfield –  Vasara = Hammer! Jussi is the former captain of FC Honka, a battling, utility midfielder, effective both in a holding position, or up-front playing off of the centre forward. He is known to pick off chances that fall from rebounds or loose balls at the box, and has scored two of goals during the Liigacup campaign.

Stop press!

  • As I’m writing this, it has been announced that SJK has signed Henri Aalto, vice captain of FC Honka. Aalto plays either at full-back (right or left) or centre-back. This gives SJK two good players in each position, and will provide competition and cover across the back four. He also managed to sign in time for the pre-season trip to Marbella – hopefully his tackles are as well timed as his signing!

Photo gallery (click on an image to enter slideshow)

Simo Valakari

As a player, Simo Valakari was an intelligent midfielder who spent several seasons overseas playing in Scotland for Motherwell, and in England for Derby County. As a coach, he displays similar intelligence and attention to detail.

Pre-match preparations include close analysis of the opposition using the InStat Scout programme, which allows his coaching team to focus on a particular opposition player, or passages of play from previous games. Simo will present video clips of the opponents and can select all the corner kicks of the opposition, or every key incident involving a certain player. Although he doesn’t tailor his tactics to the other team, he researches them and holds practice sessions with one team playing in the style of the opponents. During these sessions, he will regularly stop the game to discuss what certain players do during the game, and how SJK can counter this.

This is a feature of Simo’s sessions, he positions himself in the centre of the pitch (where he spent his time as a player) so he can see the whole game, and ‘conduct’ proceedings. He will regularly stop the session, getting the players to stop, close their eyes and point out where their team-mates are on the pitch. This helps the players understand, instinctively, where they should be and where their team-mates will be, Simo wants his players to be intelligent and adaptable in their thinking during different phases of the game.

Clearly, a manager on his way up in the football world, let’s just hope he’ll be in Seinäjoki for a few seasons yet.


Although it started with a set of impressive results in the group stage, SJK’s defence of their Liigacup title ended in the first knock-out round. A 2-2 draw at home to Rovaniemen Palloseura (Rovaniemi FC or RoPS) was decided with a penalty shoot-out, which RoPS won 4-3. Although they avoided a potential clash of dates for the next round match, which may have coincided with SJK’s trip to Marbella and would have made defending the title an even greater challenge. So all planning and training is now focused on the Veikkausliiga campaign which starts on Sunday 12th April.

Here are SJK’s stats from the five Liigacup games this season;

  • Played 5, Won 4, Drew 1 (lost on penalties)
  • Goals scored 14, goals conceded 5
  • Goalscorers:
    • Akseli Pelvas 6
    • Ariel ‘Tuco’ Ngueukam 2
    • Bahrudin Atajic 3
    • Jussi Vasara 2
    • Marco Matrone 1

You can read my previous article about the Finnish Liigacup here.

Pre-season training in Marbella

SJK’s Liigacup disappointment will be soothed by their pre-season training camp in Marbella, a week of warm weather training, on grass(!), which includes two friendlies, against Icelandic team FH on Monday 16.3  and then against Spanish third tier team, Marbella FC. After several months of indoor training, during the dark Finnish winter, this will be a welcome change of scenery and climate for the squad – the chance to warm the bones after the winter freeze sounds good to me.

This is a short video of day one of the training

You can see more videos on the SJK TV YouTube channel.

Many thanks to Lari Paski, Supporters Liaison Officer at SJK for his help on this article, and his contribution to my podcast episode on the history of SJK. Many thanks also to Antti Huhtamäki and SJK for the use of the photos.

◊◊◊ Mark ◊◊◊

The Finnish Liigacup is Underway

Find my podcast on the history of SJK here

The League Cup in Finland is a curious competition. Played as a competitive series of games, it serves as a pre-season competition for the 12 teams in the Veikkausliiga (Finland’s Premier League) but, as it kicks off in mid-February and Finland is mostly under a metre or two of snow, it is played indoors.

Th structure of the Liigacup is also unusual. The first round sees the teams divided into four groups each consisting of three teams, who all play each other twice in the group stage. At the end of this stage the top two from each group progress, providing eight teams for the quarter finals. From here it is a straight knock-out competition through to the final.

There’s one more quirk to this competition, though, as progression through the rounds of the Liigacup, also gains a better seeding in the Suomencup (Finland’s FA Cup), whereby those that get knocked out in the group stage of the Liigacup, start the Suomencup in the 3rd round, and those progressing to the Semi-final of the Liigacup, join the Suomencup in the 6th round – so there is an incentive to treat this as more than a pre-season warm-up series.

And so this weekend I found myself in Seinäjoki’s Wallsport Areena to watch the second of Seinäjoen Jalkapallokerho’s Liigacup games. After a close victory against local rivals VPS Vaasa (1-0 on Wed 11.2), today’s match ws against the other team from the Pohjanmaa region, FF Jaro from Pietersaari.

A crowd of 504 saw a close first-half, Jaro played neat, passing football but lacked a creative spark to make any chances for their strikers. SJK looked more dangerous, with Richie Dorman & Akseli Pelvas creating chances down both wings, although it wasn’t until the 41st minute that the first goal was scored, with Pelvas rounding the Jaro goalkeeper, having latched onto a through ball from new striker Ariel ‘Tuco’ Ngueukam.

The second-half  was not easy for SJK, although the scoreline suggests differently. The second goal early on, Sarajärvi feeding Tuco, allowed us (the supporters) to relax, but it wasn’t until the final 10 minutes that the scoreline became overwhelming for Jaro. Firstly, a long, mazy run from fans’ favourite, Cedric Gogoua, saw the ball fall to Bahrudin Atajic, a former Celtic youth player, currently on trial at SJK). FF Jaro went down to 10 men after a sending off for a lunging challenge on SJK’s Wayne Brown, before the final goal was scored by captain Marco Matrone in the 88th minute.

An impressive final score, which is only enhanced when you consider that the SJK team was without regular goalkeeper Mikhel Aksalu, recent Finnish national team selection Johnny Laaksonen, & star striker Toni Lehtinen plus new signings Jussi Vasara and Mehmet Hetemaj. Next up are the away games against the same two teams, VPS on 18.2 and then FF Jaro on 28.2.

It looks like SJK are in for another good season!

◊◊◊ Mark ◊◊◊