FFS 2020: Our Year In Review

A crazy year

With a new year on the horizon, the Finnish Football Show broke out it’s socially distanced champagne (Karhu A) to take a look at the highs and lows of 2020 and get out their appropriately masked crystal balls to peer into 2021.

The Huuhkajat

Mark H @FCSuomi

As the calendar ticked over the four-year-mark for Mixu Paatelainen as Finland manager, KuPS forward Ats Purje had just put a brace past Niki Mäenpää in a dreadful home defeat for the Huuhkajat, though this pain paled in comparison to a Finland side that had wasted its best chance to qualify for a major tournament since the early nineties. We thought that was rock bottom, we know now there was worse to come. 

As we roll the calendar into 2021 the Huuhkajat are at the same stage in the Markku Kanerva “Rivelution” with Finland a solid B- League outfit, on their way to their first major tournament with a world champion’s scalp still fresh in their back pocket. So as Finland fans look back at a tricky year, it’s good to remember the real frustrations endured in our recent past.

2020 started with high expectations. Friendlies were arranged with Poland, France, Sweden and Estonia, to help prepare the Huuhkajat for Euro 2020. However as Covid-19 ground global football to a halt, plans for the Euros were shelved, the hundred-year-wait would go on for one more year. After the summer with the first wave dying down the Nations League resumed, though with most Huuhkajat not match fit, the team that took the field against Wales was largely experimental. A turgid affair ended in a 1-0 defeat which somehow seemed fitting as Finland returned to the refurbished Olympic stadium, as it to remained empty of fans. 

The experiment, Markku Kanerva’s wing-back formation worked well on the road in Dublin, with Robert Taylor pulling the strings in midfield, Fredrik Jensen turning super-sub to grab the goal while Niko Hämäläinen and the re-invented-wing-back Nikolai Alho providing flashes of brilliance down the flanks. That playing style hit a hard stop in October as Finland’s fringe players were given a run-out against a decent Poland side, the hosts smashing five past an inexperienced defense that never really found its shape. The sole consolation from our drubbing in Gdańsk was Ilmari Niskanen’s first goal for his country a wonderfully curled shot from about 25 yards. 

In October the palloliitto was one of the first to allow fans back in and managed limited attendances for the home games against Bulgaria and the Republic of Ireland. Fredrik Jensen scoring in each taking his total for the national team to seven goals in sixteen appearances. Although first team regulars returned, with Robin Lod and Teemu Pukki finding the net for their country again, an away defeat in Cardiff that was heavily defined by Jere Uronen’s red card, meant a second place finish, though Finland could take pride in getting to within 72 minutes of Europe’s A- League. 

While there were many high points for Finland in 2020 the emergence of young talent is definitely the most prominent. There was no better example of that than November’s 2-0 win over world champions France in their own backyard. Marcus Forss scored a debut goal on the counter attack that showed he has the skills to take on the best in the game, Leo Väisänen and Daniel O’Shaughnessy bounced back from a tough lesson in Poland with mature performances, Niko Hämäläinen and Ilmari Niskanen look dependable options down the flanks while the absolute highlight of the year simply has to be Onni Valakari’s howitzer, as he doubled Finland’s lead in the Stade de France, and sent Finland fans jumping off their sofas. 

As things stand Kanerva has Belgium, Russia and Denmark lying in wait at the re-arranged European Championships, with Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina the opening games of World Cup qualifying in March. Finland fans can expect warm up games against the likes of Sweden and Estonia to return, but if all goes to plan 2021 will be a true test of this Finland generation. Teemu Pukki is 5 goals away from Jari Litmanen’s all time record and is now the other side of 30, along with messrs Sparv, Arajuuri, Toivio, Raitala, Granlund, Kauko and Hradecky some of whom will be looking at, even hoping that, the Euros as their swan-song. The old guard is looking for one last battle, the new guard waiting in the wings, hungrily… 2021 will be historic. 

FFS in 2020

Keke M @kekemyllari

2020 has been a weird year for everyone but for me personally it really has been a mixed bag with some obvious lows but some really great highs too! Last Christmas time I was busy booking flights and accommodation to Copenhagen & St Petersburg in readiness for Euro 2020 but as the severity of global Covid-19 pandemic emerged it became clear around Spring time that I wouldn’t be going anywhere and the disappointment was hard to take. At the same time I was furloughed from work and with time on my hands I was able to go through the FFS archive and get our YouTube channel fully up and running with all archived episodes uploaded in chronological order. It was also around this time that the FFS Instagram page was born and this has been lots of fun to do and has been a valuable tool in reaching out to our audience.

As with the rest of the footballing world we at FFS started to wonder about the impact that the pandemic would have on Finnish football and Finnish footballers. This question was soon answered as leagues and federations around the world started cancelling fixtures and postponing competitions,

Where did that leave us? A football podcast with no football to talk about…..Mark W then had the idea of reaching out to various people and asking them directly how the pandemic and the limbo that football found itself in was affecting them personally. I was lucky enough to speak to Huuhkajat midfielder Markus Halsti in the first of what became the ‘behind the quarantine’ series. This interview was followed up with quite a few others and the insight into how the different personnel involved in football were coping from players, coaches and fans to directors and marketing managers was really interesting.

We at FFS and I personally had carried out interviews previously but the confidence that my chat with Markus gave me spurred me on to go looking for others who may be generous enough to give us some time. I am pleased to say that almost everyone I contacted was happy to chat and we have made some really great interview episodes this year. Aki Riihilahti and Antti Niemi were really great fun to talk to and I also really enjoyed talking to Jussi from Inter Turku ultra group Armada Turku about fan culture in Finland. Our interview episodes this year concluded with a beer and a chat with current Huuhkajat Number 1 Lukas Hradecky. I was humbled by the generosity that Luke gave us with his time and this further proved to me why I love Finnish football so much. Tim Sparv had previously mentioned to Rich in an interview last year that there were no egos in this Huuhkajat team and I think the same can be said for everyone involved in Finnish football as a whole.

Finally, I would like to say a big KIITOS to everyone who has been kind enough to speak to us this past year and most of all to all of our listeners and subscribers new and old.

We look forward to bringing you more great Finnish football content in the new year. KIITOS.

Veikkausliiga 2020

Rich @escapetosuomi

What was billed as the most important season in Finnish history ended up being incredible but for different reasons. With Euro 2020 expected during the middle of the season, clubs were desperately grasping for ways to cling onto Finland’s qualification and turn it into marketing heaven. The huge surge in interest around Finnish football was a once in a lifetime opportunity to turn those jubilant fans into regulars at club games.

As mentioned above, of course this didn’t materialise, but that a league season of sorts was completed in the top two tiers is a testament to the clubs, administrators and mostly the players who made it work. The Veikkausliiga was due to have 27 rounds (teams play each other twice, then splits into five more games) but in beginning three months late, the caveat of losing the split was established. The season reached October before Covid-related postponements became an issue and the option of ending after 22 rounds was taken. In the case of the top flight especially, playing that many fixtures in less than five months, alongside Suomen Cup, continental and international fixtures can’t be good for the physical or mental wellbeing, but hopefully those players will get a decent rest this winter.

In the stands, fans were in attendance for all bar a handful of the fixtures, with only the Stadin Derbies noticeably affected. Most were sensible and adhering to distancing guidance. One of the aforementioned derbies did see HIFK fans invade the pitch after a late winner and the Covid book was well and truly thrown at the club. Mark W provided fascinating insight of the terraces at SJK with some useful tips should more of the same be on the cards in 2021.

On the pitch, it was hard to call where the title was headed for the first few months, as KuPS, Inter and HJK traded places at the top. KuPS looked likely to retain the title until their Europa League campaign became a distraction and their domestic form became so poor that they ended up in third. Inter were consistently decent, but HJK’s tremendous firepower up front secured the title that has rarely seen the capital in the last few years. Defeating Inter in the Suomen Cup final provided extra icing on the cake.

At the bottom, RoPS stank the division out with only one win in the season and said goodbye to the top flight, far adrift of the relegation playoff. TPS and Haka were close until the end, when Tepsi were drawn against KTP for the right to play in the top flight in 2021, with Kotka’s finest winning over two legs to secure their return. Also coming up are AC Oulu, who despite a late stutter, won the Ykkonen division and will play in the top division for the first time in a decade.

At the time of writing, the plan is for normal service to be resumed in 2021 – albeit with a shortened cup competition – so we’ll have to see if the Euro 2020 (21?) magic rubs off on attendances and interest in the domestic game… Fingers crossed we see a few more youngsters in the crowds.

Hmm, What’s Left…?

Mark W @ExploreFinland

At first, I thought I’d write about the guests we’d interviewed in 2020, but Keke got there first. Then I thought I could talk about my experiences watching the Veikkausliiga, but Riche beat me to it. That will teach me not to leave my homework until the last minute! So, here a few, random thoughts on 2020…

First of all, it was 💩

As Rich mentioned, thought, I was very aware that I was privileged to be able to watch live football in 2020. Yes, even watching SJK stumble around, trying to find their feet under a(nother) new management team. Comparing this, to watching football on TV with empty stadiums, I regularly paused to appreciate my fortunate position.

I was the only member of the FFS team that did not get tickets for the Euros. It’s amazing the benefits you get if you run on the pitch and tickle the captain’s leg. That MUST be how Keke got his tickets. Either that, or he’s a paid up member of the SMJK, the Finland Supporters Club, who did an excellent job handling the ticket allocation – it’s not really THEIR fault that I’m not yet a member, I suppose.

As Keke wrote, we started the lockdown by recording a series of Behind the Quarantine interviews. They went so well that we continued them into a semi-regular In Conversation… series. If there is someone you’d like us to speak with, or can make a solid introduction, then send us an email to finnishfootballshow@gmail.com

I feel like this really opened our minds to new formats of show to supplement the classic, group discussion Finnish Football Show, and to make our content more timely. So we trialled the Huuhkajat Matchday Live – where we got together pre-match, at half-time and after the final whistle to discuss the game and, then, published the podcast and video, so you could enjoy it fresh the following morning. We also revisited the idea of commentating on the live draw of football competitions. Hopefully, that is more fun to listen to than it sounds, we enjoyed making it anyway.

In summary, 2020 saw us publish 27 podcasts/videos – that’s more than one every fortnight FFS!! There have also been 18 blog posts, mostly match previews and reports from Mark, with some general Finnish football articles from Rich. We also launched an Instagram page, with which Keke does a terrific job and has, in part, inspired me to re-engage with my own Insta account (come find me, if you can be bothered), as well as the YouTube channel he mentioned up there ⬆️

Thanks to all of you that have joined us in 2020. This is still a select club, our follower/subscriber numbers are not huge, but they ARE growing. Keep in touch, ask questions, suggest ideas for shows, follow us on Social and let’s look forward, with hope, for a better year in 2021.

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