Veikkausliiga: The State of Play.

The winter months when Finnish football is on its hiatus gave us a long time to think and ponder over the state of Finnish football. So, now the new season is nearly here, we have good opportunity to preview and have a look at where we see the Veikkausliiga (with a sprinkling of other matters as well) in 2023….

A running theme since the 2022 season ended has been the departure of many of the leagues top players and coaches leaving for pastures new. Whilst this isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s certainly an ongoing problem for the league. It goes without saying that many players leave Finland for one of two reasons, to play in a better league and/or a higher wage (both valid and reasonable).

Notable player departures have been Casper Terho and Santeri Väänänen, who left HJK for Royale Union Saint-Gilloise (Belgian Pro League) and Rosenborg (Eliteserien, Norway) respectively, Jake Jervis departed SJK for East Bengal FC (Indian Super League) and Lee Erwin, who left FC Haka to join Ahed (Lebanese Premier League). Whilst many understand the moves and can see the step up made by both Terho and Väänänen, it’s the inability to keep ahold of Jervis and Erwin, two players that contributed significantly for their clubs last season, that leave a bitter taste in the mouth. 

Finns abroad is a section regularly covered by the pod. Jere Uronen has joined German giants (but current strugglers) Schalke 04 to fight for a spot at one of the best supported teams in the country. Joel Pohjanpalo has started 2023 strongly, alongside compatriots Niki Mäenpää and Jesse Joronen (the latter who has cemented his spot as the number 1) for Venezia in Serie B. Leo Väisänen and Alexander Ring are forming a solid partnership for Austin FC in the MLS and have been integral in their teams fine start to the season. Robin Lod (Minnesota United) and Rober Taylor (Inter Miami) have also started the MLS season in fine form. A notable shout out for Marcus Forss at Middlesbrough too, a player totally revitalised under new manager Michael Carrick up at the Riverside as their promotion push to the Premier League goes from strength to strength.

Their performances and regular game time can only be a positive thing for the Finnish National team.

Additionally, back on the mainland, the departure of KuPS manager Simo Valakari to FK Auda, who play in the lesser known Latvian Higher League (the top tier in Latvian football), equally begs the question into whether the Veikkausliiga is losing, rather than gaining, attraction to players and managers alike. There are also strong rumours Tony Koskela of HJK is flirting with taking the reins over at Malmö FF. Whilst you can understand the temptation to manage the biggest team in Sweden, it would again be another loss for the VL. 

The Finnish national team played two winter summer camp friendlies recently against Sweden and Estonia. This was an opportunity for Rive Kanerva to hand out several debuts and have a look at some of the younger players in the national team, as he was missing a whole host of first team regulars due to only having players that weren’t on club duty at his disposal. Finland slumped to two defeats, losing 2-0 to Sweden and 1-0 to Estonia. Whether this was a worthy exercise out in Portugal, only time will tell. There’s an argument though that Finnish football at national level is in a strong place.

The two recent Euro 2024 qualifiers against Denmark and Northern Ireland gave us a good indicator of where the squad is at. A 3-1 loss in Copenhagen (on reflection probably a fair result) and a 1-0 away win in Belfast means 3 points out of the first two games. A solid platform to build upon ahead of the summer fixtures in June.

Touching on the champions briefly, HJK regularly appear in UEFA group stage competitions (and the riches that come with that must surely help tie players down to healthy contracts) and it cannot be dismissed the progress of such teams like KuPS, FC Haka and SJK have been making both domestically as well as competing (albeit not achieving what they would ultimately hope to) in early qualifying stages of European competitions.  

There’s no doubt that interest in football throughout the country is still very strong, but league attendances could still be better. We mentioned on the podcast last year that the organisers of the Suomen Cup possibly needed a new marketing strategy to boost numbers through the turnstiles, but so too does the Veikkausliiga. Clubs across the league(s) need healthier finances to compete and to stop losing their best players and coaches, and the revenue brought in by fans would be a good place to start. 

Talking of clubs with finance issues, HIFK got relegated last season, meaning there will be no stadin derby (HJK V HIFK) to look forward to-one of, if not THE standout fixture of the Veikkausliiga season.

There’s still plenty of time between now and the beginning of the Finnish season. HJK will probably start as favourites to retain the championship but are certainly (at time of writing) weaker than they were in 2022. Can KuPS kick on despite losing their manager? FC Haka, Inter Turku, FC Honka and even SJK will be looking to spring a surprise, whether they can or not remains to be seen. 

Perhaps there are more questions than answers as the season draws ever closer. Either way, there’s going to be plenty to discuss and get excited about throughout 2023.

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