With only one game left in the season the top three teams in Finland’s top division are separated by 2 points. This week, I have a look at Finland’s Veikkausliiga and the three teams aiming to lift the championship this Sunday.
The Finish Football League’s official website proudly proclaims that its top division, Veikkausliiga, is the coolest on earth. In terms of temperature, they are probably right. In the north of the country, the district known as Lapland, the temperature in October drops to almost 0 °C, while in the south, the warmest area of the country, temperatures in the capital city of Helsinki fall well below freezing during the winter months. As a result, the football calendar in Finland, as it is in many Scandinavian and Eastern European countries, runs from mid April to late October.
In terms of genuine excitement Finish football has a case to brand its top division as the coolest on earth too, and you would have to search for a long to time to find a closer title race. The final round of fixtures in Veikkausliiga is this weekend and there is everything to play for. Having played 32 games each and with only one more game to go only two points separate the top three teams who are all in a position to win the league, which concludes on Sunday.
Leading the pack are Seinäjoen Jalkapallokerho, known simply as SJK, who have 57 points having won 17 of their 32 league games so far and are in pole position to secure their first ever Veikkausliiga . In second place, and only one point behind SJK, are Rovaniemen Palloseura, also known as RoPS, who finished 10th out of 12 last season and are the only club in Veikkausliiga who are from Lapland, the largest and northernmost region of Finland. In third, only one point behind RoPS but two behind SJK are Finish giants Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi, HJK, who are Finland’s most successful club and have won the championship 27 times. It’s a shock that HJK, who are from the nation’s capital Helsinki, have not wrapped up the title already and now face the prospect of not retaining the title they have won every year since 2009.
Seinäjoen Jalkapallokerho have enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence since the club was founded in 2007. SJK were created after the merger of two clubs, TP-Seinäjoki and Sepsi-78, from the city of Seinäjoki. Both clubs were fairly unsuccessful and had both spent years in the lower divisions of the Finish football pyramid, the merger could have been seen as controversial but it has been beneficial to the city of Seinäjoki which now boasts a Veikkausliiga club.
SJK were born into Kakkonen, Finland’s 3rd tier, and gained promotion 4 years later. It then only took two season for the club to be promoted from Ykkönen, Finland’s 2nd tier, into Veikkausliiga, an impressive feat for such a young club. Even more impressive was SJK’s debut season. The newly promoted club finished 2nd in their first ever Veikkausliiga campaign and won their first ever Finish Cup, beating HJK in the semi finals before defeating Vaasan Palloseura 1-0 in the final.
SJK built upon their 2014 success by mounting a serious title challenge. Now, with only one game to go SJK only need a win to secure their first ever Veikkausliiga, only 4 years after playing in the 3rd tier. Standing in their way are team who have everything to play for as well but at the other end of the table. SJK will host Jaro Pietarsaari who are three points adrift at the bottom of the league. Only a win could save Jaro but they would also need 11th placed KooTeePee Kotka to lose their match. Fortunately for Jaro they have enjoyed success against SJK this season. In fact, the only top 6 team that Jaro have beaten this year was, you guessed it, SJK with a 1-0 home win in August.
There are also several British connections with SJK. Their squad includes 27 year old English midfielder Wayne Brown, who ended up in Norway after spells at Fulham, Brentford and Bristol Rovers, and Welsh midfielder Ritchie Dorman who was a member of Blackburn Rover’s youth academy and has gone on to make 100 appearances for SJK. Also at the club is an 18 year old Brazilian midfielder Allan who joined SJK on loan from Liverpool in September after joining the Premier League club for £500,000 in June.
The Team from Lapland
Based in the city of Rovaneimi, the capital of the Lapland region, Rovaniemen Palloseura are the remotest team in Finland. In what is the most sparsely populated country in Europe, RoPS face the challenge of having to travel hundreds of miles for each away game. Their longest journey is the 9 hour drive to Helsinki.
Yet, despite these complications they’re enjoying their best ever season in the Veikkausliiga. RoPS’ journey has run almost parallel to that of SJK. Like SJK, RoPS were recently promoted to the top flight securing promotion back to Veikkausliiga after years of yo-yoing between divisions. They achieved their promotion back to the top flight in 2012 and, just like SJK, impressed in their first season by winning the Finnish Cup in their debut season. SJK would achieve the exact same feat one year later.
RoPS were founded in 1950 and are one of the northernmost football clubs in the world, only six miles south of the Arctic Circle. The club are best known in Finland for suspected involvement in match fixing around the time of 2011. Eight RoPS players – six Zambians and two Georgians – were convicted of receiving bribes in order to fix and manipulate the results o matches and were suspended while a Singaporean businesses man, Wilson Rag Perumal, was arrested in connection to the bribes after trying to gain entry into Finland.
RoPS have since recovered from that incident and on Sunday they will have a chance to win their first ever Veikkausliiga, although they need to rely on other results. First, RoPS must embark on an 8 hour journey to face FC Lahti, currently lying 5th in the table, and they must beat them to have any hope of winning the league. Ensuring that, RoPS would then need to rely on Jaro to beat SJK.
It’s not impossible but for a club on the outer reaches of Europe, hundreds of miles from other major cities, coming this far is still incredibly impressive and their reward, even if they do not win the league, is a place in next year’s Europe League qualifying rounds.
It’s fair to say that if HJK Helsinki were on top form this season the Veikkausliiga wouldn’t be going down to the wire. The 27 time champions and Finland’s biggest club have won the title in each of the last six season’s and since the league format changed to a 33 game season in 2011, they have reached 81, 64, 73, and 72 points. This season the most they can get is 58.
So what is the reason behind HJK’s lapse in performance? Perhaps the awakening of their rivals HIFK Helsinki had something to do with it. HIFK are Finland’s oldest club and their history dates back to the 1800s but they have never been as successful as their neighbours HJK. After being relegated from Veikkausliiga in 1972, HIFK never recovered and spent the subsequent 42 years languishing in the lower divisions, even as low as the 5th division of Finnish football in 2005. But in 2014 HIFK won the Ykkönen and reclaimed their place in Veikkausliiga after decades of anguish.
On the 23rd April 2015, and for the first time since 1972, HIFK played against their bitter rivals HJK in what is known as the Stadin derby in front of a sell out crowd of 10,000 fans at the Sonera Stadium, which is shared by both HIFK and HJK. The teams played out a 1-1 draw and they met twice more this season, twice more in front of 10,000 fans and twice more, bizarrely, a 1-1 draw.
Maybe its a coincidence that HJK’s worst season since 2008 has occurred at the same time as HIFK’s first season back in Veikkausliiga. Maybe its not, but HIFK have definitely played their part. After 16 games this season, HJK were seven points clear and cruising at the top of the table, having only lost 1 game. What followed was a spectacularly bad run of form which has maybe cost them their 7th consecutive title. In a spell that lasted 13 games, which included the entire months of July, August and September, HJK only picked up 11 points and won only 2 games. Those games included two defeats to RoPS, a single defeat to SJK and two Stadin derby draws. Perhaps the intensity of the derbies took its toll.
It is important to stress that HJK are still in contention of winning a 7th consecutive Veikkausliiga, although they have the hardest challange of all three contenders. On Sunday HJK face KuPS Kuopio, who are currently 8th and have nothing to play for, knowing that only a win can keep them in contention. They then need SJK to lose to Jaro and they need to hope that RoPS fail to win against FC Lahti. It’s an extremely unlikely scenario but one that would taste extra sweet to HJK and no doubt one that they would take great pleasure in reminding their rivals of. HIFK meanwhile, look set to finish 7th in a respectable debut season. Perhaps next year they can challenge HJK, SJK and RoPS and compete for their first ever Veikkausliiga.
Update – SJK are Veikkausliiga champions!
After a 2-0 win over Jaro SJK were crowned champions. They started their title decider in the best possible way as Mehmet Hetemaj opened the scoring after only two minutes but the tension grew as SJK failed to extend their lead. With both RoPS and HJK winning their matches, SJK knew that a Jaro goal would cost them the lead so when Finnish striker Roope Riski doubled their advantage in the final minute of the match, the party could begin.
Congratulations SJK! Champions for the first time in their history.