Helsinki: A tale of one city

‘ABSENSE make the heart grow fonder’

Helsinki’s Stadin derby is unique almost because of its scarcity. In over 100 years, Helsinki’s two biggest teams Idrottsföreningen Kamraterna i Helsingfors and Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi, also known as HIFK and HJK, have only played each other 68 times. Despite this, the Stadin derby is the fiercest football match in Finland and is a fixture that both sets of fans eagerly anticipate.

HJK are Finland’s biggest and most successful club and have won the Finnish top division 28 times, more than any other team. ‘It’s like in Germany with the biggest club, Bayern Munich’ explains Mikael, a member of HIFK fan group Stadin Kingit, ‘you either love them or you hate them.’

HIFK definitely hate them. They are older, just, but aren’t nearly as successful and have only won seven Finnish championships. HIFK also haven’t beaten them for over 40 years. But to be fair to them, they have only played them in the league three times in the last 43 years. This includes a period of 43 years, from 1972 to 2015, where there wasn’t a single Stadin derby. After all that time it might have been expected for the rivalry to fizzle out but it hasn’t and the hatred between the two clubs is still as strong.

For a rivalry to last so long must mean that the roots beneath the hatred must run deep. HIFK are the oldest club in Finland and were founded in 1897. Originally they specialised in other sports, such as ice hockey and bandy, and the club did not establish their own specialist football team until 1907, the same year the Finnish FA was founded. HJK were established in the same year and specialised in football from the start. The first game between the teams was not until 1909, however, with HIFK winning 7-0.

The main difference which immediately created a rift between HIFK and HJK was language. In the early 20th century Swedish was the official language of Finland and had been so ever since the middle ages. Swedish was used by the government as the language of administration, was spoken by university professors and also used across high culture. Finnish, however, remained the language that was spoken by the majority, especially amongst the poorest.

HIFK was a strictly Swedish speaking club in its earlier years and was mainly supported by Helsinki’s Swedish speaking middle class and Swedish speaking students. For the first year of its existence, HJK was Swedish speaking as well. Except in 1908 the club held a vote and decided to switch its language to Finnish. This resulted in a number of Swedish players moving from HJK to HIFK.

In 1909 HJK again made a decision which would define its identity for decades to come. In order to support the growing Fennoman movement, Finnish nationalism, HJK changed the colour of its strip to blue and white. The Fennoman movement and the rise of Finnish nationalism came about after centuries of Swedish or Russian rule. The Swedes had conceded ownership of Finland to Russian after the Finnish War in 1809. After that, Finland became a grand duchy within Russia.

Despite being owned by other countries, Fennomans tried to keep Finnish culture and language alive. On the other side, Svecomans fought to keep defend the identity, language and status of Swedish and to retain its ties to the Germanic world. In Helsinki, Fennomans and Svecomans were split. In order to express this division they both supported different football teams, with Fennomans supporting the Finnish speaking HJK and Svecomans supporting the Swedish speaking HIFK.

HJK were the first team to win the national championship in 1911 and they defended their title to win again in 1912. HJK were immediately more successful than their rivals HIFK who came closest to their first championship when they finished runners up in 1909 and in 1912.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 triggered the chain of events which would lead to Finland’s independence. Finland was no longer part of the Russian Empire but became its own independent nation, after a brief but bitter civil war, in 1918.

In 1919, the new Finnish government deemed that the languages of Swedish and Finnish were equal and that Swedish would no longer be the unilingual language used by the state. The ruling would prove significant and within a generation the Finnish language dominated government and society. The rivalry between HJK and HIFK is no longer about language, even though it is the root cause of the hatred, but the national switch from Swedish to Finnish undoubtedly benefitted the Finnish speaking club, HJK, establish its dominance over Finnish football.

Football in Finland continued during the civil war as normal, even though representatives from both sides were involved – two club officials from HJK died fighting for the pro independence whites. During the war HJK were busy winning three consecutive championships. The club were establishing themselves as the best in Helsinki and in Finland. In the new age of Finnish independence, HJK represented exactly that. They spoke Finnish and they wore blue and white – the colours of the new national flag.

HJK would win two more championships in 1923 and 1925 but when the championship changed to league format in 1930 there was an evident power shift.

In the first year of the new championship, titled the Mestaruussarja, HIFK became champions. They won again a year later in 1931 and would win twice more in 1933 and 1937. HIFK have only won the Finnish championship seven times, and with four of those championships arriving in the 1930s it can only be described as a golden decade in HIFK’s history.

There wasn’t a championship in 1943 because of the Second World War but when the championship resumed in 1944 it signalled the start of a barren run for HJK. Their last title before the war was in 1938 but their next would not arrive until 1964. During that time HJK even spent time in the 2nd division, in total spending 5 seasons out of the Mestaruussarja after relegations in 1944, 1949 and 1962.

HIFK themselves spent seven consecutive seasons out of the Mestaruussarja in the 1950s after relegation in 1949. They did not come back until 1958 but would win championships in 1959 and again in 1961. Little did the players and fans know that when HIFK were celebrating their 7th Mestaruussarja that it would be their last championship to date.

                     * * *

 HJK returned to win their first Mestaruussarja in 28 years in 1964 after only being promoted back to the top flight in 1963. HJK have remained there ever since. HIFK on the other hand were on a downward slide. After several mid table finishes and even relegation in the mid 1960s, HIFK came back to the top flight to finish 3rd and 2nd in 1970 and 1971 respectively. But after relegation in the next season in 1972 there would be no way back for HIFK.

Throughout the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 00s, HIFK, the oldest football club in Finland, wandered hopelessly around the second, third, fourth and even fifth tiers of Finnish football. It was a dramatic fall from grace for the seven time champions. The 1980s in particular were a dark time in the club’s history with HIFK spending four seasons in the fifth tier from 1980 to 1983 and four seasons in the four tier from 1984 to 1987.

Meanwhile, HJK were regularly winning championships and were even competing in Europe. In 1982, whilst their rivals were languishing in the fifth tier, HJK welcomed Liverpool in the second round of the European Cup. Liverpool, managed by Bob Paisley, fielded a strong side including Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Ian Rush and Alan Hansen. But when HJK’s Atik Ismali scored the only goal of the game the home side secured a famous victory over the then three time European champions. Liverpool won the return leg 5-0, however, but the result that HJK recorded at home remains their greatest ever.

HJK would make an impact in Europe again when they qualified for the group stages of the Champions League in 1998. They remain the only Finnish side to have ever made it that far in the competition. HJK were allowed to play in the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki in order to increase their capacity and allow more fans to watch the games. Although HJK finished bottom of their group – behind Kaiserslautern, PSV Eindhoven and Benfica – at one point it looked as if they could qualify for the quarter-finals.

After four games HJK had won five points thanks to a 0-0 home draw with Kaiserslautern and a 2-0 home victory and 2-2 away draw against Portuguese giants Benfica. Going into match day five, HJK were ahead of both Benfica and PSV. The excitement surrounding the team attracted over 35,000 spectators to HJK’s home match against PSV but a hat-trick from Ruud van Nistelrooy crushed their hopes as the Dutch side won 3-1.

As their rivals revelled in the national limelight, HIFK were spending their 11th consecutive year in the Kakkoren, Finland’s third tier. But after working their way up to the newly titled Ykkönen, the second tier, in 1999, HIFK were, like a game of snakes and ladders, about to slip back down. In 2002 the clubs finances became overstretched and as punishment HIFK were sent back down to the fifth tier.

At the turn of the millennium a new team from Helsinki had entered Finland’s top flight, but it wasn’t HIFK. FC Jokerit’s emergence into the newly branded Finnish championship, now called the Veikkausliiga, meant that for the first time since HIFK’s relegation from the top flight in 1972 Helsinki had a top flight derby match.

FC Jokerit’s time in the Veikkausliiga was short but memorable. They were only founded in 1999 – as an extension of one of Finland’s most successful ice hockey teams Jokerit. The club were owned by Finnish businessman, politician and star of Finland’s version of The Apprentice Harry Harkimo. FC Jokerit were known for their wild supporters; the 116% boys and for a while clashes between the two teams added some spice to the Veikkausliiga. But that all changed in 2004 when HJK purchased FC Jokerit, renamed them Klubi-04 and turned them into their reserve team.

In one fowl swoop HJK had eliminated both the competition and the rivalry in Helsinki. A few years later in 2009 HJK embarked on a record breaking run which would last for six seasons. From 2009 to 2014, HJK won six consecutive Veikkausliigas. When the league format changed from 26 to 33 games in 2011, HJK won 81 points and finished the season 24 points ahead of the second placed side.

Perhaps in 2011 HJK were boosted by the return of former player, Champions League winner and Finnish legend Jari Litmanen. The nine time Finnish player of the year had last played for HJK in 1991 but returned 20 years later at the age of 40 for his final spell in professional football. Litmanen made 18 appearances in 2011, mostly from the bench, and scored only one goal – the opener in the 2011 Finnish cup final. Litmanen retired after HJK won the Veikkausliiga to secure the double.

* * *

 After Litmanen retired, Finnish football was in danger of becoming stale. Not only that, Finnish sport was in danger of becoming stale. Although football is the most played sport in Finland, ice hockey is often the most supported. This is mainly because the Finnish national team, unlike in football, is one of the best in the world and they have won medals at numerous major tournaments including the World Championships and the Winter Olympics. HIFK have one of the best ice hockey teams in Finland and most recently won the Finnish championship in 2011. They also shared a fierce rivalry with Jokerit. At least in the long term absence of the Stadin derby, Finnish sports fans had several games between Helsinki’s two leading ice hockey teams to look forward to.

Except in 2013 it was announced that even that would change. Harry Harkimo revealed plans for Jokerit to leave the Finnish Liiga and join the Kontinental Hockey League – a European super league based in Russia. This was seen as a disaster for Finnish sport as it left the country’s capital without a single derby match of any kind.

Helsinki, as a city, needed a miracle. But in 2014 they got one. Under the management of Jani Honkavaara, who was in his second spell with the club, HIFK secured promotion back to Ykkönen and almost a year later he had the club on the brink of a return to the Veikkausliiga. With one game left in the season, HIFK were two points behind Kotkan Työväen Palloilijat, KTP, but had a far superior goal difference. HIFK did all they could by defeating FC Jazz 4-0 in their final league game. All they had to do was hope that KTP failed to win. When the news came through that KTP had drawn 0-0 it was confirmed that HIFK were returning to the top flight of Finnish football for the first time in 42 years.

The news was not only celebrated by HIFK fans and players but by the whole of Finland. Finally, the oldest football club in Finland had returned to the big time and with them came the return of the Stadin derby – the first match between HIFK and HJK since 1972. Even HJK fans were pleased.

There remained a problem, however. After such a quick rise to the Veikkausliiga it was clear that HIJK needed more money in order to compete. So, as a fundraising scheme the club allowed supporters to buy shares. Supporters could be a part of HIFK whilst contributing to the success of the team. The club aimed to raise 250,000€ by selling shares at 180€ a piece. By January 2015, HIFK announced that the crowdfunding campaign had been a major success and that 335,000€ had been raised by supporters.

Ahead of the new 2015 Veikkausliiga campaign, HIFK received another bonus when it was revealed that they would be sharing the Sonera Stadium with rivals HJK. The stadium, which lies in the shadows of Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium, was built and opened in 2000 and had been occupied by HJK ever since. The Sonera Stadium was modern, had a capacity of just over 10,000 and was exactly what HIFK needed in order to re-establish themselves as a big club.

On 23rd April 2015, and for the first time since 1972, HJK and HIFK played each other at a game of football. It was only HIFK’s second game back in the Veikkausliiga, having drawn 1-1 with IFK Mariehamn, and their first match in their new home. HIFK were the home team and sold out the Sonera Stadium as fans flocked to watch the first Stadin derby in a generation.

The reigning champions HJK got off to the best possible start when striker Mike Havanaar lobbed the keeper to open the scoring after only four minutes. But HIFK rallied and equalised 20 minutes later thanks to a Joni Korhonen penalty. The partisan home crowd urged for a winner but it never arrived. The match finished 1-1.

Bizarrely, during the 2015 Veikkausliiga season there would be two more Stadin derbies, both in front of a sell out, 10,000 strong, crowd, but both would again finish 1-1. The closest either side came to a victory was during the 2nd derby. With time running out and HJK a goal up, HIFK’s Tommi Vesala, who also works as a dentist, volleyed in the equaliser in front of the ecstatic away fans denying HJK three points and, more importantly, the bragging rights.

Despite all of this, perhaps it was the side’s third meeting that was the most significant. HJK were the home team once again and went into the game on top of the table, comfortably on the way to their seventh consecutive championship. Again, HJK took the lead but for HIFK to level later on. It was what followed that was most significant, however. In HJK’s next seven league games they would fail to win any, drawing three and losing four. At a crucial time in the season HJK had dropped from 1st to 4th and only had four games in which to recover.

HJK won all of those four games but could only finish 3rd, two points behind champions SJK. HJK’s streak of six consecutive league titles was over and the Veikkausliiga had a new champion for the first time since 2008. SJK finished the season as champions with 60 points from 33 games, a relatively low points tally for a winning team. In the four seasons previously, HJK had won the league with 81, 64, 73, and 72 points and it is hard to argue that HJK would have won the league again in 2015 if they performed as well as they had in previous years.

Something was different. Something had changed. Maybe its a coincidence that HJK’s worst season since 2008 had occurred at the same time as HIFK’s first season back in Veikkausliiga. Maybe its not, but HIFK had definitely played their part. Perhaps the intensity of the Stadin derbies took its toll on HJK, in a way that matches in the Veikkausliiga had never effected them before.

* * *

 As 2015 moved into 2016, both Helsinki sides were drawn together in the Finnish Cup, Finland’s only other domestic competition. As the cup takes place before the start of the Veikkausliiga it is seen as more of a pre-season tournament. In Finland winter runs from November until March, and because the majority of games in the Finnish Cup are played in January and February, in average temperatures of -4c, most of the matches are played indoors.

This means that attendances are reduced dramatically. Out of the 10,000 fans who attended the Stadin derby in July at the Sonera Stadium only 1,000 could get entry into the indoor pitch where February’s cup tie was played. In general, the match just wasn’t as big or as important as normal, but it was still a Stadin derby and both sets of fans have been starved of them in recent years. 1,000 fans is still a huge attendance for a Finnish cup group stage match.

Those who were there on 9th February witnessed a cracker. With ten minutes to go HIFK were 3-1 up and were so close to their first victory over their neighbours in a generation. But HJK replied in style, scoring twice in the last 10 minutes to level the match. The fourth ‘modern era’ Stadin derby had produced its fourth draw. But if this game was anything to go by, Finnish football fans are in for a treat this season. Perhaps this year HIFK can challenge HJK to win their first Finnish championship in 55 years. The new Veikkausliiga season kicks off on 2nd April with the first Stadin derby of the season taking place on 26th May.

Football in Helsinki has not been the same without the Stadin derby. Even as HJK competed in the Champions League or when they won six titles in a row, it wasn’t the same without HIFK. Both teams simultaneously hate and need each other. Helsinki and Finland need them too, together and fighting in the Veikkausliiga.

“This is the best thing to happen to Finnish football since HJK played in the Champions League” says Finnish journalist Topias Kauhala. For HJK fans, derbies with HIFK have always been more important than titles or cups. Now, a new generation of Finnish football fans can actually see the Stadin derby on the pitch after years of hearing the tales and singing the songs of yesteryear.

The Stadin derby is back and this time football fans in Helsinki hope that it’s for good.

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