History was made last Sunday on the Aland Islands as IFK Mariehamn, the island’s biggest team, won the Finnish championship for the first time in their 97 year history.
It is the first time that a team from the disputed islands has won the league. Aland lies closer to Sweden than it does to Finland, it is autonomous, demilitarised and entirely Swedish speaking. Despite this, the region belongs to Finland and its three football teams, IFK Mariehamn, Aland United and Jomla JIK all play in different levels of the Finnish football pyramid.
The Aland Islands are also Finland’s smallest region. Mariehamn, the island’s biggest town, has a population of only 11,000 people. Helsinki, Finland’s capital, boasts a population of over 100 times that. IFK’s championship win is perhaps one of the biggest things to have happened to Aland and its people. Symbolically, Mariehamn’s title represents a victory over the country that owns them.
“It’s been a bit crazy”, explains IFK Mariehamn’s Scottish goalkeeper Craig Wight. “When I’d won league titles in the past we celebrated for a couple of days and then it died down. But here, well there’s been stuff going on every single day. The club had arranged the Player of the Year awards for after the match, regardless of whether we won the league on Sunday or not. Obviously, we won and it was complete mayhem. We ended up in a nightclub with the league title and everyone wanted a photo with you and the trophy.
“The next day we were all a bit rough but we had to go on a parade of the town. It finished in the town square, where there was a big celebration. Two or three thousand people were there. We had a presentation on the stage where every player got paraded on and got a cheer. Since then it has just continued and those that understand how big this is for the town have been out every night.
“I was in the local store buying some food and, let’s not lie, some more beer for the celebrations, and people I’d never met before were coming up to me, shaking my hand and saying well done, congratulations on the league title. This is great for the Aland Islands and brilliant for everybody.”
Mariehamn won the league by three points. At one stage, with three games to go, the top four teams in the league were only separated by four points. Anyone could have won but Mariehamn did and did so with the Veikkausliiga’s best defence. In 33 league games, the side only conceded 25 goals and managed to keep 17 clean sheets in the process.
“There was a lot of work done during preseason on shape, especially when we lost possession”, explains Wight, whose former clubs in Scotland include Arbroath, East Fife and Livingston. “Our manager, Peter Lundburg, was very good. He sat all the players down and explained what was expected of them in this system. Nothing was left to chance. He gave us six paged, doubled-sided, hand outs of power points specific to each player’s position. It was then just about applying all of those principles to the game model.
“Everyone wants to play like Barcelona or Bayern Munich but that’s not always possible. Iceland got a lot of stick during the Euros for parking the bus, but it takes a lot of skill, teamwork and effort to be that disciplined.
“That’s what we’ve done the entire year, we’ve been good defensively. If we don’t lose a goal we’ve got a chance to win. That’s not to say that we don’t play good attractive football, but we play it very smart.We build it up to a point until we’ve got them pinned in their final third and then we can play what we call established attacking where we’ve got players and movement all over the park, but in a way that allows us to get back into shape when we lose the ball.”
Wight agreed to join Mariehamn in January as backup to the then injured Mark Nordvest. The 38 year-old, who was already living in the Aland island and working as a goalkeeping coach with Aland United’s ladies team, believed that he saw signs during his first few days at the club that they were capable of challenging for the league title, despite finishing 6th the year before.
“We already had a very good defensive unit, so it was just taking that and building on it. To a man, everyone bought into what we wanted to do straight away and early on there were signs that we were going to be tough to score goals against. Anyone that knows anything about football knows that if you aren’t conceding goals then you’re always going to have chances to win games. In our forward line we had a good mix of strong players that like to hold the ball up so it gave us a good platform and an opportunity.
“In terms of believing that we could win the league, however, I don’t think that anyone really did. We joked about it, saying that this is how Italy have won World Cups, but I don’t think we really thought about winning the league. That was until we played VPS away in Vasa. When we came back from the game we had a team day out, like a typical Scottish team’s day out, where we all went and got drunk. We had a whole day of water sports and later we sang karaoke and got really drunk but at that point we were still top the league, by several points as well. I think that’s when everyone realised that we had a chance.”
Wight explains that one of the biggest differences between Mariehamn and the teams that he played for in Scotland has been the team spirit. “In Scotland in the dressing room everyone would just come in in the morning, say hi and sit down. That was it. But here, when you come in everyone shakes everyone’s hand. There’s a lot of personal contact. Everyone gets along and there’s a good team spirit.
“Even though there are still your smaller groups withing the dressing room, the Finnish speakers, the Swedish speakers, the English speakers, the Africans, we are still one big group which I think it is a testament to the work of the coaching staff. We’re always together, we all support each other, we all go out for dinners together, go out drinking together, socialise together.
“In our team we also have a really good mix of solid experience and good quality young players. Where I sit in the dressing room for example, I’ve got 34 year old Bobby Friburg on one side and little Brazilian Diego Assis on the other. Bobby’s a very quiet guy but when he has something to say he’s got something to say. Diego on the other side is always singing songs in Portuguese. He’s a positive influence and a fantastic little footballer.”
Both Friburg and Assis scored in Mariehamn’s 2-1 win on Sunday. Friburg opened the scoring, in what was his first goal for the club, within the first minute and Assis, with the game level at 1-1, scored the winner late on to secure the win that confirmed Mariehamn’s title.
Mariehamn’s success means that 27 time champions HJK Helsinki have failed to win the Finnish Veikkausliiga crown for the second consecutive season. For years, HJK dominated Finnish football and won six consecutive titles from 2009 to 2014, winning the league by 24 points in 2011.
“HJK are the richest and biggest team in the country”, explains Wight. “The problem for them is that they’ve spent money on the players that in our league would be classified as superstars, ex Ac Milan and Portsmouth defender Taye Taiwo for example. They have a lot good players but they don’t fit well or function as a team. When they click as individuals it works really well and they win games but when one or two fracture, it takes away from what the team wants to do.
“We won the championship through hard work and by being a good team. By knowing our strengths and knowing what to do. Hopefully that’ll continue.”
IFK Mariehamn’s reward for winning the Veikkausliiga is a place in next season’s Champions League.
“That fact that we’ll be playing in the Champions League hasn’t sunk in with anyone yet. We can’t really put it into words. I was texting my mate and we just kept sending each other YouTube videos of the Champions League anthem.”
Finland’s football calendar means that Mariehamn won’t get a taste of Champions League action for another eight months. By then, they will already be halfway through next season.
“I’ll be 39 by the time we eventually play in the CL”, says Wight. “You’re sitting back thinking, ‘I’m 39, I’ve retired twice, when I turned up on the island I had no plans on playing and now I’m the backup keeper at a team that has just won the league title and that will be in the Champions League’. so it’s a little bit surreal.
“My nephew is just getting into football and has decided that he wants to be a goalkeeper. His idol is Italian goalkeeping legend Gianluigi Buffon, so he is now convinced that we’re going to play Juventus!”
* * *
Massive thanks to Craig Wight for talking to me about IFK Mariehamn. You can follow him on Twitter, here @Thebigcraigey
There will be an in-depth interview with Wight about his career published on The Football’s on Again later in the week, so stayed tuned!
* * *