KuPS 1-2 HJK after extra time; 90 minute score 0-0.
Whoever said the King is dead? Helsingin Jalkopalloklubi won their 11th Finnish Cup on Saturday thanks in no small part to a wonderful strike by Jari Litmanen, still going strong at the age of 40.
Earlier in the day, FC Sport of Vaasa had beaten Turun Weikot in the women’s mini-final, contested by the best performing lower division clubs in the cup tournament. Following that, PK-35 of Vantaa beat Ilves in the women’s cup final proper, a match I managed to catch the second half of – you can read my thoughts on it at the end of this article. SJK denied PK-35 two victories in a row by thrashing their reserve team in the men’s mini-final 7-0, the match concluding just in time for the main event, HJK against KuPS.
The Kuopion Palloseura fans had arrived in force, taking up one end of HJK’s home Sonera Stadium and impressively making the lion’s share of the noise both before and after kick-off, despite being outnumbered. Their team was forced into a change after just two minutes, with Joni Nissinen picking up an injury on the half-way line from a seemingly innocuous challenge. He was replaced by Atte Hoivala. KuPS created the first chance of the game shortly afterwards, though, with Dickson Nwakaeme off-target. Mikko Ilo only just missed the goal with a chip over the goalkeeper from a difficult angle after five minutes as KuPS continued their bright start.
Around ten minutes into the match, both sets of supporters engaged in a lengthy call-and-response criticism of the Finnish Football Association, which went “Palloliitto – kulttuurin tappaja”, meaning “Football association, [supporter] culture’s murderer”. They had also brought numerous banners into the stands, as well as a couple of loud flares, and were vocally critical of the FA throughout the match. The perception is that the FA fines clubs arbitrary amounts for things not in their control, while its executives receive bonus payments off the receipts (I’m quite sure that’s untrue), and that they can choose to punish clubs like Tampere United, forced out of existence before this season began, at their discretion without any clear set of rules (that part does seem to be true).
HJK had their first real chance after 17 minutes, with their left winger Erfan Zeneli hitting the bar from just outside the area. He had an excellent game, getting involved in all of HJK’s forward play and also winning free kicks all over the pitch as the KuPS players couldn’t match his technical ability and had to resort to fowling him. He could have scored more than once in the first half: he hit the bar with another shot after winning the ball from a KuPS defender, one of his free kicks went close, and he forced a good save from KuPS keeper Mikko Vilmunen around the half-hour mark.
KuPS weren’t able to get the ball out of their half for a long period, but eventually created a chance with Nwakaeme passing to Alain Bono on the corner of the area. Bono seemed to dive, looking for a penalty, just as he lost control of the ball and it went out of play, but the referee Jouni Hyytiä just told him to get up. The match was 0-0 at half-time but pre-match favourites HJK looked in control.
The Helsinki-based team continued to press at the start of the second half, with towering striker Berat Sadik having the best chance of the opening exchanges. The match entered something of a lull after that, with KuPS content to defend deep and play direct to their wingers when they got the chance. Their right-winger, Juho Nykänen, must have run the furthest of all the players on the pitch over the course of the match, but his effort was frequently in vain as his team’s long balls went over his head and more often than not, out of play.
Only one thing sparked the crowd into life: the introduction of Jari Litmanen, as a substitute for the ineffective Akseli Pelvas, after 80 minutes. Even some of the KuPS fans were applauding the man who was once Finland’s greatest ever football player. Sadly it wasn’t enough to immediately spark the other players into life, with only one real chance being created before the end of normal time, another shot from Berat Sadik, as both teams seemed content to take the match into extra time.
The first half of extra time was pretty dull too, with no really notable incident. Both of the wingers who had impressed me – Zeneli and Nykänen – were substituted by their respective managers after presumably running out of energy. It was only after 105 minutes that the match got really exciting. It was a shame that, after a promising first half, it took so long to get there, but ask any of the 5000+ fans in the stadium and I’m sure they’d say it was worth the wait.
In the 108th minute, a high ball from Rami Hakanpää, another player to have impressed me with his solid play in central defence, was won in the air by the 1.93m Berat Sadik. It fell towards Jari Litmanen, playing in a second striker’s role, on the edge of the penalty area. After one bounce, he controlled the ball with his thighs and struck a sweet volley (or whatever you want to call it) that flew into the far corner of the KuPS net, surprising the goalkeeper Vilmunen whose dive was in vain. 19 years after his only other appearance and goal in the Finnish Cup final, the King did it again. Every time I think he is about to retire, he pulls something like that out of the bag. If you remember him playing at the top of his game for Ajax in the mid-nineties, you might enjoy the nostalgia of watching a video of his latest goal. That video also has the other goals from the match.
KuPS pushed forwards, as they had to, looking for an equaliser that would take the match to penalties, but they paid the price for it. Eight minutes after Litmanen’s goal, the precocious Alexander Ring slotted the ball between Vilmunen’s legs for HJK’s second goal, after being fed by Berat Sadik once more. Ring signed a contract extension with HJK after the match, and they will want to keep hold of him for as long as possible, as he is clearly a very promising player who has already played three times for the senior national team at the age of 20. In a way, one could think of him as being a new model of Litmanen; they play in almost the same position, they combined very nicely on Saturday after Litmanen had come on, and Ring is exactly half Litmanen’s age. I’m not saying he will go on to achieve the same things as Litmanen, but he will almost certainly be an integral part of Finland’s team in the future.
KuPS rallied after going 2-0 down and grabbed one goal back right on the end of the 120 minutes, Markus Joenmäki controlling a cross well and poking past Ville Wállen, in goal for HJK. There was only one extra minute to be played, however, and it wasn’t enough time to find an equaliser, despite KuPS winning a corner and throwing all eleven of their players, Vilmunen included, into the penalty area. At the final whistle, HJK had won 2-1 and were the new Finnish Cup holders, after coming second last year. As part of their celebrations, they passed the trophy into the fans in the home terrace, which was a nice touch as those fans had had to put up with half a dozen security guards surrounding them for the whole match.
As well as Litmanen, another person in the headlines after the match was Antti Muurinen, the former Finland national team coach. He is on course to win his first league and cup double as a manager, with HJK about as close to winning the Finnish league as Sebastian Vettel is to winning the Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship. He also signed a contract extension after the cup win. He is a very successful manager in Finland, but I wonder whether he will go abroad at any stage of his career? His reputation may be tarnished from his time as head of the national team, when he had Finland’s best ever generation of players (Litmanen and Sami Hyypiä, most famously, but also players like Joonas Kolkka, Hannu Tihinen, Jonatan Johansson and Antti Niemi), but couldn’t manage to qualify for any tournaments and eventually lost the faith of Finnish supporters. At the age of 57, his managerial career is far from over, and I wouldn’t rule out him returning to the national team at some point in the future.
As promised, my thoughts on the women’s cup final, which finished PK-35 2-0 Ilves. I had no expectations of what the match was going to be like when I arrived at the ground in time for the second half, and I was excited to see my first live women’s football match. It was 1-0 at that time, and the scoreboard statistics showed that the team from Vantaa had had 9 shots on target, their opponents none. The second half followed a similar pattern, with PK-35 easily the stronger team. Their lead allowed them to be casual, however, and the match sunk to a very low standard after about sixty minutes. Both teams tended to just clear the ball upfield whenever possible, without checking to see if a player was there. The players were fine technically – certainly much better than I have ever been – but seemed to lack vision and awareness on the ball, which was frustrating. For the last fifteen minutes, I started counting how many passes either team could put together. The record was nine, but that included two backpasses; the record without involving the goalkeeper was three passes without giving the ball away, which was extremely poor. The goalkeepers were no better; one looked very unfit and the other, having come on as a substitute, spilled a regulation shot that allowed PK-35 to score their second goal right at the end.
I don’t want to sound like I’m having a go at the players – I know they work very hard and receive virtually no pay or media coverage – but I was just a little disappointed. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, given that even the men’s game is something of a minority sport in this country. Only a few hundred fans bothered to turn up to the women’s final despite having tickets for it automatically, as it was bundled with the men’s final ticket. The situation for the women’s game is an even more extreme version of the causal loop that the men’s game faces: poor quality play means fans aren’t interested, which in turn means less revenue for the clubs, which means less money to spend on developing higher-quality players. Attending the match was an interesting experience though, and I’d be happy to go again next year.
I’ll be taking a short break from blogging to concentrate on an important school exam which is coming up this week. Look out for a round-up of the week’s stories at the weekend.