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Football defies the odds in Finland

Published: Tuesday 5 January 2010, 9.59CET
The game in Finland has developed to the point where it is the country's favourite sport.
Football defies the odds in Finland
Finland's most notable early successes were beating Italy and Russia in the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912 ©Bob Thomas/Getty Images
Published: Tuesday 5 January 2010, 9.59CET

Football defies the odds in Finland

The game in Finland has developed to the point where it is the country's favourite sport.

Football arrived in Finland in the 1890s through the influence of British sailors, merchants and businessmen. The game caught on fast in teacher training colleges, notably so in the town of Sortavala. The country's first football clubs were established at the turn of the century after the rules of the game had been translated from Swedish – underlining the strong links between the Nordic neighbours. In 1905 an unofficial championship was held.

Finnish football looked outwards from the start, and the capital city Helsinki staged the first ever international fixture, between Unitas Helsinki and Sport St Petersburg, in 1906; the Russian visitors won 3-0. At the time the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland belonged to the Russian Empire, having been part of Sweden historically.

The Football Association of Finland (Suomen Palloliitto – Finlands Bollförbund or SPL-FBF) was founded in Helsinki in 1907 by representatives from six clubs. A total of 15 clubs were up and running by then, and the following year the SPL-FBF was admitted to FIFA.

In the years leading up to Finland's declaration of independence in 1917, sports, though not necessarily football, filled an important role in national life. Given many Finns' rural existence, individual sports dominated: skiing and skating in wintertime, track and field in the summer. Even when the country's footballers beat Italy and Russia at the Stockholm Olympics of 1912, their achievements were overshadowed by track and field gold medals.

One milestone in the game's advancement was the national team's debut in a 5-2 defeat by Sweden in Helsinki in 1911, with Sweden at the vanguard of visiting foreign sides. However, football's progress was set back considerably by the civil war of 1918. Any clubs associated with the losing side of the conflict were promptly expelled from the sports movement until the 1950s.

When the SPL-FBF finally welcomed all teams under its authority, the number of licensed players increased and football soon became the biggest sport in the country. Eventually, the SPL-FBF was granted the status of a central sports organisation and was duly subsidised by the government. Nevertheless, football and its relatively inexperienced administrators still had some catching-up to do when compared with the nation's more traditional sports.

The often harsh climatic conditions hardly lent themselves to soccer, so the building of football halls with full-size pitches from the late 1970s came as a huge boost. The widespread availability of these improved facilities was the cue for Finland to begin exporting its best footballers, with Aulis Rytkönen, Jussi Peltonen, Arto Tolsa, Jari Litmanen, Sami Hyypiä and Mikael Forssell among the talents that moved abroad. The resulting exposure to tougher competition served to strengthen the national side and, as a consequence, enhance the game's standing at home – though the wait for that elusive first major tournament participation goes on.

When the SPL-FBF hosted the UEFA European Women's Championship in 2009, it was a measure both of the association's own maturity and of the rapid progress made by the female game over the preceding decade. The number of women or girls playing football had grown by 10% annually, giving Finland more than 25,000 registered female footballers come 2010. The success of the Finnish women's squad under coach Michael Käld had been a significant factor in this development. Although the team advanced no further than the quarter-finals at UEFA WOMEN'S EURO 2009, the nation's first attempt at staging a major football championship proved an undoubted highlight of its soccer history.

Last updated: 11/05/14 6.18CET

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