Soccernet recently asked me to write something about Finland’s new TV deal, specifically in relation to the bonuses for fielding fewer foreigners and the potential implications if this were applied in different leagues, but I haven’t yet gotten around to it.
Partly because I just started a new job and am pretty busy at the moment, partly due to general laziness and interest in the conclusions to ‘European’ seasons, but also partly because the more I think about it, the more I realise that Finnish football is fundamentally different to football in most other countries, and for the implications to be understood then the differences and similarities need to be fleshed out a little more. This is a better forum in which to do that (ie, Soccernet’s readers would be bored shitless reading this, as indeed you might be too).
The formula rewarding clubs for playing Finnish passport holders has received a very positive response in Finland, partly because of the large number of Africans playing for RoPS last season. That was not a sustainable or beneficial arrangement for the club involved or Finnish football in general, but I believe that the nationality of the players had little to do with it, and that other factors are much more important. In most countries the argument is that foreigners are stopping good young players getting playing time, whereas in Finland, the main problem is that elite footballers have it too easy for too long. If anything, there is too little foreign influence in Finnish football, rather than too much.
In their recent econometric analysis of football, ‘Why England lose‘, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argued that over the last 30 years top-level football tactics and styles have converged. The development of a European style coincided with the establishment of the European Economic Community, and the movement of players between the core members of that community – Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux countries. As this process has accelerated following the Bosman ruling, the style of play has become fast, fluid, involves a lot of passing and not so much dribbling, and relies on players with similar attributes following tactical instructions that will nullify the opposition.
Kuper and Szymanski argue that this has led to ‘EEC’ coaches like Otto Rehagel, Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat bringing this brand of football to new clubs and countries, maximising their resources, and achieving success. In South Korea this was combined with improved nutrition in Korean children, which in turn made those of them that became footballers bigger and stronger. There was also, crucially, a confrontation with the senior members of the South Korean squad, in which Hiddink dropped the captain and forced the group to pull together and act as more of a team, with less deference for the older players.
Finland is a long way from implementing EEC football. There are coaches that could do it, like Job Dragtsma and Mika Lehkosuo, but the players are not yet up to the task. Robert Laul recently commented on his blog that the large numbers of Finns who have moved to Allsvenskan have mostly disappointed, with only Kasper Hämäläinen and Roni Porokara really adding a lot to their teams. The rest are just slightly cheaper than the local alternatives, and not really good enough for a league that isn’t all that much better than Veikkausliiga.
So there is something wrong with Finnish youth development. There are many things wrong with Finnish youth development. But it is a fallacy to suggest that foreign players making it difficult for youngsters is even a very small element of the problem. If anything, it is far too easy for Finnish players, or at least for the ones that end up playing Veikkausliiga football.
When Finnish footballers are 12 or 13, they are paying a huge amount of money for the privilege of kicking a ball around. Many Finns look at this as fair enough, a reasonable price to pay for branded sportswear, foreign trips, coaching and all the rest of it. If football is to be a creative and fun form of childcare, then they are absolutely right – several thousand pounds a year is a fair price to pay. Helsinki football magazine 90 Minutes did a comparison of different clubs, and showed that HJK – the elite team for juniors in Finland – charge kids €2,500 per year. So how does this compare internationally?
“Each player at our Club pays a donation of £19.20 per month for 10 months (£192),” says Marc Jarvis of Wallsend Boys Club. “If the player chooses to pay the full amount at the beginning of the season then a discount is given which means the player will only pay £180.”
This is the club that produced Steve Bruce, Alan Shearer, Michael Carrick, Peter Beardsley and many more professional footballers. I could not find a British club that charges more than £250 per year, or one that would not reduce even those charges if a family asked. The lowest cost was at a village team in Anglesey, which asked parents to contribute just £20 per year. No professional club charged any of the players in their academies anything.
Not every Finnish player has to pay the full price, of course. Very talented poor kids can, if they ask, get the fees waived by helpful administrators, but this is an extremely ad hoc system and it works against late developers (players who are not world beaters at 15 but could improve a lot if given elite training).
It also lowers the general level of the academy and elite training squads, by removing the players who might not make it but are slightly better than the nice middle class kids who currently fill those spots. The talent pool is being reduced too early, in a way that doesn’t happen in modern footballing countries.
This means that those players that do make up the development groups face little meaningful competition within their clubs and from other clubs until they go abroad, when – as Laul points out in relation to this year’s crop of Allsvenskan Finns - it comes as a bit of a shock, and the players are not able to cope with it too well.
So foreigners in Finnish football are not blocking the progress of young players. There simply aren’t enough young players who regard themselves and are regarded by their clubs as potential professional footballers. Removing professional footballers of the wrong nationality is the last part of a very big jigsaw puzzle, and as Finland hasn’t even opened the box yet, let alone put any pieces together, further nationality-based restrictions on the number of quality players in the domestic league could cause more harm than good.