Finnish fixture revamp raises standards, favours HJK

The Finnish FA reorganised the league structure last season, taking the opportunity presented by Tampere United and AC Oulu’s licensing difficulties to reduce the top league by two clubs and introduce a 33-game system. Twelve clubs now play each other club three times, squeezing an additional seven games into the short Finnish season.

The idea was to increase clubs’ matchday revenues by, well, hosting more matches, simultaneously helping to improve playing standards by giving teams more competitive football. With clubs perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy and cutting costs in an effort to stabilise their finances, the first goal is….some way from completion.

There has been more success with the second, precisely because of the financial constraints clubs still operate under. Cash-strapped managers have jettisoned experienced but costly journeyman and replaced them with players who are younger, hungrier and cheaper.

At this point, it’s worth remembering the financial level of most Finnish clubs. Average salaries are lower for footballers than they are for the general population, and many players study or work on the side to set up a more lucrative livelihood. MYPA’s captain Tuomas Aho even said before the season started that it was impossible to buy a house on a Finnish footballer’s salary.

That quite naturally means many players look for better paid careers and go part-time in a lower division when they start to settle down and think about getting a mortgage. Or like Aho decide to start studying to set themselves up for a life after football.

The other, less honourable options for low-paid players became apparent in the recent match-fixing scandals, and that’s another indirect benefit of the new system. Players who still believe they can make a career out of football by moving abroad are less likely to take fixers’ cash.

All this goes to show that there is method in the apparent madness of a three-round, 33-game system. It has helped make Finnish football more competitive and watchable.

The other side of the coin is the uneven competition and home advantage some teams have. The top six clubs in 2011 Veikkausliiga have 17 home games this season, the other six teams have 16.

Each club has three games against each other club, and the balance of home and away fixtures in those match-ups could be crucial to the final standings in a tight league.

Last year the uneven distribution had little impact on the championship as HJK were so good they would probably have won it with their feet tied together (the eventual winning margin was 24 points), but this year’s Veikkausliiga is much more even.

The lopsided fixture allocation could play a role in deciding the title, and some clubs have an advantageous run-in.

HJK, who are having a lacklustre season given the cost of their squad and the expectations around the club, are neverthelesss unbeaten on the plastic pitch that so terrified Celtic manager Neil Lennon in the Champions League.

They also have that extra home game, and have home advantage in head-to-heads with Honka, IFK Mariehamn, Inter Turku (2 of the top 4 and their local rival), FC Lahti, Jaro and KuPS.

TPS are another winner. They have home advantage against HJK, Haka, VPS, Jaro, MYPA and JJK. That is the pre-season title favourite and three of the four long trips north. Not only that, but one of the clubs they play two ‘away’ games against is Inter Turku, who share a ground with TPS. Most Turku derbies see the Veritas stadium fill with a majority of TPS fans, regardless of who the ‘home’ side is.

Inter have 17 home games, but two of those are against their better-supported cross-town rivals. If you regard those as away games, they face 18 games in a hostile ground this year. They also play HJK on plastic twice, with the third and final encounter due in Helsinki on 23 September. The two previous meetings between the clubs this year have gone with home advantage.

IFK Mariehamn are another club with two trips to the Sonera Stadium, the final one also yet to come. And surprise surprise: both previous meetings between IFK and HJK have gone with home advantage.

So however poor HJK’s form currently is, they will have some big home matches against title rivals in the autumn to recover lost ground. If the title race comes down to a few points, these small differences could play a decisive role.

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