Finland's premier football division Veikkausliiga is one team short again this year, after Espoo’s FC Honka announced they would not take up their spot in the league next season. The club has been one of the top teams in Finnish football, competing in Europe in seven of the last eight seasons.
They won the Finnish cup in 2012 and finished runners-up in Veikkausliiga on three occasions, most recently last year. Despite their on-field success, the limited company running the first team has struggled financially as Espoo fans stayed away from their flagship football club--their average attendance in 2014 was just 1,503 per game.
The immediate cause of the club’s demise is the failure to reach agreement over the debts owed by the limited company running the first team, Pallohonka. That company was in dispute with the non-profit association in charge of Honka’s junior teams, and recognised by the Football Association as the legitimate holder of the club’s league place.
The non-profit had decided that it would withdraw the league place from Pallohonka and allocate it to the Esport company, which runs several leisure businesses in Espoo. That decision was approved by the FA—so long as Esport paid off the old Pallohonka debts.
Esport could not reach agreement on what constituted football-related debt, and as such declined to sign the deal.
It is a sad end to a long-running saga. Pallohonka’s final year started off badly, when they fired former coach Mika Lehkosuo, accusing him of financial misconduct. Lehkosuo, a highly-respected figure in Finnish football, strenuously denied any wrongdoing.
Few in Finnish football gave credence to the claims of misconduct, and indeed Lehkosuo was soon hired by HJK Helsinki. Sources within the club suggest some figures within Pallohonka had long nurtured misgivings over Lehkosuo’s salary, which was unusually large by the standards of Finnish football.
He was then replaced by former Finland striker Shefki Kuqi in his first management job. Kuqi struggled at first as reports suggested some wages went unpaid, and his extrovert touchline manner got him in plenty of trouble with referees, but he eventually staved off relegation to preserve Honka’s league place.
That was all in vain. Esport and Honka’s junior organisation now plan to form a new first team around the current reserve team. That team is in Kakkonen, the third tier of Finnish football.
The FA will aim to decide before Christmas how--or whether--to fill Honka's place in Veikkausliiga. The two candidates are the Turku-based TPS, who were relegated in 2014, and KTP from Kotka in southeast Finland, who finished second in the second tier. Either would need to have their licence application approved.