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Football enters the 'new normal' after 241 days without Veikkausliiga

It's been a long, coronavirus-dominated pre-season for Finland's footballers.

Teemu Tainio
Teemu Tainio took over as FC Haka manager in 2018. Image: Jari Kärkkäinen/Yle

Finland has always had one of the longest pre-seasons in world football, but thanks to coronavirus this year players have had even longer to prepare for the league kick-off on 1 July.

It's 241 days since Honka beat IFK Mariehamn in the play-offs to secure a spot in Veikkausliiga, and 81 days since the original start date of 11 April.

FC Haka coach Teemu Tainio says his players just about dealt with the boredom.

"We had a video challenge where everyone had to copy the challenge every day, and that was something for them to look out for," says Tainio, the former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder who led Haka to promotion last season in his first coaching job.

"We've been training in small groups since April, and we started as a whole team in June. But everyone understands that these are very special circumstances. The boys have done really well, I have to say."

The club is based in Valkeakoski, a small town two hours' drive from Helsinki that's is dominated by a UPM paper mill looming over one end of the small but picturesque stadium in the town centre.

Founded in 1934 by factory bosses to give their workers something to do, the club has won the Finnish title nine times in total.

The club, the factory and the town have always had a close relationship. When he returned in 2018 Tainio was keen to rejuvenate that.

"A few years ago when I came here I was really surprised to see that people seemed to have forgotten Haka a little bit, because when I played here I knew how much the club means to the city. That was the one thing I wanted to change," says Tainio, who started his career at Haka in the 1996 and 1997 seasons.

Since relegation in 2012 Haka played in the second tier of Finnish football and the town lost some of its national attention.

Last year they ran away with the First Division title and fans started to return, and the club now says that it sold 2,600 season tickets this year.

Unfortunately coronavirus restrictions mean that football clubs are only permitted to allow in blocks of 500 fans, giving widely varying capacities across the league. Haka will try to squeeze in 1,500 supporters, but it's not quite the triumphant return they hoped for when they won the title.

That restriction will hurt their finances as well, just like other Veikkausliiga clubs. Their playing budget of 375,000 euros is less than a quarter that of HJK's, at 1.6 million euros.

The economics of Finnish football clubs are extremely difficult at the best of times, never mind during a global pandemic when they can't meet sponsors or sell tickets.

Most clubs have had to cut salaries, furlough staff and seek support grants from the government this spring, and Pekka Sihvola from the players' union questioned moves by some teams to bring in last-minute reinforcements.

"It's morally questionable if you can now hire new players thanks to savings made in the spring," said Sihvola.

But Tainio says that "it doesn't guarantee anything that you have the biggest amount of money", which HJK proved last season in finishing fifth and failing to qualify for European competition.

Making his Markkanen

Haka did manage to land one big name: Eero Markkanen, an ex-Real Madrid striker who never quite fulfilled his potential and spent last season in Indonesia.

"I don't think he has even shown 80-90 percent of his potential. He's getting better and better, and of course he needs games," says Tainio, who adds that he played with Markkanen at HJK in 2013 so has some idea of what he is getting with the lanky forward.

Haka's goal this season is to finish in the top six. Tainio says he knows the teams that are quickest out of the blocks will have a big advantage.

"The last [Haka pre-season] game was in March, so I don't think any team is in top form yet," says Tainio. "You can run as much as you like, do the physical training, but match fitness is a bit different."

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