Finnish football is a difficult business. Clubs go bust on a regular basis, and when Tampere lost its premier football club in 2011, most people assumed that was that.
Tampere United was suspended from all competition in 2011 after taking money from a Singaporean company with links to match-fixers and subsequently went bankrupt. The club's chairman and CEO were given suspended sentences for money laundering crimes.
A small group of committed supporters were keen to see the club continue, however, and they set about achieving what in the Finnish context seemed almost impossible: resurrecting their team from the dead.
"In 2011 the fans decided that the story of Tampere United can't end like this," said Antti Niemistö. "We decided that if no-one else is going to play for Tampere United, then the fans have to do it themselves."
The fans founded a team named TamU-K and started in hobby leagues, playing on sand pitches against pub teams and students with 50-100 flag-waving fans on the sidelines. It was quite a sight for followers of Tampere's Sunday league football scene.
In 2012 they entered the league system, and since then they've won promotion after promotion. Manu Haapalainen, who has been along for the ride since the start, now commentates on the club's matches, which are all streamed live online via the club's own YouTube channel.
"The atmosphere is very communal, because it is a thing we have built together," said Haapalainen at a recent match against Peimari United. "Fan ownership makes it more real in that sense too. You have to work your ass off with no payment for something you love."
Tampere United are the most prominent Finnish manifestation of the phenomenon of fan ownership in professional sports. That model is promoted by Supporters Direct, which was originally a British NGO dedicated to promoting supporter involvement and now has a European arm to do the same on the continent.
Supporters Direct were involved in helping establish the Tampere United supporters trust, which bought shares in the club even before the bankruptcy, but the fan-owned club requires grassroots enthusiasm to be successful.
"It's because we had such a great group of people who bonded through Tampere United, and really didn't want that to stop," said Niemistö. "Anybody can join the club, and they have their say through their vote, but I think what is more important is that they actually know that the people who sit on the board of the club are supporters like themselves."
The structure has strong attractions for those on the pitch. Players at this level in Finland normally get paid very little if anything, so motivation has to come from non-monetary factors.
"For every player it's a huge honour to play here," said club captain Eetu Rahkola. "There are so many who are following us and whose day can be saved if we win, and can have a bad day if we lose. One challenge is of course where do you get money, because you have to have a huge number of people, and they have to be passionate. Then it works out. And if it works out, it's excellent and I hope it's the future of football."
Sustainability the key
Haapalainen concurs that this model—with all its problems and cashflow issues—has a lot to teach Finnish club owners.
"It would be nice to have more fan-owned clubs because I think the biggest problem in modern-day football is rich owners treating their clubs like they are toys," said the commentator, who in 2012 dumped his microphone to join a pitch invasion as the club clinched promotion.
The temptation now is to push on and overreach, gaining promotion through spending on player wages and stretching the club financially. Everyone at TamU seems aware of the danger, reiterating time and time again that there are no quick fixes.
"I actually believe we are going to the Veikkausliiga (Finnish Premier Division) and it is not happening maybe in 3 years or 5 years but someday I hope we are there," said Rahkola.
For Niemistö, promotion is nice but not necessary. The club's continued existence is a victory in itself, after the bitter disappointment of the original TamU's demise.
"For me, the only thing that really, really matters is that I still have a club," emphasised Niemistö. "Back in 2011, I thought that OK, I'm not following football anymore because I don't have a club', and then I realised that there were other people who felt as strongly as myself and we wanted to keep this club alive."
EDIT: An earlier version of this text stated that the CEO and Chair of Tampere United were acquitted of money-laundering charges. They were acquitted, but then convicted after the prosecutor appealed the verdict.