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What's in a name? Women's football in Finland looks to become just 'football'

Finland has lagged behind advances made elsewhere by women playing football, but the FA wants that to change.

HJK Women's League APN
Image: Tomi Hänninen / YLE

What’s in a name? That's the question Finnish football is asking this year as the league for women playing football removes its gender-based prefix.

'Naistenliiga', which translates as 'The women’s League,' is to lose the reference to gender and announce a new name later this month.

In this week’s All Points North podcast we asked Heidi Pihlaja of the Football Association why.

Story continues after audio.

You can listen to the podcast via this embedded player, Yle Areena, Spotify, iTunes or your normal podcast player using the RSS feed.

Audio: Yle News

"We started to think: what if we could create our own brand identity from our own perspective, with our own messages, without being a [an add-on] from somewhere. That’s the story really. What if we could be our own thing and find our own target groups?" asks Pihlaja.

"If [we talk about] a men's league it’s okay to have a women's league but it's not okay to talk about a 'league' and a 'women's league'."

Pihlaja says there's work to be done to improve conditions for women in Finnish football. She won three league championships with PK-35 Vantaa and thought about playing semi-professionally abroad but decided to quit at the age of 26 in 2015.

The catalyst was the realisation that success was not within her grasp — other countries were far ahead of Finland at the time, and changing that would require action off the field.

"In 2015 when we won the Finnish Championship and then again we played in the Champions League and played against [Swedish club] Rosengård and we lost 9-0 over two matches," remembers Pihlaja.

"And I felt that we have so much to do on the structural side of the women's game, it's not just becoming little by little a better player, we have so far to go to reach the European level. And I understood that I also want to influence this other side of sports, in the background, so that in future we could make it better in Europe."

Football not that lucrative

That's now Pihlaja's job. She has high hopes for the league and has involved players in work to develop the league's mission statement, values and marketing material.

Linda Ruutu of HJK Helsinki agrees that the values are something players can stand behind, even if football isn't lucrative for women in Finland.

Players still have to work regular jobs alongside training, and that's a challenge.

"Often, players end their careers quite early because so far, they have not been able to get enough financial support just from playing football. It is pretty tough. A lot of them are studying or have other jobs. It's a tough balance and I hope that it will change in the future," Ruutu said.

Right now, the players are currently in the middle of a long pre-season training regime with their eyes set on the big prize of Champions League football -- HJK's first foray into European competition since 2006.

"This year, we are also playing in the Champion's League. That's very exciting and of course, we want to go through the qualifying stage. That has been very motivating for us this season," Ruutu added.

Finding a fresh audience

If all goes to plan, the newly-renamed league will bring in new fans for Finnish clubs and players. Pihlaja says she's sure there are new markets for the sport in Finland.

"Of course, one idea is to draw in men who are already watching football. Families and children are the other core audience for football played by women. Then we have lots of women interested in their wellness and sports, and who are active, so how do we create more relevant content for them so they are interested in elite sports too," says Pihlaja.

The league's new name will be announced on 27 February, and the first round of matches is due to take place in late March.

Join the conversation

If you have any questions or would like to share your thoughts, just contact us via WhatsApp on +358 44 421 0909, on our Facebook or Twitter account, or at yle.news@yle.fi.

This week's show was presented by Egan Richardson. Our producer was Priya Ramachandran D'souza and the sound engineer this week was Juha Sarkkinen.

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