The problem with black players is that they have
great pace, great athletes, love to play with the ball
in front of them. When it’s behind them it’s chaos.
I don’t think too many  of them can read the game.
When you’re getting into the  mid-winter you need
a few of the hard white men to carry  the athletic
black players through. 

Ron Noades
, chairman of Crystal Palace Football
Club, 1991

Can Finland utilise all the immigrant talent at its disposal? In many businesses the question is a matter of economic necessity, but in sports it’s also about national pride.

These attitudes towards black players had been common in Britain up until the 1990s. The stereotypes present in Noades’ diatribe were widespread, with the result that many teams harmed their own chances of winning by not hiring black players.

Utilising all the players in the available talent pool is the key to football success, as shown by Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper in their recent book Why England lose, and other curious football phenomena explained. Taking the annual accounts of 40 English football clubs in the period between 1978 and 1997, Szymanski showed that 92 per cent of the variation in league position could be attributed to the difference in spending on wages.

Taking this data and factoring in the number of black players in each team, Szymanski inferred that teams that did not discriminate against black players – teams that gave them a fair chance and selected them to play – overperformed compared to what their wage budget predicted.

The discrimination stopped at the end of the 1980s, when so many teams were fielding black players that the penalty for not giving them a chance grew too big for even the most discriminatory teams. It’s no coincidence that after Noades made his remarks on television, many of his black players

left and Palace were relegated from the First Division – the loss of black players via an extraordinary act of public discrimination had a severe effect on the team.

The percentage of immigrants in Finland is still quite small, communities are more recently established and the presence of immigrant footballers in representational teams has been correspondingly low. Increasing the number of those given a chance in professional football will be an important stimulus for success, as well as a positive success story for multi-cultural Finland.

Nordic minority players

The minority footballers that have come through in Finland so far are all first-generation immigrants. Kosovo-born Shefki Kuqi has been a fixture in the national team for ten years now, and this summer saw the addition of Perparim Hetemaj, also born in Kosovo, and Macedonianborn striker Berat Sadik. The latter two played for Finland in the Under-21’s European Championship tournament in

June, adding a new dimension to a Finland side that also included Perparim’s brother Mehmet. This was the first team Finland to have qualified for a major championship, and it was a huge achievement for them to reach the tournament.

Nordic teams have faced the challenge of integrating their immigrant players in different ways. The traditional qualities of togetherness, respect for the group and solid uncomplicated hard work have been augmented in Sweden by a host of technical players with roots in other countries.

In Norway the process has gone slightly slower, and in Denmark it has not even begun yet in the men’s national team. The first immigrant player to represent Denmark was Nadia Nadim, who played for her new country in the Women’s European Championships this summer. Nadim has roots in Afghanistan, and her trailblazing role in the national team reflects the reality of current Danish policies towards immigration and foreigners.

Jante’s law suggests that the quickest route to acceptance in Nordic societies is to abide by the dictum “don’t believe you are anyone special, or that you are better than us.” This is antithetical to many professional footballers, never mind those from less Nordic backgrounds, and the mix of attitudes is crucial if Finland is to become a less boring place and the football team to become more successful.

The question in football is how to combine more expressive, confident and outgoing people with their more understated team-mates. The Finland under-21 team with

Sadik and the Hetemajes was an interesting case study, as the immigrants made up a large proportion of the team but the prime factor was youth – the players had not yet failed in the many weird and wonderful ways Finnish national teams have done over the years, and therefore found it easier to believe in themselves. Their playing styles are different too, with a more combative edge and a willingness to try bolder attacking moves.

Building confidence

“In this team none of us are like typical Finnish people,  who can be scared to play football and scared of the other teams,” Mehmet Hetemaj told me before the Under 21 Championships. “In our group (at the championships) we have Spain, England and Germany, and in this team we believe that we can beat them.”

After winning their qualification group (which included those lily white Danes) and beating Austria over two legs in the play-off, such confidence was fully justified. Did the team’s confidence stem from having three immigrants as integral parts of the team?

“You may say so, a little bit, but also the guys who have both parents from Finland are a bit different from normal Finns. Me, my brother and Berat Sadik sometimes help, maybe because we have the confidence (to do that). We say to them that they are the best players, we can win, and everybody starts to believe.”

Nothing too controversial there. “Group composed of young people more comfortable in multi-cultural environment”  is not exactly news to any foreigner who has lived in Finland. The question is how attitudes among other Finns have changed as a result. Speaking with many football people over an extended period of time has left me with the impression that many of them view immigrants as saviours of the Finnish national team.

“Some of the most racist people I know cannot wait until there are no Virtanens in the Finnish team, because once the immigrants start to dominate we will have a much better side,” one junior coach told me.

More information at

This lack of self-confidence is a problem for Finnish football, and time will tell if the under-21 class of 2009 was a one-off or a signifier of a deeper change. It is becoming difficult to imagine a Finnish team without an immigrant presence, and their contribution might just help nudge Finland over the qualification line. But even if they don’t, their selection is a healthy sign of acceptance.

Egan Richardson
Kristin Ay