Maria Hyppönen’s team HIFK Comets is gunning for yet another Finnish Championship in handball.
Questions of nationality, citizenship and identity are sometimes complicated issues. But when it comes to sports things start to really get messy. Just ask handball champion Maria Hyppönen.
MARIA HYPPÖNEN admits she is a little excited. Tomorrow she has an appointment at the police station to submit her application to become a Finnish citizen. Despite her unmistakably Finnish-sounding name, Hyppönen, 32, only has one Finnish grandparent. She was born in Ukraine, at the time a part of the Soviet Union, and after almost two decades in Finland she has no Finnish citizenship, and only an alien’s passport, which is given to Finnish residents who can’t get a passport from any other country.
”I guess I manage just fine with my alien’s passport,” she says. ”Within the EU it’s no problem, but going to Ukraine to visit my relatives can be a bit tricky.”
Hyppönen has applied for Finnish citizenship once before, at the behest of the Finnish handball association. That’s because she happens to be one of the best handball players in the country. Team handball is not exactly a major sport in Finland. It is mostly a realm dominated by the Swedish-speaking community and Finland’s coastal towns. Compared to the European, let alone international level, Finnish handball is hardly worth mentioning. But it could be.
Hyppönen quite literally grew up on the handball court; both her parents were players and later coaches. The family moved to Tallinn when Maria was ten years old, by which time she was already showing potential as a handball player. When she was 14 her Estonian coach suggested she join a Soviet boarding school for teenage handball talents, but Maria’s mother wouldn’t have it.
”My mother later said, ’we were living in a crap country.’ We weren’t going to stay there much longer.”
The family soon left Tallinn for Helsinki. Maria’s father immediately looked up the nearest handball club for her to join: Sparta IF, a club almost synonymous with women’s handball at the time. They were Finnish Champions seven times in a row, until Hyppönen switched to HIFK and won them the next five championships. She managed a streak of 12 Finnish championships, which was only broken last year, when Grankulla IFK beat HIFK in the finals.
”Maria has been a key player every time championships have been decided,” says Tomi Salminen, head coach of the women’s national team. He has followed Hyppönen’s career for some 15 years. He also coaches the women of Åbo IFK, who have faced off with Hyppönen’s club in countless matches.
”She’s a formidable asset to the team, and one of those players you pay extra attention to in the opposing team,” Salminen says. ”When she was training more aggressively she was without a doubt among the few most talented players in the country.”
If at first you don’t succeed
With both Sparta and HIFK Hyppönen has played against European top teams in the EHF Cup Winners’ Cup. As a junior she played for the Finnish national side a few times, but the rules for women’s national sides are different. After turning 18, Hyppönen could no longer represent her adopted country in international competitions.
The Finnish Handball Association was keen to keep her in the team and recommended she apply for citizenship. President Martti Ahtisaari signed off on her application, the language requirements were easily met, everything was supposed to be in order.
”I went to the police station with my mother. We paid the 1,500 Finnish marks in handling fees, and the guy behind the desk disappeared somewhere. Then he came back and handed us a paper saying our application had been denied,” Hyppönen remembers. ”My parents were unemployed at the time, and 1,500 marks was a lot of money. We were devastated.”
By way of explanation the resolution listed insufficient period of residence. She had lived in Finland for roughly seven years. Also mentioned was what the police had found in their background check: an unpaid public transit fine. Of course, rumours began to circulate, with some saying that it was the Russian Federation who torpedoed her application.
”It was a real loss to the Finnish national team,” says coach Salminen. ”When I started coaching them she would’ve been one of my first choices to bring in. I’m sure that kind of thing happens in other sports as well, but for a small sport like handball having every good player in the country on the national team is immensely important.”
A number of “new Finns” have worn their adopted colours in international sporting arenas. Others have been denied the chance.
• Middle-distance runner Wilson Kirwa (born in Kenya).
• Volleyball player Jimmy Hernandez (born in Cuba).
• Decathlon athlete Eduard Hämäläinen (born in the Soviet Union) has represented four countries over the course of his career: the Soviet Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States, Belarus and Finland.
• Footballer brothers Shefki and Njazi Kuqi (born in Kosovo, Yugoslavia), Alexei and Roman Eremenko (born in the Soviet Union), and Perparim and Mehmet Hetemaj (also originally from Kosovo) have all worn Fin jerseys.
• US-born basketball star Damon Williams’ citizenship application has been in the works for years, but has been rejected due to language requirements.
• Finnish-Algerian ice hockey player Josef Boumedienne (born in Stockholm) represented Sweden as a junior, which has left his eligibility to play for the Finnish men’s side uncertain.
The international courts
Handball may be a minority sport in Finland, but in the other Nordic countries and the Eastern Bloc it is a much bigger deal. Hyppönen may be used to massive crowds attending handball matches, but she remembers a Champions League match in Romania where the Finnish girls were quite shaken by the immense popularity of the game there.
”In Finland there’s usually a few dozen people watching us play, unless it’s the finals. In Romania we got to the stadium and there were maybe 10,000 people there. There were soldiers lining the court.”
Finland’s most famous handball talent to date is Katja Nyberg, also a former Sparta IF player, and she eventually left the country for a more competitive handball nation. Nyberg got Norwegian citizenship in 2001 and was part of Norway’s gold-winning team at the Beijing Olympics.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was for a while at the very top of international handball. At the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens Ukraine’s women won bronze, and while they did not make it to the Beijing games in 2008, a number of Ukrainian-born women played in Kazakhstan’s colours.
”I visited a handball training camp for 14-15-year-old girls in Ukraine last summer,” Hyppönen recounts. ”The facilities were terrible, really run down, but the girls had solid skills and excellent spirit.”
One more try
Hyppönen now works as a swimming coach for the Russian sport club Spartak in Helsinki. She is also on the board of Liikkukaa!, an NGO promoting sport among immigrants. In January a Liikkukaa! delegation met with President Tarja Halonen, and Hyppönen went along. Prompted by Halonen’s urging, she decided to give citizenship another go. Finland is her home after all.
”Things are much better here. When I go visit my relatives in Ukraine I notice how little some things have changed since the Soviet Union. People are still obsessed with what their neighbours think about them, they’re always worrying about appearances. Here you’re free to do what you want.”
Should the opportunity present itself, Hyppönen would be up for representing Finland in international tournaments once her citizenship status is confirmed. ”At 32 I’m starting to be a bit too old to play. But I guess I might still have a few years of competition in me,” she reflects.
A few weeks later I call Hyppönen to see how the application is proceeding. It turns out that her old upper secondary school diploma is no longer valid as a language certificate, and she’ll have to take a language test in April. ”Looks like it’s going to be a few more weeks,” she sighs.