Should Finns burn their skis, fling their track spikes and take up some fun sport instead?
“A-ha-ha-ha, that’s a good one, baseball in Finland, ha-ha. Now look, dweeb: they call it pesäpallo, and it’s a different game – get it?”
Those who have tried to spread the word about their favourite sport in a new country are familiar with this type of reaction. Baseball, the American pastime, is one example. Finns obviously know its “hapless love child” (ruthless but truthful, credit the Espoo Expos), but you would expect sports fans to know about the mother game played in Finland as well – from numerous newsflashes on Urheiluruutu over the years, if nothing else. However, many of them do not. And the same goes for many other transplanted sports. Not too many people know that cricket, rugby, Australian rules football, lacrosse and hockey – as in field hockey – are actually played in Finland, some of them at many levels, and represented internationally. Plough through this list and you will do better than that!
The no. 1 U.S. pastime landed on our shores in the early 1980s, and since then there’s been a championship season in Finland every year. The top league is called “SM-sarja”, currently with four teams, and the championship is decided in the finals. Two of the teams are based in Helsinki (playing at Ruskeasuo), one – the best and most successful – in Espoo (Leppävaara), and another one in Tampere (Sorsapuisto).
The reigning champion gets to participate in the Euro Cup, playing against the top teams of other European countries. Team Finland plays on the European level. In 2011, it finished last in its qualifying group.
Where’s the thrill for a start-up player? “When you are able to hit the ball for the first time, it feels truly awesome,” says Juho Ukkonen, a player for Puumat in Helsinki and spokesman for SBSL, the Finnish Baseball and Softball Federation. What’s the attraction for the game? “It’s like a combination of football and chess; a physical sport where you have to use your head,” he continues. To find out more, contact SBSL or one of the clubs via the website.
The popular Commonwealth sport first appeared in Finland in the 1960s, and today has a strong footing in the country; there are cricket clubs from Helsinki to Oulu, even in smaller localities such as Ekenäs or Kerava (for an exhaustive list, see the Cricket Finland website under “Clubs and Teams”). Different leagues exist for different game formats in terms of the number of overs (i.e. 6 turns for each bowler to ‘bowl’); more overs means longer games. Team Finland competes at the European level, in the ICC European Division 2, and on the Nordic front, at the Royal Nordic Cup.
What’s the deal with the sport? “It’s an elegant game, it’s technical and requires different skills plus physical stamina,” says Michael Hutchinson-Reis of the Empire Cricket Club in Helsinki. “It looks slow, the matches may be long, but inside them play starts for short intense periods and then stops, over and over again, which also tests your concentration. In cricket, you need to be able to figure in a lot of things to make the entire team work right, which explains why the Finnish Naval Academy adopted it as part of its training programme.”
One recurring – and interesting – cricket event is the SKK Sixes, “an annual one day slogathon with a focus on fun”, as the Finnish association (FCA) puts it. Now that is simply cricket! This year’s rendition is the Vantaa Sixes Tournament, taking place at Rajakylä, Vantaa on Saturday 7 July from 9.00 am.
Australian rules football
This newcomer is played here after all. Domestic matches started in 2007. Currently the Finnish league has four teams representing Helsinki, Turku, Salo and Vaasa. The Finnish season culminates in the FAFL Grand Final each year.
What does this exotic sport entail? According to the genuine Aussie rules, two teams of 18 players take the field to score points by kicking the ball through the other team’s goal. You can do almost anything with the ball, except throw it – you dispose of it by kicking or “handballing” (with a clenched fist). You can run with the ball but it must be bounced or touched on the ground at least every 15 metres. The European Aussie rules are the same as what’s found Down Under, expect for adjustments in squad strengths and field constraints. The top European teams collide annually in the Euro Cup, this year in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“Basically anyone can play the game – you might get a few bruises, but the likelihood of injuries is smaller than in regular football,” says player Mika Kupila. “For a physical game, it’s great that even though we compete intensely on the field, once the match is over, we can all go for a meal and drink as good friends, with no grudges.”
The Finnish Rugby Federation (SRL) is understandably excited about the International Olympic Committee’s decision to accept rugby sevens into the programme for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, where both men and women will compete in the seven-a-side variant. This means that in theory, you, dear reader, could be among those to amaze on the Amazon.
Should Finns miss the challenge, it would not be due to lack of domestic competition. The SRL currently has 12 active member clubs, one of the main cities being Jyväskylä. “Rugby is great for women as well, since there are 15 positions on the field for people with different physical abilities,” says Team Manager Eveliina Sapattinen of the Jyväskylä Rugby Club. Do you get hurt a lot playing, as one would imagine? “Not more than in other sports, just the usual minor ankle tweaks and knee bruises, but nothing serious,” she says to set the record straight.
If you don’t believe it, go see for yourself; in Jyväskylä, for example, you can see both men’s and women’s teams take the field at the Huhtasuo sports grounds on 7 July, starting 12 noon.
The Finnish field hockey championship season is played in five one-day tournaments between May and September, followed by two final games over one weekend. These tournaments are played in Helsinki, Seinäjoki and Lahti – another good example of the wide geographical distribution of international sports in Finland.
Those Finns who call themselves sports fans should be aware of the sport in Finland, since the Finnish championship has been decided since 1951 and today there are almost one thousand registered players in the country; how many degrees of separation you think are between you and a player? One particular feature of this sport is the indoor variant, which obviously suits our Northern winter well.
“For newcomers, the threshold is very low,” says Kari Saari, Chairman of the Finnish Hockey Association. “You can contact our club, the ABC-Team, to come and practice with us for free; we’ll lend you the sticks and other gear, including the mandatory leg-guards, so you only need to bring sport shoes with you. If you want to play, then you need to sign up.”
“We have women in our team alongside men, just like all field hockey clubs in Finland,” Saari explains. “About one-fourth of our strength are women, in some teams one-third. Women read the game well and practice the skills conscientiously and thereby evolve into good players. The ABC-Team has players of international origin as well, and would be happy to welcome more.”
Imagine one thousand Native Canadians clashing on a field 3 kilometres long. What a relief it is that lacrosse, even in one of its older forms as above, is a game that only looks like combat. The players do seem like warriors with their sticks (or “crosses”) and protective gear. It is a sport of both athleticism and skill, since you need to do a lot of running during a game and be able to handle the ball even when out of breath.
A crosse fits equally well in a woman’s hand, as exemplified by the Helsinki club Chiefettes. “The game is somewhat different for men and women; in brief, men have a lot more physical contact than women,” says Team Manager Heini Kärkkäinen. “You will find a women’s team in six Finnish cities, and the national team is now preparing for the European Championships.” So in lacrosse, you don’t have to flee Finland to find an international challenge.
The best teams are found in North America. “At the Berlin Open, the Chiefettes got beaten brutally by an American team, with a score of about 30-1,” Kärkkäinen recounts. “But after the game, they came and commended us for the only goal scored against them in that tournament.” Perhaps next time the underdogs can score more, and at some point, challenge their transatlantic rivals in earnest.
If you’re looking for a new sporty hobby, you may just have found a handful! So much for tedious leisurely moments – when you are trying to dodge out of the way of a ballistic projectile or expecting a wall of flesh to land on you, you will probably forget domestic chores or other mundane concerns in a hurry. And if you feel your age creeping up on you, remember that there are other roles to fill than those on the field: coach, manager, umpire/referee, scorekeeper, fan club president, website administrator, vendor, you name it.
Photo: Kirby Wilson