UECL – HJK Helsinki v Aberdeen

Football in the 1970’s often evokes imagery of snowy pitches with barely a pitch line
visible – the fabled orange ball era.

Step forward to late November 2023 and it could almost be the 1970’s all over again.

When most people think of Finland, they think of winter and snow sports.

Winter in Finland starts in November in the northerly Lapland but a bit later in the south. The Nordic
latitudes typically guarantee a snow filled season, especially in the central and northern parts of the
country.

While the more southerly regions of Europe can bask in sunshine in April its common for a chill to be in
the air in Helsinki.

In addition to snow, other staples of Finnish winter are the Northern Lights, Christmas markets,
Santa and skiing.

Most associate Finland with Winter Olympic Sports and the sports of ice hockey, ski jumping and cross-country skiing. Less know is that there are currently about 150,000 footballers in Finland and participation in the game at grassroots level has never been higher.

Thinking about Football in Finland the biggest club inevitably springs to mind. But the early forerunners were HIFK which was primarily the club for the Swedish-speaking population in Helsinki.

In 1907, at the time HJK was formed, Finland was the Grand Duchy of Finland. The state of Finland
did not declare its full independence until December 1917.

At the 1912 Olympic Games the team performed admirably finishing amongst the top four.

Many of the players were though HIFK players with HJK footballers the lesser participants in the squad.

Many of the Finns played in Russian or in Swedish football.

HJK Helsinki owes its existence to an ice skater Fredrik Wathén; a man who raised the idea of
creating a soccer club.

In February 1907, he brought the idea to a sports evening and there a decision in
principle was made to establish the Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi – Helsingfors Fotbollsklubb.

A name that refers to both Finnish and Swedish cultural identity.

On June 19, 1907, they gathered again in the same locality and Helsinki Football Club was born.
The founding meeting was held at a bowling alley in Kaisaniemi Park in central Helsinki.

The roots of HJK are interlinked with the growth of a Finnish National consciousness.

In 1909, the colours of blue and white were chosen for the team and these are a reflection of
the Fennoman movement, a Finnish intellectual nationalist movement.

In terms of the crest of HJK it has not changed much since its inception.

Very often a badge will change shape as with playing kit, refashioned to demonstrate that the club
was entering a new era of modernistic branding.

At HJK little has changed, and this is one of northern Europe’s most traditional clubs – the kit barely
changes season after season and likewise with the badge.

The HJK crest was a product of an arranged competition, as is so often the case, to find a crest for
club. Eventually after the competition failed to find a clear winner a crest was designed by a local in
1913.

It has only gone through minor changes during its lifespan most notably with the introduction of gold
stars to commemorate title wins.

The blue and white of the HJK colours are a hint to the ‘blue of Finland’s lakes and the white snow of
its winters’. Colours that were made official in 1918 when the flag was introduced shortly after
independence.

Speaking of the white snow of a Finnish winter if the Dons thought this game was a chance to play
on a clear surface the downfall of snow on the morning of the game put paid to that consideration.

It was -10 to be exact and the snow was almost knee deep in some places.

Around the city the scene was more akin to Alaska or Greenland than Europe. Roads were covered
in snow – ice was everywhere yet the air was so clean the Artic could almost be touched with every
breath.

In Helsinki infrastructure makes reference to both Swedish and Finnish with streets named in
both languages and the same with the main connecting roads.

Unusually though only a few Km’s of the actual border between the two is through land: the countries being separated along the Tornio River and its many tributaries, and the Gulf of Bothnia. Only a few
kilometres of the border are on dry land.

HJK landed its first title in 1908 and this season’s Veikkausliiga will be secured long before the year is
out.

In Europe the club has a depth of UEFA competition experience matched by few clubs from the
Nordic region. With the title secured a Champions League qualification slot is often secured.

HJK never qualify for the riches of the ECL but that is not to say Helsinki pitch up and roll over to the opposition. Qualification has been secured for both the Conference League and Europa League groups in recent years.

The Finnish side pushed PAOK in their Group G opener, eventually losing 3-2 at home to the Greek
side having led in the first half – a result Aberdeen reciprocated when the Scots collapsed at home
against the Greeks in October.

Season 2023-24 is also HJK’s third straight season playing in the group stages of UEFA European
competition. Last season, fixtures against AS Roma, Real Betis and Ludogorets brought little in the
way of points, but the experience gained from the previous campaign was beneficial to a club
looking to be a regular participant in the Conference League Groups.

It is that experience that allowed a club, who are notoriously bad travellers, to get a point in
Aberdeen in the second group game. Taking the lead at Pittodrie a late Miovski finish secured a
point for the Scots.

The Bolt Arena is a football specific stadium that HJK have called home on the each of the occasions
that have played in the Group Stages.

Opened in 2000 it has been formally known as the Finnair Stadium, the Telia 5G and the Sonera
Stadium. It is often referred to as Töölön jalkapallostadion.

Able to accommodate 10,766 spectators it is all seated and all covered not that this helped when the
overhead conditions were so unforgiving. It is equipped with a main stand that can be heated and
has undersoil heating.

The Bolt Arena Stadium has the particularity of being located right next door to the Helsinki Olympic
Stadium, which makes the entire location the major sporting hub in Finland.

Ultimately in this season’s Europa Conference League the Aberdeen side has been keen competitors.

If the fear was 0-0 draws and backs to the wall performances, then while the latter was true several
goals have been scored across the campaign going back to the Europa League Play-off round.

Aberdeen started this game badly finding it hard to get a foothold on the game and to use the surface
to their advantage.

Shots flashed wide and Kelle Roos in the Aberdeen goal kept his team in the game with the
snow swirling around the Bolt Arena.

HJK took the lead but the equaliser came from a surprising source in forgotten man Angus
MacDonald. Surging forward he blasted an unstoppable drive from 30 yards into the top corner to
stun HJK.

Snowballs rained down on the HJK goalkeeper and with warnings unheeded the game was halted
momentarily because of safety announcement protocol over the stadium loudspeaker.

HJK took the lead but a player who has been a talisman in Europe ‘Duk’ stooped to head home at the back
post to give the Scots a point.

The overhead and underneath conditions ultimately took the sting out of the game with both sides
already having no hope of progression to the knockouts. In truth both could have played for another
hour and this game would still have ended in a draw.

All of that brings us back to a quote about Finland, ‘once you reach a certain point, you can drive for
hours without seeking a single person.’

HJK are a club with glamour or real status overseas but at home in Finland this is a football
institution with wisdom and a backbone.

The Finnish night opened up after the game to the colourful surroundings of the capital. All lit up and
ready for the Christmas celebrations little over a month away.