In 2011, Rovaniemi Palloseura (RoPS) made international news as they were dragged through the courts after Singaporean criminals were found to have fixed certain outcomes in as many as 28 matches involving the side. Wilson Raj Perumal received a two-year prison sentence, while nine players (seven Zambian, two Georgian) were also implicated, and raised several issues over the integration of foreign footballers moving to Finland.
The Zambian players in court claimed that no-one coerced them into their actions. It was circumstances that led them down their path, that they felt no connection to the club or town, and they were bored. The RoPS coach at the time, former Wales youth player John Allen, told the Daily Telegraph “The first time we had any idea that something was going on was when Christopher Musonda was taken into questioning after morning training.” Some of the players involved still ply their trade, Chanda Mwaba even had a trial with Ykkönen side Viikingit in March 2013. The fixing issue most commonly bet on was the concession of late goals – Perumal’s organisations made huge sums from goals conceded by RoPS between the 76th and 90th minutes.
Perumal also had links with two other Finnish clubs. Two Zambian players at AC Oulu (the Yobe brothers, Dominic and Donewell) admitted taking bribes with the intention of giving away a penalty. Dominic then moved to champions HJK, but the contract was terminated shortly afterwards. Tampere United, Finnish title winners as recently as 2007, were suspended by the Finnish FA after taking large sums from a Singapore-based firm with ties to Perumal, and were subject to a money laundering investigation as a result. The club are currently in the process of reforming with the phoenix club formed by their fans – imagine AFC Wimbledon merging with MK Dons…
Forward to September 2013, and RoPS defeated Kuopion Palloseura in the Finnish Cup final in Helsinki, and with it earning a place in the 2014/15 Europa League, returning to Europe for the first time since 1990. The club had gone through several changes in the intervening two years, including relegation from the top division, a change of leadership in the boardroom, and an overhaul of their scouting policy.
In the aftermath of the cup success, I spoke to Mikko Perälä of TopSpot, the company entrusted by RoPS to overhaul player recruitment and integration. Mikko told me, over a herbal tea in St James’s Park, about their mission – it’s not just scouting footballers for a club. It’s to encourage African players to integrate into a new way of life, in particular the challenges of being a professional sportsman in Rovaniemi, near the Arctic Circle in the north of the country. He says ” I hope we can keep on working with them and together research and improve the process of integrating African players to the European style of training, playing and most importantly living. It is always the outside pitch factors that in the end matter the most. It is a learning process for us, for the player and for the club.”
TopSpot’s track record in Finland is impressive – previous discoveries Dominic Chatto (Inter Turku) and Dickson Nwakaeme (KuPS) were big successes at those clubs. But issues about their development arose after concerns that they were only utilised for their physical and instinctive qualities, and they did not become better footballers as a result of their coaching.
Mikko told me about another of his African prodigies, whose raw talent could see him compete in one of Europe’s stronger leagues, but whose only motivation was money and that his attitude would prevent true success. But there are signs that RoPS’ new strategy is paying off – the Suomen Cup victory and retaining their Veikkausliiga status was key, and hiring respected coach Juha Malinen all lead to progression for the club. The more recent African imports to Rovaniemi have been of good stock, with central defender Faith Friday Obilor (another TopSpot find) making a huge contribution to the defence. Mikko says there are only a handful of coaches in Finland who he’d trust to develop the players his group finds, Malinen being one of them.
RoPS were busy signing new Finnish players for 2014, and the club themselves have signed a long-term deal with FC Santa Claus to use them as a ‘farm club’ to develop future players. The club are understandably cautious, with CEO Antti Hietakangas saying in 2011 “signing foreign players is not the wrong way, it’s just not my way.” RoPS finished 11th (out of twelve teams) in the Veikkausliiga in 2013, having been promoted in 2012, and spending the previous decade between the top two divisions.
Unfortunately the RoPS Europa League adventure, which will begin in qualifying round one in July, will need to take place away from home – UEFA have deemed their Keskuskenttä home as unsuitable to host continental football, and Oulu (over 100 miles away) is likely to become their temporary home. The prize money for taking part (around 140k EUR) will be a bonus, while the local city council have publicly stated their admiration for keeping Rovaniemi on the map.
RoPS continue to survive as an advert for caution, but also with cautious optimism. The club still have a long way to go, and won’t go from 11th to top half overnight… But Malinen did exactly that with Lahti – and as long as Europe doesn’t become too much of a distraction, the darkest days could now be far behind them.