The tiny industrial town of Valkeakoski in Western Finland is the unlikely home of one of Finland’s most successful clubs and the all-time record goal-scorer of Finnish top-flight football.
The town of 21,000 inhabitants was perhaps best known for its paper industry before FC Haka started making waves in Finnish football during the 1950s and 60s. Those two decades saw the club securing three Finnish Championships as well as five Cups during a highly successful period.
The 1980’s was another successful decade for the club in which they won three cups, however it wasn’t until 1995 when they won their next championship with the help of a Russian striker after an 18-year wait.
The Russian in question was the then 25-year-old striker Valeri Popovitch who notched 21 goals to become the Veikkausliiga’s top-scorer on the way to the championship. Those goals were also enough for the striker to win Player of the Year award in what was his third season in the Scandinavian country.
Valeri Popovitch will not be a name that springs to mind when thinking about prolific goal-scorers, especially in his native Russia where he managed just one league goal while playing in the country. However, in his adopted country of Finland, the Russian is a Veikkausliiga legend after scoring an all-time record of 166 goals in 395 appearances.
Valeri Popovitch was born on 18th May, 1970 in Gorky, USSR which was renamed Nizhny Novgorod after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990.
The striker started his professional career in Dzerzhinsk with Khimik just 40 kilometres from his home-town in 1986. After returning home with Lokomotiv Gorky for the 1987 season, Popovitch was on his way to the capital to join CSKA Moscow just a few months later.
The striker won the Under-19 UEFA European Cup with the Soviet Union in 1988 and then represented CSKA Moscow in Soviet First League helping the Army club to promotion to the Soviet Top League as champions in the 1988-89 season.
Unfortunately, for the youngster, he was deemed surplus to requirements at CSKA after failing to score in 25 league appearances during the successful campaign and joined defending champions and huge city rivals Spartak Moscow to play alongside the likes of Stanislav Cherchesov, Dmitri Radchenko, Valery Karpin among others.
After failing to make an impact at Spartak and with the country in turmoil after the fall of Communism, the striker decided to move to Finland with team-mate Oleg Ivanov to play for TPV where he bagged a hat-full of goals before moving onto Ilves and finally FC Haka where he became a prolific scorer.
Popovitch earned his first Veikkausliiga title alongside Ivanov with FC Haka in 1995 however the dream came to an abrupt end for the club. The following season saw the defending champions relegated to the Ykkönen (Second tier) after a disastrous title defence.
The following season, Popovitch who was nicknamed ‘The Tsar’ top-scored in the Ykkönen with 25 goals as FC Haka immediately bounced back to the top flight. Remarkably, the team continued their great run of form after their promotion with Popovitch and Ivanov forming an almost telepathic understanding which resulted in winning the league in their first season back in the Veikkausliiga. Popovitch was once again named Player of the Year.
That title triumph kick-started a phenomenal run which saw the team from Valkeakoski winning the next two editions of the Veikkausliiga in 1999 and 2000. The 1999 campaign was a particularly impressive season for Popovitch who netted 23 times in the league to secure the record for goals scored in a single season – a record that he still shares to this day alongside former national team striker Kimmo Tarkkio who scored 23 for the same team in 1991.
After picking up another league title with the club in 2004, Popovitch finally said goodbye to Valkeakoski in 2009 when he signed for HJK Helsinki who were about to become one of the most dominant domestic teams in Europe.
On leaving the club, officials decided to retire Popovitch’s number 14 in an ultimate mark of respect for the player that had fired them to numerous titles over a 15 year period in which he scored 163 goals.
In his one and only season in Helsinki, the Russian won the Veikkausliiga, featuring 16 times for Klubi. The 2009 trophy was the first of six in a row for HJK whose domestic dominance has only just been halted after SJK pipped RoPS and the Helsinki giants to the title on the final day of the 2015 season.
After his contract ended with HJK in 2010, Popovitch dropped down two divisions to the Kakkonen to re-join Ilves as a player-coach before being offered the chance to return to Valkeakoski.
Popovitch’s relationship with FC Haka was rekindled in 2012 when he went back to the club as a youth coach and has remained ever since, passing on his knowledge to the future crop of FC Haka strikers.