Many derbies have periods where the two teams involved won’t meet for a while. West Ham United and Millwall are often in different divisions but still had incredibly intense match ups when they faced off in the Championship. There were even two years without the world renowned Madrid derby when Atletico Madrid were relegated from La Liga. However, there will be few sets of fans that will have had to wait as long for their derby to be played out as those of HJK and HIFK.
Helsinki’s two biggest clubs are among the most successful teams in the history of Finnish football. HJK have won 44 domestic honours, including six consecutive league title wins between 2009 and 2014. They are also the first Finnish club to represent their nation in the Champions League and Europa League group stages. HIFK have won seven domestic titles themselves and in the mid-1900s, the rivalry between the two teams would signify much more than just the bragging rights of the city, as HJK and HIFK would often be battling it out to see who would become champions of Finland. However, despite their successes, HIFK dropped out of Finnish football’s top flight, which was then known as Mestaruussarja in 1972 and remained outside of it for 43 years, only returning in 2015 by which time it had been known as Veikkausliiga for 25 years.
HIFK’s promotion to Veikkausliiga signalled the end of the long wait for the Stadin derby, the biggest in Helsinki. This came at a very important time for sport in the Finnish capital. Ice hockey had previously been the sport which had the city’s biggest rivalry, which was between HIFK’s ice hockey team and Jokerit Helsinki, however after winning the Finnish Liiga six times, most recently in 2002, Jokerit opted to move to Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League ahead of the 2014-15 season. This left Finland’s capital without a big derby to get behind in any of their major sport until HIFK’s football branch earned that promotion and set up a league clash with HJK.
After such a long wait in the lower echelons of Finnish football, HIFK’s rise to Veikkausliiga was surprisingly rapid once it got started. They were promoted from Kakkonen, the third flight of Finnish football in 2013 after topping the Eastern division before beating PS Kemi 1-0 in the promotion play off thanks to an 89th minute winner. They then got their second promotion in a row, winning the Ykkönen title on goal difference, finally getting the club back to Finnish football’s top table and setting up a league tie between HJK and HIFK.
It was not known how much of the rivalry would have remained intact when HIFK returned to the top flight, but it was soon realised that it was as prevalent as ever for the two clubs. Helsingin Sanomat sport journalist, Ari Virtanen said: “It is not so fierce on the pitch as it is outside the pitch. HIFK has never before played in Veikkausliiga since it was started in 1990. So after their return following 43 years’ exile nobody really knew how fierce this derby would be. In 2015 it turned out to be the most intense there is in Finland and it instantly grew to a massive status. It definitely gives a boost to the clubs and now everyone in Helsinki sees what has been missing.”
It is clear to see that the match dubbed the Stadin derby is a game of incredible importance for HIFK. Even though they have spent their time in Veikkausliiga in and around the relegation zone and HJK are always near the top of the table, in seven league games both sides have won the derby once and the rest of the match ups have ended in draws. Although earlier this season HJK were 4-0 victors in the Suomen Cup, showing that having the biggest stars in Finnish football can help a team such as HJK to come out on top, even in derbies like this which can often be won and lost based on desire and passion. They also won 2-0 in the most recent match between the two sides, on 31st July 2017 thanks to goals from Hannu Patronen and Filip Valenčič.
However clear or unclear the gulf of class is between the sides when they’re on the pitch, it shows a dangerously in the league table. Last season HJK finished second in the Veikkausliiga, whereas their city rivals finished 10th, just two points above the relegation zone. It seems as though HIFK will be in the same sort of position as last season, as they have spent a lot of time in the relegation zone, but it is key that they stay in the division, both for themselves and the Stadin derby. Ari said: “It is a crucial thing. A matter of life and death. It might be more difficult to get back in the league than to stay there right now.”
The thought of Helsinki having to go without their derby again is one that its people will not want to consider, as this is a real spectacle for both sides. They share the same stadium, the 10,770 capacity Sonera Stadium and the times where they have the best attendance and atmosphere is when the Stadin derby is taking place. Watch any Veikkausliiga game held at the stadium and you will not hear more singing or see as many seats filled as you will on derby day. In a country where many locals opt to support teams from big leagues such as the Premier League and Bundesliga, this could be an important player in getting more people in through the door on a regular basis.
Although even if that does happen, it may be hard for HIFK to truly feel the benefits of that, as despite the Sonera Stadium being mostly owned by the city, it is HJK who owns the company that runs the stadium, which can hit HIFK’s match day revenues. This is very significant, because the club have shown that they need to find every possible way of getting funds to help the club. When they were promoted in 2014, they sold club shares to their supporters in order to help fund the signing of new players, as well as making them feel an even bigger part of the club.
Contrast this with the fact that HJK are the biggest club in Finland with the biggest budget and average attendance, as well as the fullest trophy cabinet, it is clear to see why the sides have had such varying fortunes. While HJK have been able to bring in talent from countries such as Columbia, Ghana and Belgium, HIFK have been confined to scouting in Finland. Three of their most recent recruits are from PK-35 Vantaa, who were disbanded at the end of last season following relegation from the Veikkausliiga, while the rest of them were free transfers or loans.
One of those who moved to HIFK was Finnish football legend Mikael Forssell, who they actually signed from HJK. The striker who got 29 goals in 87 games for the national team played for teams such as Chelsea, Birmingham City and Leeds United in England but returned to his home nation in 2016 after signing for HJK from VFL Bochum. That was his third spell at the club, as he came through their academy and also played for the club from 2013 to 2014, but after four goals in 23 appearances in all competitions last season he was allowed to move to HIFK. After not being the star last season, it seems that he will be playing an important role for his new side. He has much more game time this campaign than he did at HJK since making his HIFK debut against Rovaniemi, getting his first goal for the club in a 1-0 win in that game, HIFK’s only victory from the first 13 Veikkausliiga matches. The eight game winless run that followed was ended after a 3-0 away victory against fellow strugglers JJK Jyvaskyla, with Forssell scoring the last goal of that game from the penalty spot.
He also started in the first Stadin derby of the league season, which was a 0-0 draw on 23rd May 2017 before being taken off on the hour mark. Neither he nor many others on the pitch managed to shine on this day, as the intensity of both teams seemed to take away from the technical side of the game. Morelos, who was leading the goal scoring charts by four goals when he moved to Rangers midway through June, had very few flashes of brilliance and it was clear to see how frustrated he was. He even resorted to kicking the ball into the air in anger shortly after having what he thought was a foul committed against him. HJK’s Demba Savage who was brought in from Allsevenskan side BK Häcken this summer had the best of the chances but failed to provide any sort of clinical finish. Forssell himself didn’t get much of an opportunity to do much and the main focal point of his game was when he was accidentally kicked in the face by HJK left back Juha Pirinen. The stand out performer of the game was HIFK’s goalkeeper Tomi Maanoja as he dominated his box and made himself an imposing figure throughout.
It was a game that proved what Ari Virtanen had claimed. Despite the lack of action on the pitch there was a real spectacle in the stands, which isn’t a weekly occurrence in Finnish football. The seas of HIFK’s red and HJK’s blue sung constantly throughout the game, aiming chants at the opposition supporters and their own players, trying to give their side a slight advantage. HIFK fans went wild whenever they had the slightest of chances and Maanoja got more applause than most goalkeepers could ever hope for. On the other hand, HJK fans showed what it means to get a goal in this fixture, as they celebrated with glee with Akseli Pelvas running towards them after the Swede got the ball in the net, although it was eventually disallowed for offside. The difference between this atmosphere and that of other Veikkausliiga games shows how much these people truly care about this derby.
The attendance is helped by the fact that this is essentially two sets of fans supporting their side in their home stadium, but it is clear to see that these sides are desperate to have the bragging rights of their city. It is a very different scenario to the mid 1900s when Helsinki’s two most prevalent football clubs were battling it out to be Finnish champions, but it isn’t taking away from the fixture. HIFK have accepted that they are no longer the giants they once were and many fans pinch themselves when they realise they are back in the big time of Finnish football, but that won’t stop them from making sure that they go toe to toe with HJK in the 90 minutes that they share a football pitch with their city rivals.
The significance and survival of the Stadin derby hinges mostly on HIFK’s ability to stay in Finland’s top flight, but after waiting for so long to be able to claim the title, both teams will be desperate to be champions of Helsinki alongside any other accolade that they manage to achieve.