As my friends back home get ready to kick off college football season this weekend, I got a head start by checking out some football action here in Helsinki.
Football as in soccer, I mean.
I learned before my trip that Finland would play Moldova in a Eurocup 2012 qualifying match during my stay in Helsinki. While I have never been much of a soccer/football fan, I am a huge sports fan so I figured this was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I watched portions of both the men’s and women’s World Cup tournaments and was impressed by the enthusiasm and craziness of the fans. Knowing that football in Europe is akin to American football in the United States in terms of popularity, I figured I was in for a great time.
Did I mention the match would be played in the Olympic Stadium, which hosted the 1952 Olympics?
And did I mention that my hostel in Helsinki, the Hostel Stadion, is located inside of the Olympic Stadium?
How cool was this going to be?
I should have known I had my hopes up too high when this was the scene I saw in the stadium parking lot just two hours before the game:
No crowds. No tailgating. No sense that a big (or so I thought) football game would be starting in just a few hours.
No, this was not a college football Saturday in Iowa City.
I made my way down to Gate E (of which I had a great view from my hostel room) around 6:15, with the game scheduled to start at 6:30.
I waited no more than 5 minutes in line before reaching a young man who, rather than scan the barcode on the printout of my electronic ticket, simply tore the barcode off. Um, okay.
Then I was on to a security check. I opened my bag for a cursory inspection and then the man asked me something in Finnish. I shook my head, saying I didn’t understand and he responded by simply asking if I had any bottles (where I would hide any such bottles, I have no idea). I said no and went on through, avoiding the pat down and metal detecting wand that everyone ahead of me endured. Apparently he deemed me safe because I didn’t speak Finnish.
And then I entered the stadium.
To my surprise (although by this point it should not have surprised me), the stadium was not even close to full. I would guess there were maybe 5,000 fans there. It sort of felt like a Northwestern football game in Evanston, except the fans cheered louder and the home team dominated from the beginning. Oh, and Northwestern never hosted an Olympic Games.
But the fans that did show up definitely brought their enthusiasm and, at times, made me feel like I was at a football game back home.
Like most college football games, there was a large section of fans at one end of the stadium dressed from head to toe in team colors and leading raucous cheers throughout the game (presumably not a student section in the college football sense, but who knows?).
The cheers sounded quite familiar, sometimes with a solitary voice leading the charge by yelling something in Finnish that I imagined translated as:
“Give me an S!”
Followed by the crowd yelling “S!”
“Give me an Oooooh!”
Followed by the crowd telling “Oooooh!”
And so on until they spelled out S-U-O-M-I.
That’s Finnish for Finland.
Of course, I had some misunderstandings as well. For example, after a call on the other end of the field, the boys in front of me stood up and started chanting “Maaa-li, maaa-li” over and over as they pointed their arms toward the field. It was reminiscent of a “bullsh*t” chant that you might hear after a bad call in college football so I assumed something did not go Finland’s way (remember, I am quite the novice when it comes to soccer/football).
Seconds later, Finland scored the first goal and the crowd went nuts and the scoreboard flashed:
I would love to say the game itself was wonderfully entertaining, but I just couldn’t get into it. Perhaps it was because Finland seemed to dominate from the start. Or perhaps it was the lack of fan craziness in my immediate area (while the dedicated fan section roared with excitement, I don’t think the guy next to me so much as clapped the entire time). Or perhaps it was the lack of controversy – as I’ve learned from watching World Cup matches, controversy can make for great entertainment.
So I ended up doing something I would never do at a college football game.
I left at halftime, with Finland up 2-0.