The distinct sounds of chanting could be heard from afar as I approached the Telia 5G Areena in Helsinki. It was around an hour before kick off, but there were police-mounted horses on patrol, a massive queue for the away section, and men carrying massive flags, ready for their displays during the game. There was a real sense of anticipation in the air, something far beyond anything I had seen in Finnish football: the hum of conversation was louder, supporters were more excitable and there were many more people than normal. It was the day of Finland’s fiercest rivalry: the Stadin Derby, as HJK faced HIFK.
Sitting in the main stand, with the ultra groups of HIFK to my left and HJK to my right, it was clear they both had something planned. The two teams share this stadium for their home games, so there was a sense of normality in the supporters’ surroundings, even if the game itself was the most intense of the year. Each set of supporters had tifos on display as the players came out, each offering an insight into their club’s identity.
HJK’s read “ON VAIN YKSI KLUBI” (‘there is only one club’), Klubi being HJK’s nickname. There was a clear sense of the superiority that they’ve enjoyed with 29 league titles, their claim to being the only Finnish team to reach the Champions League and Europa League group stages, and the budget which has helped them achieve the status of the biggest club by far in Finland. Alfredo Morelos adorned their shirt before moving to Rangers in 2017 and Championship topscorer Teemu Pukki represented them for two seasons. They also have a reserve team, known as Klubi 04, that plays in Ykkönen (Finland’s second highest division).
It was HIFK, though, that produced the grander tifo. With a large black backdrop, their display showed a powerful looking figure who had torn HJK’s badge in half. Below read “RETURN OF THE WARLORD”. The use of the word ‘return’ is something to be picked up on here. HIFK were battling with HJK for titles in the mid 1900s and have seven league trophies of their own, though they were relegated from what was then known as Mestaruussarja in 1972. It took them 43 years to get back into Finland’s top flight, now called Veikkausliiga. When they did so, in 2015, they sold shares to their supporters to raise funds, a sign of both their sense of community and struggle for money. They were relegated again in 2017 after losing a promotion/relegation Play Off against FC Honka, but they bounced back at the first time of asking. This means they were playing against HJK’s reserves last campaign (winning all three games); they were now back to face the real thing.
They may have once been competing for titles, but there is now a large gulf between the quality of the two sides. HJK’s starting XI contained signings from the likes of Zenit St. Petersburg and KAA Gent, as well as a former Mexico international and Lassi Lappalainen, arguably one of the Finnish national team’s most exciting young talents. Meanwhile, HIFK have scoured the Nordic countries’ lower leagues for the majority of their recruits. Their captain, Hannu Patronen, was released by HJK at the end of last season. The difference between the two sides was also reflected in the table at the time. Going into the fixture, HIFK had played two games, losing both without scoring a single goal. HJK were unbeaten after four and sitting top of the table.
There are two official languages in Finland; a large part of the rivalry’s origins centre around the fact that HJK predominantly spoke Finnish, while HIFK used Swedish. That divide has since blurred, but as the game kicked off, fans at both ends of the stadium fought to have their voices heard, waving flags and lighting flares.
Played under a veil of the flares’ stray smoke, the early moments of the game were slow. HIFK came out fighting, with HJK unable to break them down. It may not have been all action, but it was full blooded. Challenges went in hard and HJK centre back Faith Obilor was forced off twice with a cut to the head. HIFK may be unable to challenge HJK in the league table, but they make sure they do so in the 90 minutes they share a football pitch. In the nine Veikkausliiga matches these teams had contested prior to this encounter, five had ended in a draw.
When the first half came to an end, it seemed as though we’d have a 0-0. The action off the pitch had been eye catching, but the offerings on it had been far from breathtaking. HJK, with their pedigree, had been disappointing, while HIFK exceeded expectations.
Nevertheless, with cups of beer in one hand and nakkimukis (three sausages in a cup with condiments) in the other, the crowd settled in for the second half. That there were over 10,000 people in attendance – in a stadium which has a 10,770 capacity – shows the magnitude of this game. Along with the reverse fixture, it is likely to be the only game in the entire Veikkausliiga which attracts a crowd of this size all season.
The game sparked into life as quickly in the second half as the flares had done in the first. Less than four minutes after the restart, HJK’s Nikolai Alho sent a cross towards the back post. Elderson headed it back across goal, where Akseli Pelvas was on hand to fire the men in blue and white into the lead with a volley. The stadium erupted as the goalscorer went towards Klubipääty, the HJK ultras’ area.
HIFK, whose main supporters group is known as Stadin Kingit, weren’t muted for long on or off the pitch. One of HIFK’s few players from outside Fennoscandinavia is Erikson Carlos Batista dos Santos from Rio Branco Atlético Clube in Campeonato Capibaxa Serie A – a league in the Brazilian state of Espírito Santo. The man with Erikson Carlos and the number 14 on his back was deployed as HIFK’s main striker. Despite his lack of height, the Brazilian impressed in the role, using his obvious technical ability and abundance of energy.
He was about to do something even more important than the selfless runs he’d made down the channels all day. HIFK had a corner in the 65th minute, which was flicked towards goal by Riku Selander. The Brazilian snuck in to head it past HJK goalkeeper Maksim Rudakov. There was a wall of sound as the ball hit the net, HIFK supporters pouring out of the stand, rushing to hug their players in celebration. It was a snapshot of not only how important the prospect of earning their first point of the season was, but of how much it meant to be back in the game against their bitter rivals. Many of the supporters seemed to be doing celebratory dances as they moved along, ordered back into the stand.
But around me, there was a strained sense of quiet aside from the occasional shout of disapproval. HJK supporters were clearly frustrated as they looked over at the away end. Despite being the bigger club with better players, they had let their rivals back into things once again. Meanwhile HIFK continued with their chants and flag waving. Stadin Kingit’s disdain for their rivals was clear even through their jubilation. Among the array of red flags – including a Rolling Stones inspired effort – was one with “ANTI 1907” written on it, signifying the year HJK was formed.
The match eventually ended 1-1, making it six draws in the last 10 editions of the Stadin Derby. After fighting in the streets following a previous derby match, HIFK fans were told they had to stay in the stadium until all the HJK fans had left. They probably would have done so anyway. While the HJK support quickly filtered out in disappointment (many even booed) at the draw, HIFK fans carried on jubilantly singing. They may not have torn HJK apart as their tifo had suggested, but HIFK had frustrated their local rivals and managed to take a point away from the game. The reaction of each side’s supporters showed the importance of this fixture much more than anything on the pitch.
HIFK are fully aware that they won’t match the might of their eternal rivals over a season in the near future. However, they have consistently taken their game to the next level to take points from them in one-off encounters. In the ultimate form of schadenfreude, they thrive on taking points from the title challengers, as well as revelling in their own successes. There perhaps isn’t another derby in world football, where two teams who are so mismatched, they share the spoils with such regularity when they meet.