INTERVIEW: Amokachi opens up on his plan to change football in Finland

It took a visit to a sports bar for Daniel Amokachi to realise exactly what he had got himself into. He had been in Oulu for a matter of weeks and decided to venture into town for the weekend’s big Premier League match. Manchester City v Manchester United would surely draw a crowd, even up here in northern Finland, and the scene when he arrived was encouraging.

“The place was jam-packed, and I assumed everyone was there to watch the game,” Amokachi says. “But then it just emptied; they’d all been watching ice hockey, and when that finished there were only three of us left. A Manchester derby, and only three of us. That’s when it hit me that ice hockey is number one here and nobody cares about football, and it’s when I realised: ‘Ooh, there are a lot of obstacles here.’”

As it turned out, Amokachi did not know the half of it. “Only in Finland” is a phrase that recurs during an hour in his company at the offices of JS Hercules, the third-tier club he has managed since January. No amount of experience at the top level could have prepared the former Everton and Nigeria striker for the challenges he has faced in what, 107 miles south of the Arctic circle, is by the kindest of measures a backwater. If it feels surreal to see Amokachi here then it is as well to remember this was an opportunity he felt there was little choice but to take. The number of Africa-born managers at any level in Europe comes nowhere near to troubling the double-digit mark; no easy solution has been offered and Amokachi grasped his chance to do things the hard way.

“My colleagues in Nigeria said: ‘Listen, it’s the platform all Africans are looking for so why don’t you take it?’” Amokachi had been between jobs when, in October, the phone rang with an unexpected offer. A long spell as assistant manager with the Nigeria national team, helping the late Stephen Keshi guide them to success at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, had finished and he coached a local club, Ifeanyi Ubah, winning six games out of nine before parting ways because “to survive back home in Africa you have to be someone who kisses assess, and I’m not one of those”. When the call came from Marko Saranlinna, the co-founder of TopSpot – an Oulu-based scouting company that develops talent in Africa with particular attention on Nigeria – the decision was surprisingly easy to make.

“When you talk about Finland the only name you really know is Jari Litmanen,” Amokachi says. “But I said: ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot.’ The club told me their vision and made it clear that they couldn’t really pay me, that the money they would be giving me would basically be an allowance. But if I make up my mind to take on a challenge, money isn’t an issue.

 

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“I arrived on a Wednesday. It was -38C, and I’d come straight from Nigeria. But I saw the facilities, met the team and felt comfortable. I decided to see it through.”

Acclimatising to the harsh winter was the easy part. JS Hercules were founded in 1998 as, essentially, a kickabout between a group of computer engineering students from the University of Oulu. Among them was Mikko Perala, TopSpot’s other founder, who first began working with African footballers in 2004 when he met the Nigerian player Stanley Festus at a tango class in Bangladesh and has placed a number of individuals with Scandinavian clubs since. Last season, they were unexpectedly promoted to Kakkonen, Finland’s third level, but the club’s annual budget is just €100,000 and it takes imagination to compete.

“We’re financially crippled so can’t make many transfers like the other teams,” Amokachi says. “And there are other frustrations. We started the season really well but then you find things that you only see in Finland – players missing games because they’ve already booked holidays, their friend is getting married, things like that. You can’t protest because you’re not really paying them.

“The professionalism angle is difficult. For them, football is just about getting together with friends and having fun but that’s not what our vision is all about, we want to take them to a different level and we’ve lost some who aren’t used to that kind of push. When you put something on the plate for them, it’s kind of new, but they’re learning fast. You have to know how to relate to these guys – when to hit, when to hold back – so that you see them at training again the next day.”

Amokachi cannot quite get his head around a Finnish mentality that he believes is “too nice” and lacks “the edge, the cockiness, the madness” to make serious progress in football. When the sport attracts national interest the reasons are not always wholesome and JS Hercules have found themselves subjected to unwelcome media scrutiny in recent months.

The problems began when, on 3 July, Amokachi’s side lost a 3-0 lead at home to Vaasa-based side VIFK, who won 5-3. They had started the season strongly but this was the catalyst for a four-game losing run that came to a head with a 4-1 defeat to Virkia, who at the time of writing have lost 17 of 20 league games and have a goal difference of -77. The YouTube footage of the latter fixture went, by Finnish league standards, viral; it is certainly a comedy of errors and led to conclusions swiftly being drawn and betting being suspended on their matches. Were JS Hercules’ players involved in match-fixing?

 

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To understand why the question was asked so readily, some context is needed. Group C of Kakkonen, which takes in the west coast and the Arctic region, is one of Europe’s stranger football leagues. This season it averages exactly four goals a game; standards are low, money is scarce and many teams are bolstered by obscure, manipulable imports desperate for a way into European football through the back door.

The Finnish league runs through the summer, while western Europe rests; there is considerable gambling interest as a result and there have been scandals in the past. In 2011, nine players from RoPS, in Rovaniemi, were convicted of match fixing along with the Singaporean businessman Wilson Raj Perumal. It would take an optimistic soul to conclude that the wider problem was eliminated there and any suspicion of a repeat brings a sensitive reaction.

“I had a call from the chairman saying there had been an allegation,” Amokachi says. “At the next training session it was crazy; the media came up from Helsinki, there were paparazzi everywhere. I knew that, whatever happened, this was my responsibility – I’m the coach, I’m the one who works with these players every day. After training, I called the players inside, we all sat down together and had a good meeting. We talked about it and I was satisfied that nothing was going on.

“I don’t blame anyone for thinking it, though. We were relegation favourites, went on a great run and then it flipped, with silly mistakes everywhere. The last huge scandal involved African players and I have Africans here playing for free; you can never tell and they are entitled to ask the question. But I hope, and think, there is nothing going on because I have not seen any signs. I’m a member of Interpol’s match-fixing enquiry initiative so for shit like this to happen around me is not healthy.”

Sceptics may or may not have been quietened by the fact that JS Hercules won their following match 9-0. Their form has been patchy since but with two games remaining, they are five points clear of the relegation places and the aim is to push for promotion next season. The ambitious Perala believes they will be placed to qualify for the Champions League within a decade, although Amokachi hopes to have achieved a lifelong goal of his own by then.

“I know that one day I’ll be the head coach of the Nigeria national team and I will take Nigerian football to a level nobody has taken them to before,” he says. “The ability of player we have these days … any coach given this job is lucky. In my head, I know how we’d play and the blueprint is ready to go. With the talent there now, we should be surpassing my generation, the players from the 1990s. It’s sad, because people still refer back 20 years without looking at what we’ve got today, but the quality is second to none. They seem to have given everybody except me an opportunity but, by God’s grace, it will happen.”

Amokachi would countenance a return to England, too. He stops short of making predictions on that front – “When you’re passionate about the job you do, the good lord will never take his eyes off you” – but is more effusive about his friendship with a former Everton team-mate Duncan Ferguson, who turned up unannounced at his wedding in Tunis in 1995 and who he describes as “just a lovely, sweet guy, one of the best human beings I’ve ever met – nothing like he was on the field”.

Oulu is home for Amokachi now and on an early September evening, it is easy to see how this footballing extremity can be seductive. The sun is lowering in the sky and casts that dreamy, ethereal Arctic light over the nearby delta; Amokachi is enjoying a career detour he could never have foreseen and although he says most of his spare time is spent reading football literature, there is no rush to move on hastily.

“I’m 44 this year and I’m still learning, tactically and managerially,” he says. “For me, to be head coach here is incredible, a grace from heaven. You have to start somewhere to get somewhere, and Africans just don’t get these opportunities. We’ll see how things go at the end of the season. I feel at home here, and that’s the most important thing. It’s why I’m still here. If I didn’t feel at home I’d be long, long gone.”

 

Culled from the Guardian UK