The Finnish Leicester: How IFK Mariehamn produced 2016's greatest underdog story


It has certainly been a year for the football underdog.

Leicester City stunned the world by surging to a remarkable maiden Premier League title last May, before Iceland made it to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 in their first appearance at a major international tournament and Wales went one better to reach the final four.

Finland's IFK Mariehamn winning the Veikkausliiga for the first time in their history may not appear to be on a par with those achievements, but theirs is a story undoubtedly worthy of similar, if not greater, recognition.

Finland's former Barcelona and Liverpool midfielder Jari Litmanen branded Mariehamn 'the Finnish Leicester' for the triumph they completed last Sunday. It is a tag that club chairman Robert Soderdahl accepts, but he feels his side had additional challenges to overcome.

"We can be happy with that title [the Finnish Leicester] but we also have to say there are a lot of big differences between Leicester and us," Soderdahl told Omnisport. "They are still a big club with a lot of money, but if you look at the surprise factor - yes, I think we are very similar in that sense."

Posted by IFK Mariehamn on Monday, 24 October 2016

The doubts Soderdahl has in the comparison primarily lie in the fact Mariehamn, who just 13 years ago plied their trade in the third tier, are based on the Aland Islands, an archipelago located in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden and inhabited by just 29,000 people.

Despite the restricted fanbase to draw upon, there were over 4,500 supporters in attendance at their Wiklof Holding Arena when they wrapped up a maiden championship at home to Ilves, Brazilian Diego Assis striking in the 75th minute to wipe out Tuure Siira's first-half equaliser for the visitors and earn a 2-1 win.

"When they equalised everything got a bit more nervous and they are a good side, Ilves, so that moment when Diego - for a second I thought he was going to hit it over the bar from half a metre, so when it went in it was a beautiful feeling," recalled Soderdahl, himself a native of the Aland Islands who can understand exactly what the title means for the region.

"It's been quite a journey. If you look back, Mariehamn for many, many years played in the lower divisions, they were in the first division in 1977 and '78 but that was a long way ago. For every islander it means a lot. It's something that can we can all be proud of, that we are proud of, something that is now talked about all over the world, actually. It puts our little place on the map."

Underpinning the club's success is a symbiotic relationship with the island's remote public. 

After turning professional in 2009, Mariehamn were able to count on the support of local business leaders, who provided leadership training to the coaches, with the programme later rolled out to key players and the remainder of the squad. Furthermore, volunteers contributed their time to help erect temporary seating at the Wiklof Holding Arena to enable a record attendance to watch the season-defining clash against Ilves.

Läktarbygget framskrider i ett rasande tempo! Christian Ekström från Stallhagen leder jobbet med säker hand

Posted by IFK Mariehamn on Saturday, 22 October 2016

"We have a really strong spirit in the Island. A lot of people have businesses alongside their regular work and so on, and I think this is something that appeals to our way of being, to be the David fighting Goliath," said Soderdahl.

That tight-knit community transcends to the players, who are often together for extended periods when Mariehamn travel to away games. Public ferries take the team from the Aland Islands to the mainland - a voyage to Helsinki taking at least 10 hours - with often lengthy coach journeys then required to reach fixtures in-land. 

An agreement with the ferry operators, one of the club's sponsors, permits them additional time on board after regular passengers have disembarked, but round trips frequently last over 24 hours. Yet what could be considered an arduous experience has been integral to developing one of the most cohesive groups in the country, according to Soderdahl.

"When you need to travel so much on the ferries, being in the cabins together and in the buses you create this atmosphere and this spirit among the team that is really strong. I would argue that we have the best team spirit in Finnish football," he said.

"If the game is in Helsinki it's a little bit easier, then you go on the ferry almost at midnight. You arrive in the morning in Helsinki and then you have some time that is usually spent on board. If we travel to other places we may have to get an earlier ferry."

The squad's success is also built on a solid coaching foundation. 

Pekka Lyyski served as head coach for 12 years, masterminding back-to-back promotions and the consolidation of their Veikkausliiga position before retiring after winning the Finnish Cup last year. Mariehamn were expected to struggle following his exit, but Lyyski's assistant since 2005, Peter Lundberg, was given joint control of the first-team alongside Kari Virtanen, drafted in to add experience having spent time in charge at Inter Turku and RoPS.

Joint-coaches remain a novel idea in professional football, but Mariehamn's move has paid dividends and further exemplifies their commitment to individual development. A measured, considered approach enabling them to beat traditional heavyweights HJK Helsinki and 2015 champions SJK Seinajoki to the title has caught the imagination of the rest of Finland.

"You can see that people are congratulating us from all over the world and all over Finland. HJK has won it so many times and now they've lost out two years in a row, SJK is another team with a lot of money, so people did cheer for us," Soderdahl said.

Guldfirande och fyrverkerier hör ihop. Här bjuder vi på ett videoklipp för dig som inte kunde vara på plats igår kväll, och till dig som vill uppleva det igen.

Posted by IFK Mariehamn on Tuesday, 25 October 2016

"I spoke to some people from Rovaniemi [home of 2015's runners-up RoPS and, according to the tourist board, Santa Claus] from the north of Finland, they said to me a long time ago to make sure we take it [the title] when they can't do it anymore. 

"Our story is something that appeals to people, coming from this small island. For Finnish football this is a good thing."

As a reward, Mariehamn can look forward to a place in the second round of Champions League qualifying in 2017-18, the financial benefits of which alleviate some of Soderdahl's concerns over the club's long-term future. On the pitch he insists there will be no shift in mentality, though he dreams of a place in the group stage as the next big milestone.

"We know it will help financially because one game is over 300,000 euro, of course you will have costs for travelling and playing as well, but it still means that we will have money that will help us," he said. "For us it gives us more time to not be so nervous trying to find the extra things so we can plan the development of our club and go forward with that.

"Our approach to the Champions League will be the same approach we have had to this league all year. We take one game at a time. We focus on the next opponent. In the last game, if the focus had been to take gold it might have been a bit dangerous.

"The group stage would be an achievement that might go beyond this, but we will take one game at a time and we might go there, we don't know. But we keep that kind of approach all the time."

Mariehamn would be right not to waiver from a philosophy that has seen them overcome their geographical and demographical restrictions to reach unprecedented, and the most unlikely, heights.