The Finnish side from Kuopio are one match away from making history and qualifying to the Europa League.
In Finland, when it comes to football, HJK Helsinki have been the dominant force over the past decade. The club traditionally donning the colours blue and white, are the only side from Finland to have featured in UEFA Competitions and have lifted 8 league titles since 2009.
However, all that could be about to change thanks to the emergence of a fearless group from Kuopio.
Kuopion Palloseura or KuPS finally ended Helsinki’s hegemony last season becoming champions of the Veikkausliiga – the top tier of Finnish football after finishing second and third in the previous two seasons.
Overcoming a gap of twenty points from both the 2017 and 2018 campaign, scoring more than anyone and conceding fewer than anyone else, KuPS not only created history last season, but they did it in style.
Former KuPS captain Petteri Pennanen spoke to First Time Finish about the team’s achievements last season and their feelings ahead of a crunch game against CFR Cluj in the UEFA Europa League play-offs.
A milestone achievement for Kuopio on the cards
Founded almost 100 years ago, KuPS have a history of being in the qualifiers for European qualification dating back to the 1960s. However, they have never made it to the group stages.
After getting knocked out of the qualifiers for the UEFA Champions League by Molde earlier this summer, Arne Erlandsen’s men rallied in the consequent rounds dropping down to the Europa League. A hard fought victory against Slovan Bratislava on penalties, was followed by a convincing 2-0 win against Lithuania’s FK Suduva to take them one game away from the hotly coveted Europa League group stages.
Local newspaper Savon Sanomat declared it ” the club’s greatest achievement in over 100 years.”
The prospect of playing in the Europa League is something that Pennanen and his team-mates are looking forward to, as they aim to achieve the unthinkable.
“I think there are not many people in this city who have dreamed about something like this and now we are only one win away from the group stage so it is crazy. I think it would be a biggest achievement of the club’s history if we win next week so I think that already tells what it would mean”– Pennanen on the fixture against Cluj.
Rich Nelson runs Escape To Suomi, an English site dedicated to Finnish football. Rich spoke to First Time Finish and echoed the sentiments of several KuPS fans about the prospect of qualifying for Europe.
“The Europa League would be a huge achievement. The fans haven’t had much to cheer in living memory, reaching the group would be as meaningful as the title, only HJK have reached a group stage in the last 20 years.” says Rich.
The 9th most populated city across Finland, Kuopio is a humble city with beautiful lakes and picturesque sights from the famous Puijo Tower. The club itself is of huge significance to the fans and so are its players. They represent the city and its values. They are a source of pride to the people when things are going well.
Impact of a new coach
Under newly appointed head-coach Arne Erlandsen, KuPS aim to build on last season’s title-winning campaign comandeered by Jani Honkavaara.
The man whose methods and philosophy have given him the tag of the “Norwegian Tony Pulis”, has had a significant impact on the club since taking over from Honkavaara.
“The new coach has got them running more and they’re a little more direct, more emphasis on set pieces. There were rumours in pre-season the players went on strike in protest at all the fitness work.” explains Rich.
Such is the intensity of the methods that Erlandsen has instilled. And the results are there for all to see.
“When Arne joined KuPS there were a lot of people wondering whether his style fits our team, but I think he has proven that totally wrong.” says Pennanen.
Last season’s title triumph
Pennanen’s memories of last season’s special title triumph are still fresh in his heart. It has given him and the players motivation to follow through with another title this season as well.
“Still when I’m thinking about that moment when I lift the trophy after last game of the season, I get goosebumps. It was something so special that it is very difficult to even describe”– Pennanen on last year’s title triumph.
While the hockey team generally has a larger following in town, KuPS’ achievement last season was all the more special for the fans and the people of Kuopio.
“There was a huge celebration last year in the town, the hockey team are generally more popular so it was nice to see KuPS doing well. It had been 40+ years since the previous title so a lot of people had never experienced it.” recalls Rich.
No nervous feelings ahead of crunch game against Cluj
The game against Cluj will be the biggest game in the history of Kuopion.
Nonetheless, Pennanen has reiterated that the feeling in the group is a positive one.
“Not nervous, excited. We have to enjoy that moment.” says Pennanen.
KuPS are very much the underdogs going into the game against Cluj. The Romanian giant-killers overcame the likes of Lazio, Celtic and Rennes in the group stage last season. Eventual Champions Sevilla knocked them out on away goals in the round of 32. Pennanen explains that the players are quite aware of their opposition’s strengths.
“We know that we have to play at our highest level or even higher than that to get a win, but one thing is for sure that we not gonna go there afraid of them. We go there only one target in our heads and that is to win the game.”
A local hero of Kuopio
Pennanen came through the ranks at KuPS. He’s been at the club since the age of six and is a local hero.
Now at the age of 30, the Finnish attacking midfielder has already been able to experience different leagues having played in Poland, Indonesia and the Netherlands. However, KuPS has always been close to his heart, having captained the club across four different spells.
“Of course as a youth I had dream and target to play in a first team but never imagined that I would be a captain one day, so it is a huge honor and truly respect all those moments when I have been captain.”
Pennanen has amassed over 150 appearances for the club. He remains a huge figure locally for the fans and is an important player for Erlandsen as well.
“I started playing at the club when i were 6yrs old and I grew up following first teams matches every week. Club has been in my life for so long so it means a lot for me and it is like my second family. Also our fans have been amazing towards me.”– Pennanen on his feelings towards the club
New coach Erlandsen has made improvements to the team as a whole in the past year. There have been improved performances from the players and the former club captain as well.
“Well for sure I’ve been running more than ever before. He has a lot of experience from football so there is lot of small things that I have learned.” explains Pennanen.
The club has had to balance European commitments with league football as well. Although it hasn’t affected their match preparation too much thanks to their hard work in pre-season. The stakes are high in both competitions, but that hasn’t deterred the players’ determination to do well.
KuPS’ story is one of many that the UEFA Europa League brings to light each year. The chance to compete against Europe’s elite and show your mettle, that is what it’s all about.
It presents an opportunity to the people of cities like Kuopio to voice their undying support in front of millions watching. Facing Cluj will be a mighty challenge and if Pennanen’s words are anything to go by, it is a challenge the little club from Finland will relish.