This Sunday, VPS  (‘Vepsu’ to fans) take on Finnish champions HJK Helsinki in the silverware-bereft regional capital of Vaasa. After a surprise third-place finish in 2013, and the return of European football after 15 years, VPS are currently part of an upsurge in the game around the Ostrobothnia region. Peterjon Cresswell and Miika Kemilä visit the Gulf of Bothnia.


Ostrobothnia wouldn’t be the first place that springs to mind when thinking of European football hubs. Considered the Pampas of Finland, with a majority population of Swedish-speakers (and common elks), this region in Finland’s far west before the sea divide with Sweden is a geologist’s paradise.

But 2014 could be Ostrobothnia’s annus mirabilis for football fans, too. Signature club VPS Vaasa, Vasa to Swedes, ‘Vepsi’ to outsiders and ‘Vepsu’ to fans, representing the regional capital, is not only celebrating its 90th anniversary but soon to embark on its first European campaign since a narrow defeat to St Johnstone in 1999.

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At home, Vepsu have enjoyed a defeat-free start to Finland’s summer season. On Sunday, they host the most-titled (and thus most derided) club in Finnish football, HJK Helsinki. A win at the 4,500-capacity Hietalahti may even start talk around this historic town of a first title win since 1948 – though there are fair few Lapin Kultas to be sunk between Sunday and the end of October.

Also challenging to become top dogs in the Veikkausliiga are currently third-placed FF Jaro. This season, the greater region of Ostrobothnia has three representatives in the 12-club top flight, a rarity. Pre-season, VPS, Jaro (from Jakobstad, Pietarsaari to Finns) and just-promoted SJK from Seinäjoki faced each other in a noisy indoor League Cup tournament. VPS won the group, SJK the final – and their first silverware, if you don’t include the second-flight Ykkönnen last year or third-flight Kakkonen in 2011.

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While the VPS-Jaro clash is the traditional derby, up-and-coming SJK represent a town that is up-and-coming in itself, an economic challenger to the previously dominant Vaasa/Vasa. Investment is pouring into Seinäjoki, the club’s supporter base is growing and the local Mallaskoski brewery is no longer having to distribute free condoms to sell more of its renowned Leningrad Cowboy lager.

VPS, meanwhile, needed no gimmicks to achieve a top-three finish and European slot in 2013. Top goalkeepers rarely make good managers – Popes, perhaps, or existentialist French writers, but not football managers. Much-capped Olli Huttunen, recent head coach of the Finnish national side, has broken the mould and formed a fast, well organised side that surprised everyone in 2013.

Team Captain Strandvall with fans

Backed by Vepsu’s fanatical following Geezerit, who had been witnessing low-place finishes and second-flight football pretty much since the St Johnstone fixture UEFA Cup qualifier of 1999, VPS actually topped the league for a while. Injuries hampered this rare title challenge, and Huttunen’s men had to be satisfied with third place, behind… 26-time title-winners HJK.

For 2014, VPS have lost top scorer, Newcastle-born Tomi Amoebi (brother of Shola and Sammy) to Edmonton but gained St Vincent international Cornelius Stewart and Jean Fridolin Nganbe Nganbe to create the fastest attacking trio in the Veikkausliiga, along with Jamaican striker Steven Morrissey.

Bolstered by goalkeeper Henri Sillanpää, defenders Ville Koskimaa and new boy Timi Lahti, plus defensive midfielder Anthony Dafaa, and blessed with wild card, former Crystal Palace Baltimore winger Jordan Seabrook, VPS offer a convincing argument for the Finnish title to come to Ostrabothnia for the first time in living memory.