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News, 09/12/2011

Football fan’s dream job — with work included

Few football fanatics can deny dreaming of actually getting paid to follow world-class football and to get to analyze this great game for a living. Working as a football correspondent, especially in the UK, surely would be a dream job for many. But for correspondents, the actual match is only a small part of the working day as preparing for the round has already begun days earlier and regularly the day continues late into night after the final whistle. We talked to a Finnish football correspondent in London.

The everyday of a football correspondent

Photo: Tiina HeiniläWorking previously as a foreign policy correspondent for the Finnish media Ilta-Sanomat, Saku-Pekka Sundelin changed his hometown from Helsinki to London a year ago. At the same time he also switched from covering politics to teams and stadiums of the great game of football. And in the UK there’s no lack of either, football or stadiums.

Saku-Pekka’s job is to write and report not only about the action on the pitch but also about the culture surrounding this famous sport. Finnish football fans are used to reading about his experiences and analysis from Ilta-Sanomat and also from the annual “Britti futis”-extra that is published before the season kicks off. The annual magazine is a legendary bible for all fantasy footballers and office groups betting on football.

For many football followers this job would definitely be something of a lottery jackpot. This very romantic view naturally derives from the opportunity to see world class matches and meet the best players in sport. Certainly a part of this is fantasy is realized, but the job description also includes the long days and hard work.

“Many people forget how small part of the work the actual match is. Most of the routine work really starts after the final whistle”, mentions Saku-Pekka. “As a Finnish journalist, you have to work relentlessly with the teams and their organizations if you want to get the interviews you want. No one comes and offers you the match tickets or interviews when you’re a correspondent from a small country, especially when your colleagues and competitors normally represent well known international football publications.”

“Sometimes it would be nice to have a free weekend, or to just go to a match just for fun. But I’m certainly not complaining”, he’s quick to add. “In this job I also get to see England all over and before long when I return to Finland I know I will miss the fact that now I’m living only a walking distance away from the closest premiership team.”

The change in English football culture can be seen everywhere

Photo: Saku-Pekka SundelinBetween legends. Paul Gascoigne and Tottenham's all-time goal scorer Jimmy Greaves.

The everyday of a Finnish football correspondent is far from easy when battling with the biggest teams in the world and their media machinery. “Teams are keen to protect their stars and it’s extremely difficult to get interviews especially from star players”, Sundelin points out. As an example he mentions the numerous tries to score interviews with the stars of both of Manchester’s big clubs.

The global growth in popularity of the Premier League and its biggest teams has also had an effect on the English football culture as a whole. The ever-growing football tourism is a great example of this. Himself a  football player and an enthusiastic since childhood, Sundelin sees this change happening in both the clubs’ organizations and also in the fan culture and the atmosphere in the stadiums. “The best atmosphere by far can be found from the lower league matches outside the big cities, such as London and Manchester, where attendances never compare with Premier League but the fans are always the most passionate.”

Lauri Dalla Valle and Saku-Pekka on the ball.Young Finnish football talent Lauri Dalla Valle wonders Saku-Pekka's silky touch.

In growing numbers the biggest clubs’ stadiums are filled with football tourists, who might not have that same emotional connection or passion to the teams playing. For these visitors Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium or Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge are just as important sights of London as Piccadilly Circus or the Buckingham Palace. One-off tourists are also more willing to pay huge sums for a single match ticket compared to a local fan for whom paying £80 pounds weekly for a ticket can be impossible.

At the moment there are only 2 Finnish players in the Premier League, compared to the beginning of the 2000’s when record 9 Finns played for the top clubs. According to Sundelin there would be plenty of room in the lower leagues for Finnish footballers, and these highly competitive leagues known for their rough style of play could also work as a springboard for many aspiring player. The biggest surprise lately has been the arrival of half-Finnish Carl Jenkison to Arsenal last summer. Mostly under the radar until now, the young player has received lots of attention from the media in Finland and the UK after the signing. “Jenkinson is only 19 years old — It’s absolutely marvelous that he’s already been playing in the starting line-up of Arsenal.”

However, Saku-Pekka sees also the other European football leagues open to Finns, especially with the quality of football being so high in many countries. It would be easy for young players to try out their wings by playing in lower divisions and leagues and gain valuable international experience. “Maybe the thinking in Finland is too much that England would be the only possible option available. We’ve had loads of Finns playing for example in the Central European leagues.”

The mission for good sports journalism is also to educate

Photo: Saku-Pekka SundelinFinnish names can sometimes be a bit difficult for Brits, even at Wembley.

All in all Saku-Pekka sees the job of a football correspondent more broadly than only as match reports and analysis of the league table. “If I remember correctly, sports journalist Kaj Kunnas once said that the mission of good sports journalism is also to educate and civilize. There are endless possibilities for different football stories in Britain”, Sundelin says. “Football’s not only about the result, there’s lots of culture, history and customs attached to it.”

In Britain it’s still possible to sense this culture on a match day around the stadiums. A football journalist can draw from this by talking to fans and trying to get under the surface of the match day atmosphere. These are often eye opening experience as whole areas around the stadiums are filled with fans and pubs are crowded with local football experts.

But what has been most surprising or fun this far for the correspondent in the world of English football? After a moment’s thought the answer’s an easy one: “The insightful chants from the stands that one gets to hear at the stadiums. This is always something that proves the existence of a local fan culture, when you hear the home and away fans singing and chanting to each other from both ends of the ground with these ‘choirs’ consisting of thousands of people.”

So, especially on a match day the football correspondent’s job certainly is the every fan’s dream job that also offers the chance to scratch deeper on the surface of the British society and football culture.

Teksti: Otto Turtonen.
Kuvat: Tiina Heinilä, Ilpo Musto, Saku-Pekka Sundelin.

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Updated 09/12/2011

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