Football club Rovaniemen Palloseura – RoPS - is the sublime expert in the Arctic variety of the most popular sport in the world.
Football season at the Arctic Circle begins with snow, darkness and freezing temperatures, continues with slush and rain, and peaks with 24-hour sunlight. In April, during the first matches of the season in the top division of Finnish football, Veikkausliiga, there was still almost one metre of snow on the ground in Rovaniemi. That did not bother the players nor the fans.
“The field is heated, so it is just fresh snow that we need to remove. Sometimes the players have to plough the field clean of snow before we can start training, but that is a great warm-up exercise and a nice variation to upper body workouts”, RoPS Sports Director Jari Ilola laughs.
“During the coldest and darkest winter months we train indoors, so snow is not an issue. Of course, football can be an extreme sport, if the temperatures drop well below zero. The Arctic winter can come as a shock to new players, who may see snow here for the first time.”
When the new players arrive in January, they only get a couple of hours of sunlight per day. In contrast, the sun will not set for weeks in the summer.
“We need to make sure that the players have proper blinds in their bedrooms – otherwise they might not know when it is time to go to bed. Up here we need to consider things other clubs do not need to worry about at all”, Jari Ilola notes.
RoPS fans are very loyal. They cheer their team, come rain or shine. This year the club ran a successful campaign for season tickets, and managed to sell 3700 tickets, which is a great figure in a city of 62000 inhabitants.
A nice Arctic detail is that the Rovaniemi Sports Arena spectator stand Railo won the Finlandia Prize for Architecture in 2016. Former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen, a well-known figure in the Arctic world, selected the winner.
In the Arctic region, distances are long. RoPS players are painfully well aware of this. Most away games require overnight travel.
“We often go by bus or by train, sometimes we fly. If we play against Mariehamn on their home ground, we take the ferry to the Aland Islands, so we literally use all means of transport. It is hard on the players – up to twelve hours travelling, then the match, then a train or bus back”, Jari Ilola explains.
There is also a positive side to being on the road, however. During a season, the team travels for up to 60 days, and that builds team spirit – everyone has to get along with the others.
Jari Ilola is happy with the squad composition. There are seven nationalities represented in the team. RoPS juniors play alongside seasoned professionals.
An experienced defender, Nigerian Taye Taiwo landed in Rovaniemi in the deepest winter.
“I knew the new coach Toni Koskela, and he lured me to Rovaniemi to play. When I arrived, there was an impressive amount of snow, and it was cold! Rovaniemi is very special in winter. I keep snapping photos and sending them to my family. Our schedule is so tight that I have yet to see Santa Claus, but I am looking forward to that”, Taye Taiwo grins.
With matches in Olympique Marseille, AC Milan and the Nigeria national football team under his belt, Taye Taiwo is the undisputed star in the team. In RoPS, there is not much glamour, but he says he is very happy to play in Rovaniemi.
“The travelling can be hard sometimes, but you just try to do your part as well as you can. My job is to make everyone proud, every game that we play.”
RoPS goalkeeper Antonio Reguero came from Spain two years back, and he claims that he has adjusted to the northern conditions.
“The midnight sun is quite a funny thing, and first it was really a surprise. In fact, I like it; it is a lot better than the total darkness in the winter.”
He does not complain about the temperature either.
“I feel that my body actually responds better when the weather is cooler. When the ball is on the other side of the field, I make movements to keep active and to keep warm”, Antonio Reguero replies.
Cold weather has clearly not stiffened Antonio Reguero’s gait – he has not conceded one single goal to the opponents in the first six league games of the season.
The accomplished goalkeeper does not want to brag about the team’s successes.
“The season is long. We need to be humble and continue the same hard work we have been doing since January. If we can keep up the same spirit and desire, I believe this will be a great season for us”, Antonio Reguero says.
Photos (c) Oona Sarajärvi.