Soccer and Sauna: The Finnish Football Experience

Well. I did it. Just as winter was starting to break at home, I stuffed a new pair of soccer shoes into my bags and boarded a plane to Kajaani, Finland, just over 3 hours south of the Arctic Circle. Most people look confused when I tell them I came to Finland to play soccer, and with good reason. While the country produces plenty of hockey stars and Olympic skiers, top soccer talents are few and far between, and its national team has never qualified for a World Cup. So why would I come to Finland to play soccer, especially to small city buried in snow for half the year? Good question.

Finland might not share the soccer heritage of Germany, Italy, or Spain, but it is still a European nation, which means a well-organized soccer infrastructure, as well as robust fan culture. This means that even a small city like Kajaani (pop. 40,000) can somehow produce a professional team, a semi-pro team, and a competitive amateur team, on top of the spider web of local teams that compete within the city. Contrast this with the United States, where the plentiful soccer talent is hindered by the sheer size of the country, as well as by a scholastic-centered sports system in which the vast majority of athletes drop out of competitive play the day they graduate from college, years before their potential peak. Those outside of major cities are often relegated to a no-man’s-land of bitter, beer-bellied has-beens and recreational weekend warriors. I couldn’t bear the thought of resigning myself to a similar fate, but I also knew that playing competitive soccer in a country bursting at the seams with 17 year-old superstars was not a realistic option. A country like Finland might just be the perfect spot. The “Goldilocks zone” of the soccer world. So when my best friend Octavio, and his wife, Mari, offered me the upstairs of their house while I took another crack at competitive soccer, how could I say no?

That said, there were no unrealistic expectations. At 31 years old and 6 years removed from high-level soccer, the chances of this experiment ending in disappointment were high. From Octavio’s scouting reports, I figured playing with the amateur team was a realistic place to start. But to obtain a visa that would let me stay for an entire 8-month season, I would need a contract from either the semi-pro, or even professional team. Finland may be Finland, but semi-pro is still semi-pro, and my chances of playing at that level were slim to none. I struggled with whether or not this was the right thing to do. Was I being foolish? Childish? Selfish? Irresponsible? Would I be a burden to my friends and deprive my parents of support at a critical time for our family? I did not take the decision to come here lightly. Still, the door to go to Finland stayed open, while every opportunity for decent employment in the U.S. seemed to go up in smoke. After many prayers and with the backing of my family and other trusted believers, the chance to play in Finland appeared to be an opportunity I could not refuse. The challenge was on.

It’s been 2 months now since I first landed in the winter-wonderland that is central Finland in early March. In some ways, the experience has been everything I hoped for, but it has not come without severe disappointment. I had trained diligently on my own leading up to my arrival, but I knew I would still need time to adjust to playing with a proper team. I showed up to my first practice with the amateur team only to find out that the program was folding. We were being sent to form a new, reserve squad directly affiliated with the semi-pro team. The change was an exciting development; it meant increased visibility and higher potential of moving up, but it also meant directly competing against players already under contract, as well as against rising talents from the development academy. There was a chance I might not make the team at all. Tryouts were a week later. It was some of the fastest, most furious soccer I have ever played. When the dust settled, one of the coaches approached with the training schedule for the next 4 weeks. I was in, at least for the pre-season.

Unfortunately, in the process, I had twisted my ankle, which meant sitting out most of the following week. Over the remaining 3, I had the chance to see more of what I was up against. While Finland itself may not produce that many soccer players, about half my teammates, and competition, came from as far away as Iraq, Mexico, Cameroon, and the Congo. Surprisingly, my speed, strength, and fitness were on par with the semi-pro players, and I easily outpaced almost all the amateur players at our fitness sessions. On the field, however, my lack of experience at a high-level was exposed, and I found myself outclassed and overwhelmed on far too many occasions. I was gaining ground with continued practice, but the end of pre-season was coming, and everyone knew there would be cuts as the roster was finalized. When the 4 weeks were up, I was informed that it would be my last practice.

I was disappointed, to say the least, but the news was no surprise. There were other teams I could still play for, and there was still the possibility of moving back up as my performance improved, and it was improving. Far more disappointing was an injury in my Achilles tendon from a week earlier. I had managed to keep playing despite the injury, but now that pre-season was over, my Achilles needed a rest. I’m learning hard way that tendons can take a long time to heal. It has now been 4 weeks with no soccer at all, and with less than a month before my visa runs out, my time playing soccer in Finland appears to be over.

Knowing how slim my chances were of getting a contract, a new visa, and playing soccer long term, I couldn’t help but suspect that God had an alternate reason for allowing me to come here. Whatever it may be, He has not seen fit to reveal it yet. I won’t pretend not to be frustrated. Finally being able to pursue my passion with focus and intensity was thrilling. Having that chance cut short just as spring arrives and while there is so much more soccer to be played is driving me up the wall. I especially enjoyed getting to know my teammates and being injured has cut off most of my social interaction beyond the walls of this house. The past few weeks have been a challenging time.

That said, I have much to be thankful for. I get to live with my best friend, and somehow, we have gotten along amazingly well. Octavio and Mari have been incredibly generous in allowing me to stay for so much time; I’m happy to have become the resident dishwasher. I’ve been treated to some spectacular winter scenery, both in Finland, and more recently on Norway’s jaw-dropping northern coast. I get to experience real sauna culture, complete with snow rolling and frozen lake dipping, as well as the approach of 24-hour daylight. I’m also very thankful for the many faithful prayers that have gone up on my behalf. Just knowing that many of you are praying for me has been a great encouragement.

In just three short weeks, I’ll be preparing to return to the U.S. Please continue to pray for me, for patience, peace, and the ability to truly trust God to do whatever He is doing. Pray that I might be a blessing and not a burden to Octavio and Mari. Pray that I would be disciplined and constructive with how I use my remaining time here.

Finland is a beautiful country, peaceful and rich in nature. God has been gracious to me, in allowing me to come for this time, even with the setbacks and letdowns. He has a plan and a purpose, for his glory and my benefit. I know this, because the Bible says so. I’m learning that seeing what God is doing while he is actually doing it may be a privilege reserved for only a few. The rest of us get to learn to trust His promises. So, pray for grace too, grace to trust Him more.

Ian Bridgman

 

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