HJK are one of the perennial powers of Finnish football. The team, founded in 1907, are the country’s only representatives to have competed in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League, which they reached back in the 1998/99 season.
Juho Makela was only 16 years old at the time, and was already playing for the youth side of his local club Oulu. Eleven years on, the towering striker has a storied career behind him. After playing for clubs in his homeland, Scotland and Switzerland, he returned to Finland in 2008 and now finds himself vying for yet more silverware.
HJK are the reigning Veikkausliiga champions and look to be well on the way to defending their title. With four rounds to go, they have a five-point cushion over closest challengers Honka and are within touching distance of the 23rd championship in the club’s history. Makela has 14 goals to his name this season, making him the top scorer in the Finnish top flight, and while he has played a major role in HJK’s success, he remains his own harshest critic.
"I am relatively satisfied with my season,” the 27-year-old modestly told FIFA.com. “Things went very well in the early stages, and then they went a little quiet. I get the feeling now though that I am getting back to my old level. But I can’t give myself a mark for the season until the final match in 2010 has been played."
This end-of-term mark will depend on whether HJK manage to defend their Veikkausliiga crown, but with a five-point lead and a far superior goal difference to their rivals, the fans are already planning their victory parade. Not Makela, though, who is quick to put a lid on any premature celebrations and point out how quickly things can change.
"We can’t look too far ahead,” the Finland international said. “Even if we are five points clear at the top of the table, it is too early to talk of the title. We’re just focusing on winning the next match. In the final reckoning, we may get our reward or we may not. There are plenty of points still to be lost."
It’s obviously my main aim to establish myself in the Finland team. That has always been my dream, ever since I was a child.
The Helsinki heavyweights can take a big step towards their destiny tomorrow night, when they host sixth-placed Inter Turku. Three days later they have their first chance of silverware this season when they take on TPS Turku in the Finnish Cup final, a competition Makela helped them win in his first campaign at the club in 2003.
He moved on to Edinburgh club Hearts in 2006, before going to Thun in Switzerland on loan. He returned to HJK in 2008, again on loan, and signed permanent terms with them in February of the following year.
"HJK is my home," declared Makela. "The club feels familiar, there’s a positive atmosphere within the team, and the players are all ambitious. After playing for various clubs around Europe, I wanted to get more self-confidence, and HJK were the best team to enable me to do that."
Not that the 1.90m tall striker would have wanted things to be any different: "I enjoyed my time in Scotland and Switzerland very much, and I played well there. I still have a lot of good friends there as well. I may not have achieved everything that I wanted to in sporting terms, but they were still valuable experiences that I picked up."
Makela picked up his first cap for Finland back in February 2004, in a friendly against China PR, but since then has featured only sporadically for the Huuhkajat (Owls). The team got off to a bad start in qualifying for the UEFA EURO 2012, however, with defeats to Moldova and the Netherlands, meaning that he could well get another chance to prove his worth in the near future. Makela himself has certainly not written off his chances of making a comeback.
"It’s obviously my main aim to establish myself in the Finland team," he said. "That has always been my dream, ever since I was a child. I’ve had a few chances in the past but I’ve never been picked on a regular basis. The dream is still alive though, and it’s one of the main reasons why I’ve always worked so hard as a footballer."