Finnish islanders take on Europe

Finnish club IFK Mariehamn, from the capital of a Swedish-speaking archipelago in the middle of the Baltic Sea, make their European debut this week in a remarkable rise for one of the continent's smallest sides.

The team have been drawn against Inter Baki of Azerbaijan in a two-legged first-round qualifying match for the UEFA Europa League to be played on Thursday and next week.

Tiny Mariehamn's appearance in the competition is by all accounts astonishing, as 10 years they were playing in the depths of the Finnish third division.

Competing in Europe has been "the team's dream for years", manager Pekka Lyyski, told AFP.

Lyyski, now 59, played for the club in the 1970s and took charge as coach in 2003, taking them to two successive promotions and into the Finnish top-flight.

Last year, he steered Mariehamn to an unprecedented 4th place - and a tilt at Europe for the first time.

Off the beaten track
For their European opponents, Mariehamn is an unlikely footballing destination. The sleepy town is the capital of the Aaland chain of islands between Finland and Sweden. Just 80 of the 6,500 islands are inhabited and the total population is only 28,000.

Aaland could have become Swedish and its inhabitants voted as such when Finland became independent in 1917.

But Helsinki, which claims sovereignty, obtained an agreement from the League of Nations in 1921 that Aaland would remain definitively under its control, in exchange for autonomous status.

Aaland today has its own flag, vehicle number plates, parliament and stamps that sets it apart from the rest of Finland.

Football pride
The recent success of Mariehamn's footballers is another source of local pride.

Lyyski, who has run a number of hotels on the archipelago for several years, is pleased with his successful transformation of the club into a professional outfit.

"Since our promotion to the Veikkausliiga (1st division), financing from private sponsors has increased considerably, allowing us to make our club into a business," he explained.

"We don't pay big wages in international terms but for Finland we're competitive," he added.

With an annual budget of about €1 million (USD $1.3 million), Mariehamn reflects the average in Finnish football.

The club benefits from a privileged way of life on an island just 47 kilometres (29 miles) north to south and 34 km (21 miles) east to west, renowned for its nature, family atmosphere and a strong sense of community.

The way of life is what attracted Jamaica forward Dever Orgill, 23, to Mariehamn after a career that began at Major League Soccer side Vancouver Whitecaps and St George's SC in the Jamaican National Premier League. Orgill scored 23 goals last season.

"It's a good place for someone who has a family," said Orgill, who has an eight-month-old daughter.

"Everything's close here. It's possible to go out to eat in the town and then walk in the countryside."

Adding to the sense that Mariehamn is a family club, the coach's 30-year-old son, Jani Lyyski, plays in defence and captains the side.

"The club has worked really hard to create a good atmosphere. We want players who enjoy themselves on the pitch and off it," he added.

Mariehamn's players view their supporters as the best in Finland, particularly as the hundreds who regularly travel for away games first have to take a ferry to the mainland. At home, attendances for big matches can reach 2,500.

"That's enormous in relation to the size of the island," Jani Lyyski said.