- FC Santa Claus play in Lapland’s capital, Rovaniemi
- The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on the region
- Juha Etelainen tells us about snow football and playing with Del Piero
In Rovaniemi, this is not only – as the song goes – the most wonderful time of the year. It’s also the busiest, and by some distance. Lapland’s snug, snowy capital pulses with life every December as thousands of tourists descend to take in the Northern Lights and visit Father Christmas.
But while the region’s most famous resident is, of course, as busy as ever in 2020, this year’s festive season – amid the worries and restrictions of a global pandemic – feels very different in Santa’s homeland.
As Juha Etelainen, a Lapland resident, explained: “We’ve not been hit too badly with the virus compared to other countries, especially here in the north of Finland, but there’s been a huge change in the atmosphere due to the lack of tourists. It’s very silent, and that’s not the way we’re used to it – especially at this time of year.
“It’s a difficult time for a lot of people in this area who rely on the tourist industry for their income. But I’m a hopeful person and I know that with everything we have to offer here that things will pick up again once the world gets back to normal.”
And it hasn’t all been negative, as Etelainen acknowledges. “In a way it’s been satisfying, after years of this area expanding more and more with tourism, that everyone has been forced to calm down and move a bit slower.”
Fewer commitments, and a more relaxed pace of life, have also afforded the region’s football enthusiasts more time for the game they love. Never mind that it snows 200 days of the year in Lapland, or that temperatures plummet as low as -30°C.
“In most of Finland, we have indoor halls where we can keep playing through winter,” Etelainen told FIFA.com. “And we have a tradition of playing in the icy fields too. We’d put screws, like you see on winter tyres, on the bottom of our shoes to play.
“We also have ‘snow football’. It’s played in deep snow, and I can tell you: it’s a lot of fun. It started out just as something funny we did together, but now it’s actually become something we show as entertainment to tourists. It’s a bit crazy of course – the game probably looks more like rugby than football – but we have a really good time playing it.”
This determination not to take football, or themselves, too seriously is reflected in the name of the local club. FC Santa Claus came into being in 1992 following the amalgamation of two Rovaniemi amateur teams, and the club has played in red-and-white – with Father Christmas on their crest – ever since.
“It’s true that the Santa Claus thing, because it’s always such a big focus in this area, can become boring for the people who live here at times,” explained Etelainen, who has acted in a variety of roles for the club, including chairman. “And for most Finnish people the image we have of Father Christmas isn’t the same as the one in the Coca-Cola adverts. Traditionally, our Father Christmas was a creature called Joulupukki (‘Christmas goat’ is the direct translation).
“But you always have to remember with something like Santa Claus that you’re giving something; that it brings joy to people. If we can help give that joy, it can only be a positive thing. Everyone loves Santa after all.”
Since adopting that famous name, Etelainen and his FC Santa Claus colleagues have discovered just how universal the appeal of Father Christmas is. “We’ve had a lot of media interest in the last ten years especially, and had some of the biggest companies in Asia and America coming over to see us,” he said.
“It’s led to some amazing experiences for us as well. For example, the whole team have been taken to China twice by a marketing company we worked with. The second time, it was even arranged for us to play a game with [Alessandro] Del Piero and Michael Owen. And that kind of thing would never have happened if we weren’t called FC Santa Claus.”
That overseas interest, and some fairly lucrative sponsorship deals, led at one stage to the club targeting a place in the Finnish top flight. As it was, FC Santa Claus never ascended higher than the country’s third tier and recently dropped out of the league structure to play in local eight-a-side competitions.
“At a point, we realised that becoming a big, successful team isn’t the most important thing for us,” said Etelainen. “We’re a club that’s there for fun, and for young people in the area to have somewhere to play and enjoy the game. Youngsters are a big focus for us now.”
The senior men’s team will be revived next month, however, with a German coach – Ralf Wunderlich – at the helm. And while it’s unlikely that we’ll see FC Santa Claus tearing their way up through the Finnish leagues, the club motto of ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ could prove fitting in more ways than one.
Images courtesy of FC Santa Claus & Anssi Jokiranta