KENYA BROWN - Tuesday, November 29, 2016
The end of the 2016 Veikkausliiga season could not have been any sweeter for Brian "Cobi" Span and IFK Mariehamn as they pulled off the improbable by being crowned the champions of Finland.
Finland's top division may not be as glamorous as the leagues in England, Spain, Germany and Italy, but it is a place where young players can get playing time to eventually move on to bigger and better leagues. This is where Span made his return to Europe after his stint in MLS with FC Dallas.
To say that the New York native and team's success over the past two seasons was nothing short of miraculous would be an understatement as they overcame the odds by first winning the Finnish Cup last season and topping that by winning the league this time around when many analysts had predicted that they would be candidates for relegation.
When speaking to Yanks Abroad, the 24-year-old midfielder was still coming to the realization that his team are champions.
"The past few days have been almost like a dream when I think about us winning the title," he said. "I think it's just starting to sink in now that we actually did it, it's an incredible achievement and we absolutely deserved it. Feels good to be a champion!"
Mariehamn is not the biggest team in Finland as the likes of HJK Helsinki and SJK Seinajoki are always considered the favorites to lift the trophy. With a stadium that can hold up to 4,000 people, the team's accomplishment is even sweeter as it came on the heels of another underdog winning a league title thousands of miles away.
Leicester City was also considered relegation candidates when they entered the 2015-16 English Premier League season, but overcame the odds to lift the trophy in May. That is why many are now calling Mariehamn "the Leicester City of Finland."
And Span feels the two teams are similar, which is why he takes it as a great compliment when hearing people mention the team affectionately known as "the Islanders" in the same sentence with the English champions.
"It's pretty cool to be compared to Leicester City because in a lot of ways we are similar in how we overcame the odds to become a champion. In terms of style of play and the players we had I think we were very alike," he said.
To understand Mariehamn's success today, one has to look at their past and how they worked their way up to becoming champions.
The team formed in the 1930s on the Aland Islands, which lies in between Finland and Sweden in the Baltic Sea. In its early years, the team only played in local tournaments until it started to play in the Finnish leagues full-time in the 1940s. After bouncing between the lower divisions, it finally made its move up to the Veikkausliiga in 2004.
Most of the team's success can be put to Pekka Lyyski, who basically built the team from its semi-professional days up to the juggernaut they are now. It would be the coach who guided the team to their first piece of silverware in 2015 when they won the Finnish Cup with a 2-1 win over FC Inter Turku.
However, after Lyyski's retirement, many pundits believed the team would struggle to survive in the league. Then Mariehamn surprised everyone by not hiring one, but two coaches for the team - Peter Lundberg and Kari Virtanen. It was a highly unusual move, but it paid off as the team did not become complacent with their cup success and went on to shock the naysayers by winning the league title on the last day of the season.
When thinking back on the critics' predictions, Span can only smile as he loves that the team proved their doubters wrong. He believes their negativity was just the fuel he and his teammates needed to go out on the field and play to the best of their abilities.
"It's funny to see now how people wrote about us predicting we would be fighting for relegation. If anything I feel like that gave us more motivation as an underdog," said Span. "From the beginning of the season to the end I believe we went into games with a "right here, right now" mentality. Which basically meant to only focus on the game or training ahead of us and to give our 100 percent."
"Once you start worrying about how other teams are doing in the table and what the press is saying, you're setting yourself up for failure."
The former Virginia Cavalier remembers so clearly the day they won the league title. More than 4,000 fans packed the Wiklof Holding Arena to watch Mariehamn take on Ilves. A win guaranteed the crown, but losing any points would have given the title to either HJK or SJK, who were playing against each other on the same day. However, goals from Bobby Fridberg da Cruz and Diego Assis ensured the team the win and their first ever league title.
For a region with a population of just 29,000 people, this achievement put them on the map as Mariehamn is considered the lifeblood of the Aland Islands.
The memories of seeing how the fans supported and celebrated with the team is something that Span will not forget for a long time.
"The atmosphere for our last game against Illves was incredible! The whole town came to the game and was singing and chanting the whole 90 minutes. When that whistle finally went off it was mayhem with all the fans running onto the pitch to celebrate the title with us, people were crying and overjoyed at what we just did. A memory I will never forget," he said.
Now that Mariehamn are champions, the focus now turns to next season when the team makes their first foray into the Champions League. It is something that Span has already begun to think about as he continues to revel in the team's success. In addition, teams in the Veikkausliiga will be looking to knock off the champions and show that last season was nothing more than a fluke.
Span realizes the challenges that await him and the team next season, and thinks they will have to make a lot of improvements to keep themselves competitive in all competitions.
"Of course it will be more difficult as a champion, and especially with the Champions League qualifiers arriving in the summer I think we're going to have to improve in every category," he said. "Personally I want to be more lethal going forward to take more chances for myself whether it's a shot on goal or to create a chance for an assist. I know I can do it and I just have to continue training hard and trying new things In the game and practices."
"As a team I think there's many things to improve on, and I know we will lose a couple players and sign some new ones so it will be a new learning process with the players that arrive. We just have to keep the same mentality and work towards staying that tight-knit team we are now with an underdog mentality."
The challenges will come later, but as for now, Span will take the off-season to reflect on Mariehamn's title-winning season and excitedly look forward to the Champions League.
"Playing in the Champions League has been a dream of mine since I was a kid and now that I have that opportunity it's something I want to take advantage of. I want to win and show my qualities to the best and also see how I compare at that level. It's going to be an awesome experience and I'm really looking forward to it," said Span.