For weirdness, Finland is a winner
“You can say you’re world champions of swamp soccer,” said Matti Paulavaara, 34, one of the team members, after a contemplative pause. “How many can say that?”
The genesis of swamp soccer was in 1998, when creative town officials in Hyrynsalmi cooked up a festival-like event that would make use of the area’s vast swamplands. Thirteen teams showed up for the first tournament. Since then, the competitive field has grown to about 200 teams.
The recent matches — six-on-six, with 10-minute halves — were played on 20 fields of varying squishiness, spread out over 50 acres of swamp. Finnish rock echoed through the woods.
People striding on seemingly firm ground would disappear suddenly into the soft earth, as if descending a stairway. Some tottered on their hands and knees, like babies. Others stood still, until they were waist-deep in muck. The scores were generally low. Many of the players were drunk.
It’s hard to imagine an uglier version of the Beautiful Game.
“You play, you lose, you win — no one cares,” said Sami Korhonen, 25, of Kajaani, who was playing in the tournament for the ninth time. “The whole game is so tough, you’re totally wiped out when you’re done.”
This streak of strenuous irreverence began sweeping through the quiet Finnish countryside in the mid-1990s, and has only grown since.
In 1995, a Finn named Henri Pellonpaa killed a world-record 21 bugs in five minutes at the Mosquito Killing World Championships in Pelkosenniemi.
The World Sauna Championships were heavily contested in Heinola from 19992010, until a competitor died from third-degree burns.
More recently, thousands of Finns, most of them teenage girls, have taken up competitive hobbyhorsing, wherein competitors trot and hurdle obstacles while riding the wooden toys.
How did this happen? How did Finland become such fertile ground for wacky sports?
There’s no simple answer, but Finns offer various deep-seated factors, including an enthusiastically outdoorsy populace (that goes slightly stir-crazy during the region’s oppressively dark winter months), widespread public access to recreational spaces, and a continuing relaxation of the traditionally reserved national character. (Also, alcohol.)
Finland is the most thinly populated country in the European Union. It boasts endless forests and almost 200,000 lakes, and its residents enjoy “Everyman rights,” which guarantee public access to most outdoor lands and bodies of water for recreational purposes. The European Commission consistently ranks Finns as among the most physically active people on the continent.
“We’re like a forest people,” said Lassi Hurskainen, 30, a former professional goalkeeper from Joensuu, who visited the swamp soccer tournament while hosting a segment for a Finnish sports television show. “So we come up with games that relate to nature.”
Straddling the Arctic Circle, Finland endures long, punishingly dark winters. Summer therefore marks a period of national catharsis. It helps that the country has an estimated 500,000 summer cottages, and because many Finns receive up to six weeks of vacation time per year, the act of unhurriedly passing time outdoors feels almost like a national birthright.
There was a time long ago when Finland was very serious about its sports. Athleticism and physical activity were important concepts around which the country’s identity was built after it gained independence from Russia in 1917.
The first half of the 20th century brought what Pasi Koski, a sports sociologist at the University of Turku, calls the “golden age of Finnish elite sport.” The country won an average of 24 medals at the Summer Olympic Games from 1908-1948, punching well above its weight in the global arena. Champion runners, like Hannes Kolehmainen and Paavo Nurmi, achieved heroic status.
They embodied the important Finnish concept of sisu, which loosely translates into some combination of words like determination, patience and hardiness.
The rest of the world caught up, eventually. From 1992-2012, Finland took home an average of four medals at the Summer Olympics, and at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, the country won a single medal: the bronze in women’s lightweight boxing.
But if the halcyon days of elite sports in Finland seem like a distant memory, the contours of a new, far weirder era of national sports prosperity have taken shape, one that reflects the wave of individualism still growing in this young country.