Inside FC Santa Claus: Lapland’s favorite football team – who are finally getting serious
Photography: Konsta Leppanen
There’s a wry smile on the face of Tomi Koski as he prepares to pose for pictures for FourFourTwo. Christmas is drawing near, and that can mean only one thing. Time for the weird photoshoots.
“Last winter I was standing in one metrer of snow, in the forest, with my full kit on,” he says. “And I was thinking: ‘I’m a footballer, so why am I standing here?’ But I’m used to it. It’s fun. Other clubs don’t get to do these kinds of things.”
This evening, the players of FC Santa Claus are clambering into some elf costumes for a spot of training on a snow-covered pitch at the smart Keskuskentta stadium, the main football venue in the picturesque city of Rovaniemi, as Father Christmas himself looks on with interest.
Through necessity, the club’s real season ended several weeks ago on October 1. We’re in Lapland in the far north of Finland, where the temperature has already plunged to minus 10 degrees. It has been known to get as cold as minus 38. But despite a lack of actual fixtures, this is peak season for the globe’s most Christmas-themed football club. Unsurprisingly and understandably, almost all of the interest from the outside world comes in the lead-up to December 25.
This year, it’s probably just as well that their season itself went under the radar. Defender Juho Saukko laughs nervously when FFT asks how they did in 2016. “You can look at the league table,” he says. “It didn’t really go well.”
Ho, ho, h-oh, no
Indeed it did not. FC Santa Claus, founded in 1993, spent the 2016 season in the third tier of Finnish football. After several experienced players left the club, they picked up only eight points from 22 games, and conceded 102 goals. Relegation was inevitable, and they finished 19 points adrift of safety after losing their last 13 league encounters.
“It was something like that – I wasn’t counting, to be honest,” says Koski, the team’s captain and, at only 26, the oldest player. “I don’t know what happened. It’s a very young team, and once we lost three or four games in a row it was hard to get the lads to focus.”
Among the defeats was a 9-0 loss to Hercules, managed by former Everton and Nigeria striker Daniel Amokachi, and whose team finished eighth in the 12-team league. Then came the biggest humiliation: a 16-0 thrashing to Kajaani in the campaign’s penultimate fixture.
After several experienced players left the club, they picked up only eight points from 22 games, and conceded 102 goals. Relegation was inevitable
“It was terrible,” says 18-year-old Saukko, who was stepping up to play senior level for the first time in 2016. “I played in that game and people still ask me, ‘Were you in the team that lost 16-0?’ But we had a lot of injuries and we didn’t have enough fit players.”
“At that point in the season, everyone had pretty much given up,” Koski reasons, as he ponders why just the 11 FC Santa Claus players turned up for that match, a four-hour bus ride away. “There were some lame excuses why people couldn’t come to the game. I guess everyone knew we were going to lose and didn’t really want to go.
“We had to play three goalkeepers in the starting line-up. Two of them played up front. They tried their hardest, but if you’re a goalie, then even if you’re good with your footwork you are not close to the level needed to play outfield.
“That game was really embarrassing. It was six or seven minutes until the first goal and before then I believed we’d do all right – it was fine. Then the first one went in and I thought, ‘Here we go.’ The goals started coming. They did hit the post once, but then scored with pretty much every other shot they had.”
At least FC Santa Claus will never run out of men to stand between the sticks: they have five goalkeepers in total, two of whom were unavailable that day. Mikko Rantala couldn’t make it because he was behind bars in Vegas – the local casino Feel Vegas, that is, where he works at the heavily fortified cashier desk through to the early hours.
“It’s been tough for Mikko,” Koski admits. “He’ll be working until 4am. Once, we had to leave for a game at 5am, so he came straight from work and slept on the bus. Has he ever fallen asleep during a game? Maybe if we kept the ball he would, but there’s so much traffic in our penalty box that I can assure you there’s no chance!”
Rantala bemoans the club being so far north. “A lot of the other clubs come from the south,” he grumbles. “We travelled 10,000km on the bus last season. It’s hard on my ass, sitting like that for so long. But we’re all friends at this club. Here the name is normal, although when I told my girlfriend that I played for FC Santa Claus, she laughed.”
We travelled 10,000km on the bus last season. It’s hard on my ass, sitting like that for so long
She wasn’t the only one to smirk at the name. Koski adds: “You do hear some really lame jokes from our opponents about Santa Claus, elves and reindeer. Maybe some teams try harder against us, as well. They probably think it’s embarrassing to lose to us.”
Being good boys
In 2017, FC Santa Claus will drop down to the fourth tier – the division they escaped two years ago. The club’s 23-year history has been spent bouncing between Finland’s third and fourth levels.
They were formed from a merger between two local football teams in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, which has a population just north of 60,000. Lapland has long been the home of Santa Claus according to Finnish folklore and, although he was originally claimed to reside in Korvatunturi a further 150 miles north-east, the Santa Claus Village amusement park was opened in Rovaniemi in 1985.
Lapland has long been the home of Santa Claus according to Finnish folklore, although he was originally claimed to reside in Korvatunturi a further 150 miles north-east
Tarho Iljin, one of the founders of the new football club, sensed an opportunity. “When we were founding the club, I was the one saying we should make it FC Santa Claus,” recounts Iljin, who still watches most games from the stands. “Everyone thought about it for a while and agreed. We wanted it to be a thing for the future.”
Today, the 68-year-old is proudly sporting an original FC Santa Claus tracksuit from the 1990s. It features the original club badge, which shows a waving Santa controlling a football. These days, Santa has grown tired of all that waving, and a new crest features him writing at a desk – his ‘naughty’ and ‘nice’ lists, presumably.
Iljin has played quite a significant role in the growth of the Santa Claus brand in Rovaniemi – a new hotel here was named Hotel Santa Claus after he suggested it, too. FFT is staying at the affiliated Hotel Rudolf. It’s hard to go anywhere in the city without being confronted with some reminder of Christmas, even during the summer. Tourist numbers grow all the time, particularly in December.
However, the club’s name of FC Santa Claus AC – the AC stands for Arctic Circle, rather than being a homage to AC Milan – did need the approval from Santa himself. Fortunately they didn’t have to go far to get it: Saint Nick has been based at the Santa Claus Village just a couple of miles north of the city, straddling the Arctic Circle line, ever since it opened.
The club’s name of FC Santa Claus AC – the AC stands for Arctic Circle, rather than being a homage to AC Milan – did need the approval from Santa himself
Everyone we speak to in Rovaniemi is at pains to point out that he is indeed the real Santa, and he even welcomes FFT into his grotto for an exclusive, if surreal, interview.
“They are all very good friends of mine, so I gave them my name to use,” Santa explains when asked about FC Santa Claus, who play in red and white. “A long time ago we had a little negotiation about it, but it was very short – I said yes. When I was young, I played a bit. What position? Well, in those days we didn’t have any positions; there were just a few of us in a swamp, running around.”
We feel the question has to be asked: what does Santa make of his affiliated club’s awful form? Is Christmas cancelled?
“No, no, success and being good boys are two different things. A lot of people have been successful but do not even ask me if they have been good,” he says, on the day that Donald Trump has been elected as the new president of the United States of America.
Sadly, the big man – that’s Santa, not Trump – has too many other commitments to ever take a hands-on role at the club; he is merely a figurehead. Occasionally he will turn up to perform a ceremonial kick-off, as well as posing for pictures with the players, including for their profile pictures on the club’s website.
“I’ve been to a few of their games, but over half a million people from all over the world visit me every year, so that keeps me pretty busy,” he boasts. “It’s quite a lot of people each day when you divide by that 364 – because for one day a year I’m away from here, for certain reasons.”
While Father Christmas doesn’t have a hands-on role at the club, Juha Etelainen certainly does. Like the players, the club secretary is a volunteer – an enthusiast. He’s also a man who remembers the heady days when 5,000 spectators turned up to watch FC Santa Claus play a summer friendly against Crystal Palace back in 1997. The average attendance these days is closer to 60.
I’ve been to a few of their games, but over half a million people from all over the world visit me every year, so that keeps me pretty busy. It’s quite a lot of people each day when you divide by that 364
“Many teams from the UK used to come over and play in Finland,” reminisces Etelainen, adding that West Ham also visited for a game. “Now teams go to Thailand or China instead as it’s much more lucrative. Maybe teams in the English second or third division could still visit us, though. Summer here is great.”
The club’s highest point came in 2010, when FC Santa Claus came top of the third tier and were agonizingly close to promotion, only to concede a late goal in their final play-off match.
“The team who beat us that day, HIFK, from Helsinki, are now playing in the Finnish Premier Division,” Etelainen reflects wistfully. “There were three teams in those play-offs and both of the other teams eventually got as high as the Premier Division. Sometimes you get to a crossroads and go in a different direction than you hoped.”