Alexei EREMENKO, the Head coach of team Finland U-18:
"Why all three sons are midfielders like me? Looks like I can't teach anything else!"
In 1983 Eremenko, a very young midfielder of SKA, Rostov, got a son. Happy parents – a football player Alexei and a gymnast Nellia – named their first son Alexei after his father. "I was spending all days long at the trainings, so my wife and I decided that Alexei Eremenko has to be present at home all the time. If it's not Alexei Borisovich then it will be Alexei Alexeevich. Who would have thought then that our entire family would go abroad where they don't use the middle name?", recalls the main character of this interview.
And in the end, both Eremenkos became famous football players – so journalists found a way of differentiating calling the father "Eremenko senior" and the son "Eremenko junior" (just like a family duo of popular Soviet cinema actors). But the football family clan of Eremenkos wouldn't stop there: the second son of Eremenko senior, Roman, also succeeded in making a brilliant football career to become now one of the leaders equally in CSKA Moscow and in the national team of Finland. Moreover, Roman Eremenko has been twice recognized as the player of the year in Finland: in 2011 and 2014! And the youngest Eremenko-son is also approaching the highest football level having celebrated his debut in the top Finnish division in his 15!!! And do you know the most interesting thing? The playing position of all the three brothers is attacking midfielder, just like their father!
– It looks like I can't teach my own sons any other playing role! – laughs Alexei Eremenko senior who now combines duties of a head coach of the Finnish Jaro, Jakobstat (aka Pietarsaari) and a coach of the youth team Finland U-18.
– Your eldest son Alexei – a technical, smart, though not the quickest football player – is well known to Russian supporters for his play for Saturn Moscow Oblast, and your younger son Roman – a mobile, sharp, and also quite technical playmaker – is known by his performances for Rubin Kazan and CSKA. Whose playing manner is more adopted by Sergei – the youngest member of Eremenko football dynasty?
– Sergei has just had his 17th birthday on the 6th of January. Alexei was already a promising player at this age, and some of his playing qualities looked absolutely crazy for his age. Roman matured as a football player later, but eventually he managed to overcome his brother. And Sergei is learning and trying to take something after both of them. Like Roman, he is mobile on the pitch, enduring, trying to use pressing which could help the team and to take the right position to receive a pass. The youngest is playing with me in Jaro and most often he takes the positions "under forwards". Although he can easily play in defense or midfield. But what's the sense of it when Sergei, following an example of the very Alexei, can create himself space for offensive maneuver where this space was missing?! A playmaker must be able to take control of the ball RIGHT with the first touch and to send it to the RIGHT place within a second. My two elder sons can do it, and Sergei is still learning it.
– How did Sergei manage to play his first match in the Finnish top division when he was only 15?
– The circumstances made him. Several players were out due to injuries and the reserve bench in Jaro isn't too long. There was no choice – Sergei was to go on the pitch. Well, and now, after a year and a half, we can already say that he has got the smell of football powder and is prepared for playing adult football.
– Both you and your son have a very hard season in Jaro ahead. The club so small (in financial sense) form a little town (20 thousand citizens) had been dwelling in the elite Finnish league under your leadership for 6 years, but past autumn it was relegated to the first division. Will you be setting an objective for your team "to get back to the elite right away"?
– Of course I will! Hard though will it be. You've mentioned it right about the modest finances. Honestly, our club budget was the smallest in the whole League. Jaro doesn't have sponsors in the full meaning of the term, and neither our city is able to help the football club, so we can stay afloat only because of the efforts of very small companies whose staff lives and works in our city. By the way, they – the desperate Jaro supporters – always want that Jaro has as many of its own Jakobstat graduates as possible. And we should take this into consideration when we are forming a team. Now it will be considerably changed, for many guys had to leave for higher fees during the off-season...
– Don't you have foreigners in Jaro at all?
– Yes, we have. A Canadian, an Ivoirien, a Ghanian, and one player from Guyana. Perhaps we'll even have CSKA forward Aliev. And we are expecting two Mexican players – a midfielder and a forward – for try-outs.
– And by the way, what's the limit on foreign players in the Finnish Championship?
– The situation is quite interesting. Starting list must contain at least half of the players with Finnish passports. At least four Finns in each team must take part in the game itself. Are you getting the thing? Not just to be on pitch at the same time, but to take part in the game. In other words, you can let nine foreign players on pitch at once and only two Finns, and in the end of the match substitute them to the other two Finns.
– It's a really interesting trick. Though I doubt that non-top division clubs can allow such a luxurious thing – nine foreign players...
– You are right. But every rule has exceptions. The new Finnish Champion – Seinajoki club – has demonstrated in action the positive meaning of the phrase "money rules". One local businessman got annoyed with the thought that Seinajoki – a big city by Finnish standards – has no top division football club. And, to put it briefly, he gathered a management team, gave them money and set the task. It's important that he had patience to wait till it was completed. The club failed to enter the elite from the first attempt, but it succeeded next year, then took the second place in the Championship and now won it. It's curious to see what it will have further on, in the Champions League. Their head coach is young, promising, and used to play for the national team – though he still lacks some coaching experience. So he consults me sometimes – like "how should we get rid of that opposing pressing?" (smiling)
– The club you are coaching has a difficult task set for the season. The competition must be tough. And having agreed to coach the Finnish U-18 team you took another load – honorable, but very responsible.
– The competition will be very tough. Kotka. Jyvaskyla, TPS Turku and FC Haka who are multiple champions of Finland – everyone is striving to return to the top division. And it's only one team that is promoted directly and another one has to play additional matches with the second top division bottom team. So far I took the team for one "testing" year. They persuaded me, talked me into it in our Football Federation, having been hunting me for a long time (laughing). I've been thinking it over for a while, for a month and a half. And I agreed only under a condition that I will be able to combine two duties – in the club and in the youth national team. The Federation not only agreed to this condition but even was so kind that aided me to correct Jaro Championship calendar according to my tournaments and friendly matches schedule. Minimum two days before Jaro's following match I will be able to come back to the club and hold trainings. The rest of the time the training process in the team will be led by my proven assistant Umar Markhiev.
– Markhiev? Isn't it the former back of Erzu, Uralan and Angusht?
– It's him. Umar has been brilliantly assisting me in Jaro for several years, being a kind of a "lightning rod" at the same time. For, when my players make rude mistakes on pitch, I speak out all that I think in the "great and mighty Russian language" – but it's only the patient Markhiev on the bench who understands. The players then hear from me in Swedish: "Good, good. Everything's OK!" (laughing).
– Does everybody in Jakobstat, a town in the west of Finland, speak Swedish?
– Mostly yes. When I first came there in 1990, the percentage of the Swedish among the population was approximately 60%. Now it's a bit less.
– Are Swedish and Finnish at least a little similar?
– No, nothing in common!
– Which one of them do you know better?
– I feel free to explain what I need and understand almost everything in Finnish. But I wouldn't be able to give such a big interview. In Swedish – no problem. As well as in English.
– If Rostov schoolboy Alexei Eremenko was told 40 years ago that he would master English, Swedish and Finnish, he would...
– You know, I wouldn't have been surprised. My elder brother started to study English in the 4th grade, and I started together with him at home in Novocherkassk. I was studying and learning words. And at school, and then in our Rostov sports school, my favorite subject was always English. The teacher who was giving me English lessons always treated me as her own son. In the 7th grade she even gave me the "White Fang" book by Jack London in English for reading, so that I wouldn't be bored and wouldn't distract others at the lessons.
The second time I took the school desk was after my arrival to Jakobstat. I decided to enter a business college. I had to study in Swedish. The disciplines were Financial Accounting, Marketing, Law. At first my brain was boiling! I was learning word by word again... And the schedule was tough: a double lesson at 8 a.m., then I had a training at 10, then lunch and two more lessons, a brief walk with the dog and the second training. I was getting terribly tired. But soon I was able to speak Swedish fluently.
– Have you settled in Jacobstat fast?
– Do you know where the strongest shock came from? Not from the assortment in the shops, not from the clean and beautiful streets, although our Jakobstat is a real fairy tale town. What shocked me was where I should spend my free time before matches! In SKA Rostov and then in Moscow in Spartak, Torpedo and Dynamo we were gathered at the base by 16 p.m. on Friday if the match was on Sunday. And here we have a morning warm-up on the day of the match, and you are free after it. You come to the stadium by foot (everything is close) an hour and a half before the match.
My first training in Jaro was something incredible. I first came to Finland from Dynamo Moscow alone to get acquainted with everything. They accurately asked me to come onto the pitch with the team in the morning. I realize that "the product must be shown at its best"... I was lucky to have taken my boots with me. They gave me the uniform and brought me to the stadium. I got acquainted with a Polish player who knew Russian perfectly. The second to get known was Sergei Ratnikov from the team of Estonia. "So far everything is excellent", I thought. The third was a Finnish player. And then we four come to the pitch. "Well, and where is the team?" – I ask. "The team? Somebody is studying and somebody is working". That's how they caught me!
And as for the level of the first league of that time I'd rather say nothing. They had a limit of two foreigners on pitch then, and the spots were taken by Ratnikov and the Polish. The club didn't take risks "to show" me in the Premier League, and they had no reason to give me on loan to the competitors from the first division. So I spent my first season in Finland in the second league. How did I spend it? I scored 12 goals in 11 matches playing in midfield, and our Oulu club was promoted to the first division ahead-of-schedule. But I didn't manage to play there because my Jaro got promoted to the top division, and Ratnikov left the club making a place for a foreigner vacant. So now it's been a quarter of century that I am working in Jaro – first as a player and now as a coach. There were brief interruptions though for the Greek Atinaikos, Norway Tromso and HJK from Helsinki. I have played in the Finnish capital for four years, winning the Finnish Championship once and the Cup of Finland twice. Those were very good seasons, but still I came back to my Jakobstat with great pleasure. Alexei and Roman already lack space there, they both live in Helsinki – not far from each other. To put it more exact, it's only Alexei who lives in Helsinki now looking for a new club. And Roman, as you know, is in CSKA...
– Which you've never played for, by the way. Though you played in Moscow for Spartak, Torpedo, and Dynamo...
– But you must understand what kind of a club CSKA was in the 1980s. Nothing like today's...
– You played exactly half of the Championship matches in 1986 for Spartak – 15 out of 30. Did you get your deserved bronze medal?
– No, they never gave it to me. And the following year I played 11 matches for Spartak and did not receive a golden medal either. But this doesn't stop the Finns to write that I am "the Champion of Russia" as well as "the Champion of Finland" in all the information books. By the Finnish rules, if you ever got to the season list, you are a part of the team's success. And I am proud of the both titles.
– You left Spartak by your own initiative?
– Yes. I was playing for the team with pleasure but I left it myself, and there was a number of reasons. First, Roman was born... It would have been too hard to live at the base with two children, although my wife and I rented a house in Tarasovka for summers. And then the playing situation, of course. A football player always feels beforehand when the coach ceases to see him as one of the team leaders. And Beskov had already brought the young Alexander Mostovoy to enter the lineup. Later, when I had to leave Torpedo and leave Moscow for the second time, I was coming back to Rostov with one thought: "I will never ever go to this Moscow again!.." But soon Byshovets managed to lure me to join Dynamo promising perspectives in the Soviet Olympic team... And only afterwards, in 1990, when – with only one day of difference! – Dynamo office received invitations for Eremenko from Finland and Israel, I took the most important decision in my life.
My family has lived in Finland for 25 years already in Jakobstat, in my cozy house. But Nellia and I speak only Russian in this cozy house. And Alexei and Roman speak Swedish between themselves. Oh, I've kept my eye on them not well enough (smiling).