Mecca for the world's young footballers
The teams competing in the Summer Olympics can total at most around 15,000 including athletes, coaches, support personnel and managers. An event that can boast of a similar number is the annual Helsinki Cup tournament, which brings over 14,000 girls and boys from many parts of the world to the Finnish capital to pit their abilities against each other. There, however, the similarity ends.
Given how professional the Olympics have become, many say that the joy of winning or even of participating has been lost. Competing is work, for which the best receive princely rewards. The sums of money that the whole thing generates are dizzying. The astonishing sum of $3.6 billion has been paid for just the TV rights to the games in 2000-2008. There is little room for playfulness in that kind of league. The Helsinki Cup is a completely different kettle of fish, with a budget of a mere 1.8 million markkas (300,000 Euro) and an almost complete dependence on voluntary labour for which the only reward is being able to see the sincere joy of the youngsters as they display their virtuosity on the pitch.
The youngest players in the tournament are only 8. For them the game is still play, even though the sting of defeat can provoke bitter tears. The 19-year-olds may already have visions of a professional career taking shape in their minds; after all, some of the youngest stars playing for the worlds great clubs are not even that old. What matters most is, however, that the Helsinki Cup gives many of the participants the first chance they have in their lives to experience the excitement of playing in an international game, in addition to which many lasting friendships are made off the field.
The tournament in 2000 was the 25th. The number of participants has fluctuated slightly; the record to date is 15,000 players from 29 countries. All in all there have been teams from over 60 countries, the remotest being Brazil, Chile, the USA, Mexico, Namibia, Tanzania, the Philippines, Thailand and China.
Travel costs are a big burden on the budget of a team that comes a long distance, so they collect the money from sponsors, says Helsinki Cup Executive Manager Kimmo Söder. But the Finnish Government has also dipped into its coffers; a Tanzanian team that played in the anniversary tournament in 2000, for example, had their trip paid by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. They were worth it, too, because they ended up in the medals in their series.
In the quarter of a century that it has been organised the Helsinki Cup has received international recognition. In l993, for example, the International Olympic Committee designated it a European Sport for all event and the tournament in 1996 was chosen as one of the events honouring Unicefs 50th anniversary.
The Helsinki Cup is part of a Nordic youth tournaments series played at venues in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland in successive weeks in July. The games in Helsinki will be played between 8 and 14.7 in 2001. Then the shouts of supporters will ring out from the spectators as small studded boots flash across the pitch and eyes are fixed firmly on the ball. The football, the worlds most popular item of sport equipment.