Imagine being a professional footballer plying your trade in a foreign country (Canada), having to play home games in the USA, travelling on international duty back home (Finland) where you haven’t been in a year, and not being allowed to see your folks when you get there. Oh! and that’s despite them living only five minutes away from the team hotel...
Then... flying back to your club team’s New Jersey base, isolating for a further ten days and finally getting back to Montreal and immediate family, only on 2 November.
That’s the current lot of Impact captain Jukka Raitala.
Raitala left Montreal with the rest of his team-mates on October 2 for New Jersey, where he played against Chicago Fire the following evening.
Speaking from the Finnish team’s hotel by the ocean in Helsinki today, you might think he’s just about had enough of this nomadic existence, but he’s surprisingly upbeat and chipper about things, although admits the change of environment helps with the mood, even if certain strict restrictions apply.
“All we do is train and prepare for the games, it’s a little less strict than in MLS, where we are tested every two days, here it is twice per week. And we can at least walk by the hotel along the sea, but keeping our social distancing always in mind.
“I’m not allowed to see family however, even though they are literally 5 minutes from the team hotel. No-one’s families are permitted to come here, but I knew that would be the case and so did they before I came here, so.... “
One can only imagine how difficult and incredibly frustrating that scenario must be. Not only for Raitala, but for his folks as well, of course.
The Finns played against Bulgaria on Sunday, winning 2-0 in front of 6,500 fans, with Jukka saying, “It felt amazing considering what’s been going on with no crowds at matches”.
“It’s important for us as players, but it’s important also for the fans. It was great to see them again, Sunday. You feel for them, both in MLS and in Finland. Just think, in Finland the national team has traditionally never had much success, then things start to happen.
“We qualify for the Euros, everyone’s excited and looking forward to the finals, the first-time ever. Then Covid comes, the tournament is postponed for a year and we hope - we can only hope - that it will go ahead as planned in 2021, but who knows with the pandemic?
“So, right now it’s tough on the fans who should be enjoying something they’ve waited on for so long. It’s almost like it’s been taken away from them.”
If travelling transatlantically sounds like a nightmare, then think again... “It was OK actually.” says Jukka. “The only real difference I detected was there were less people on the plane, and the airports were less crowded. I flew into Amsterdam and then on to Helsinki.”
Raitala arrived in Helsinki at the team hotel the morning before the game against Bulgaria, scheduled for the following evening, so roughly a 48-hour window from leaving the US to kick-off time.
BULGARIA, PLAYING IN HELSINKI AGAIN & IRELAND...
Jukka felt the performance against the Bulgarians was good, not Finland’s best but ‘good enough’ and was happy to get back to playing at Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium. The national team had not played there for five years as it was undergoing extensive refurbishment.
“They didn’t make such a big thing about the national team returning there after five years, but the refurbishment has given a feeling of compactness, there’s cover in areas where once it was open. The interior is great, dressing rooms wonderful. I hope to get a chance to play there when we get free of covid. A 30-35,000 crowd in the new stadium will provide a fantastic atmosphere.”
Tomorrow’s game against Ireland gives the Finns a great chance to heap the pressure on group leaders Wales, who have a tricky trip to Bulgaria.
Jukka is respectfully confident. I joked that he was in for an easy evening as the Irish have forgotten where the net is. He laughed. “We know it will be tough, but we expect to win. They will be strong and physical. We need to be alert, but we have a team that knows each other well, plays to a strategy and there’s great spirit in the camp.”
The morning after, Thursday, Jukka jumps on a plane back to (ultimately) New Jersey before undergoing 10 days of isolation in the same hotel as his Impact team-mates.
Family reunions in Helsinki, sadly, will have to wait, but at least a family reunion in Quebec will arrive for Montreal’s, quite literally, Flying Finn a little sooner.