“The football industry is set for the top five leagues. It’s unbearable ‘- Riihilahti on politics and passion for Palace – The Athletic



The muffled beating of a drum reverberates around the Telia 5G Arena and an icy wind blows through the openings at the back of the stands. HJK Helsinki are set to conclude their home games in a campaign that will be one of their worst in many years, with a 1-0 loss to Inter Turku.

After seeing Filip Valencic give the visitors the advantage with a nice left-footed finish in the bottom corner, a sad smile appears on Aki Riihilahti’s face.

“We sold it last season,” he says.

Riihilahti, who played 178 games for Crystal Palace from 2001-2006, scoring 14 goals, is now CEO of HJK, a role he says he never applied for, but nonetheless a role that it is quite clear he wants. ‘he appreciates. “Good and bad, a lot of this club is personal to me,” said the 43-year-old. This is obvious.

After all, he grew up a short distance from the stadium, raised by a mother who was a great specialist in Nordic orienteering and a father who was a computer consultant. “We had a very happy childhood,” he says of his childhood with his older brother Riku, now a sports presenter on television here in Finland. “Our parents took a lot of time with us, just like I try with my kids. We would go to the park and play different sports. We had a sports education. We played basketball, handball, all that… ”

After joining the club at the age of six, Riihilahti became the only side in the club’s history to make the group stage of the Champions League.

Rows of trees provide a scenic backdrop along the road to the stadium, which sits in the shadow of the Helsinki Olympic Stadium where the 1952 games were staged and which was also home to the national team of Finland before the start of renovations in 2016. The must-see 72-meter high Olympic tower looms in the background overlooking an indoor dome and five football pitches owned by HJK.



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