By Neel Shelat.
August has been an interesting month of transition in the world of football, as the summer leagues are approaching the home stretch of their season while the winter leagues are firing up. We have been covering both on WFi‘s Frantic Football Podcast and as ever, we have picked out four headlines for our monthly column:
🌍 UEFA Qualifiers: Three Nations Set For Group Stage Debut
The qualifying rounds of the UEFA club competitions are arguably the most intriguing part of the season. Clubs of all sorts of statures from all sorts of places come together to decide the spots in the three major competitions, leading to some incredible match-ups such as Belgian giants Club Brugge visiting Akureyri, an Icelandic town with a population that could all fit in the Jan Breydelstadion and leave space for about 10,000 people.
The introduction of the Europa Conference League has been a masterstroke, as it has created serious opportunities for teams and countries that wouldn’t otherwise have a shot to feature in continental football.
Just this week, we saw history created as Breiðablik sealed a spot in the tertiary UEFA competition, making Iceland the ninth nation set to be represented in the group stage of a UEFA competition since the inception of the Conference League.
Their journey started in the preliminary round of the Champions League which they dominated, after which they became the first prelim-winning team to go on and win a first-round Champions League qualification tie as they beat Shamrock Rovers. A loss to FC København dropped them down to the Europa League where they tasted another defeat, but they saved their campaign with a win over FC Struga in the Europa Conference League play-off round.
Zrinjski Mostar were the ones who eliminated Breiðablik from the Europa League, and in so doing, they became the first club from Bosnia and Herzegovina to seal a spot in the group stage of a UEFA competition. Theirs is an interesting story as they have Croatian roots and were among the Croatian league clubs banned in Yugoslavia after World War II, but were revived after Bosnia and Herzegovina’s independence. After repeated attempts since 2000, they have finally gotten past the qualifying rounds of UEFA competitions.
But the biggest story most definitely is that of Klaksvíkar Ítróttarfelag. The Faroese giants have regularly appeared in UEFA qualifiers since the 1990s, but have always found themselves outmatched by significantly stronger sides from the mainland.
Hopes were not too high as they started their journey against Hungarian giants Ferencváros, but they managed to pull off a massive upset by putting three past them in Budapest after a goalless draw at home. The tie against Swedish champions BK Häcken followed a similar pattern, but they scored three goals as well and therefore had to be beaten on penalties.
Finally, Norwegian champions Molde were able to take KÍ down in the third round despite losing the first leg, but that was not the end of the story. They only dropped to the Europa League play-off, where a defeat against FC Sheriff could not dampen spirits because they too joined the party in the Europa Conference League.
🇻🇳 Vietnam: Newly-Promoted Hanoi Police Win V.League 1
The 2023 V.League 1 title race was quite interesting, not least because of how close it was. Three points separated the top four at the end of the regular season, meaning half of the Championship play-off group was comprised of serious title contenders. Ultimately, Công An Hà Nội (Hanoi Police) ended up winning their first major title in almost 40 years on goal difference ahead of defending champions Hanoi FC.
The most intriguing aspect of the story, however, is the fact that there was no club in the Vietnamese pyramid called Hanoi Police FC in 2022. The club was founded way back in 1956 upon the direction of the Minister of Public Security and regularly featured in the top-flight league.
They were rarely among the best of the teams but did win their first major title in 1984, before being relegated and bouncing back up quickly in the 1990s. They were then dissolved in 2002 amidst an organisational restructuring in Vietnamese football.
Six years later, Công an nhân dân (People’s Police FC) was founded after a decision by the Deputy Minister of Public Security, as police-run football clubs saw a resurgence in the country. This team struggled to get beyond the second tier, though, only managing to do that by winning V.League 2 in 2022 after increased professionalisation of the project in 2020.
At this point, the ownership of the club was transferred from the Ministry of Public Security to the Hanoi City Public Security Department, meaning Hanoi Police FC were revived and found themselves all the way up in the top-flight.
The transfer of ownership enabled them to spend quite a bit to assemble a strong squad of many national team players and some foreigners too. They not only topped the standings at the end of the regular season but crucially also managed to hang on to top spot in the play-off round where they suffered just one defeat, scoring enough goals to just about get the better of Hanoi FC on goal difference as both sides ended up with the same points tally.
🇫🇮 Finland: HJK Gifted Control Of The Title Race
The defending champions and the most successful club in the country going to the top of the league table does not seem much of a big story at first glance, but the manner in which it happened in Finland last month was quite dramatic.
SJK seemed to be in a pretty good spot in late July when they had a five-point lead over AC Oulu and were seven clear of fourth-placed HJK, but it all unravelled for them after a crunch fixture against HJK on the last weekend of the month. A hard-fought 1-2 defeat which was just their second of the season did not seem too bad at the time as they stayed three points clear at the top, but the damage it did to their momentum was devastating.
SJK went on to concede three goals in each of their subsequent three games and lost to VPS, relegation-battlers KTP and title-contenders KuPS. Meanwhile, HJK put together a winning stream in the league despite suffering multiple setbacks in UEFA qualifiers, so they now lead the way just ahead of KuPS and five points clear of SJK.
Given their current form, HJK look well on course to lift their record-extending 33rd league title.
🇲🇾 Malaysia: 2012 Treble Winners Kelantan Suffer Record Defeat On The Road To Repeat Relegation
Our final story takes us back to Asia, but it is quite contrary to what we saw in Vietnam. Over in Malaysia, the big story this month has been that of fallen giants Kelantan.
Having been founded in 1946, they are quite a historic club in Malaysia, especially among those on the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. They had to wait until the 2010s for their first major success, though, but it came in abundance. Kelantan won back-to-back league titles as well as achieving a domestic treble in 2012, by when they had become real powerhouses in Malaysian football.
Within just a couple of years, though, they were rocked by financial issues and quickly began plummetting towards the wrong end of the table. Many of their best players left for Johor Darul Ta’zim, who have gone on to win every single Malaysian Super League title since 2014. Kelantan, meanwhile, were finally relegated in 2018 after a couple of close shaves.
They finished way down in 10th in their first season back in the second tier, so they were clearly not going to bounce right back up. Their financial situation continued to worsen, so they had to undergo an ownership change to avoid bankruptcy. Kelantan put together a very impressive campaign in 2022 to return to the top-flight, but they seem to have come back up too soon.
This season, Kelantan have lost 17 of their 21 league matches, including 2-11 against Selangor which set the record for the worst-ever defeat in Malaysian Super League history. Prior to that, they were thrashed 0-10 (1-15 on aggregate) by JDT in the cup. They still have a chance to stay up as they are only in the relegation zone on goal difference behind Kelantan United, but quite clearly, this is a very rough time for the club.
Stats courtesy of Transfermarkt and FotMob.