Koponen, thousands of fans send basketball flying high in Finland

Aug 31, 2014 by Javier Gancedo - Granada, Spain Print
Finland with fans in Bilbao

The World Cup is having an impact in many countries, but basketball fever is burning especially bright this week in Finland, a country where this sport is rising faster and faster in the last couple of years. As many as 7,000 Finns have travelled to Bilbao to see their national team compete in the first group stage. Yes, that's right: 7,000 Finnish fans are in Bilbao! Finland got into the World Cup with a wild card after recording prestigious wins to reach the second group stage in the last two EuroBasket tournaments. In a country where ice hockey is the most popular sport, Finland's wins against Turkey, Greece and Russia at EuroBasket 2013 made basketball more and more important, and the snowball effect arrived in Bilbao this weekend.

The 2013-14 Eurocup showed hints of how important basketball was becoming in Finland, whose biggest star, Petteri Koponen of Khimki Moscow Region, is a national hero. Bisons Loimaa was invited to play the 2013-14 Eurocup, becoming the first Finnish team in the competition. When the club decided to play its first Eurocup game in Helsinki, Finnish fans came from all over to celebrate Bisons facing Neptunas Klaipeda of Lithuania. Bisons beat Neptunas 63-62 in front of almost 6,200 fans, a surprise in more ways than one. Thousands of fans continued to follow Bisons throughout the Eurocup regular season. Despite finishing that regular season with a 5-5 record, Bisons missed the Eurocup Last 32 on a one-point tie-break differential.

"We have been taking small steps forward every year and it is finally showing. It was not just the Loimaa people coming and supporting us, it was people from all over Finland enjoying basketball," Bisons guard Miiko Koivisto said about his team's solid run. "They didn't really care which club was playing, they wanted to enjoy good basketball and support Finnish basketball."

Being in the World Cup takes basketball's popularity in Finland to the next level. Everyone in the country is fully aware of what their team is doing in the tournament, and its 81-76 win against Ukraine on Sunday only generates more and more anticipation. Despite a 114-55 loss in Saturday's opener to historic favorite USA, the win over Ukraine puts Finland in a good position to advance to the eighthfinals. Koponen, the Finns' most experienced player, knew the tough loss against USA was an accident.

"We will start the World Cup after this game," Koponen said when it was over. "We must get some wins and fight to make it to the next round. Ukraine has rested more but I think we are ready."

Petteri Koponen - Finland (photo FIBA Europe - Castoria - Matthaios)

Koponen was right. Less than 24 hours later, he delivered 14 points and 9 assists as Finland led 75-58 with over 4 minutes left and held on to a good-as-gold, five-point win.

Koponen's success is no coincidence. He studied - just as another Finnish basketball legend who also shined in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague, Hanno Mottola - at Makelanrinteen Institute in Helsinki, one of the 13 high schools that combines education with high-level sports programs. As many as 70 coaches from different sports work at the center, which hosts 600 students ages 16 to 19. The success of Finnish basketball teams, combined with these programs in a leading country in terms of education, can only bring even more hope for Finland's basketball future.

With good results at both the club and national team levels, Bisons Loimaa returning to the Eurocup in the 2014-15 season, and thousands of diehard fans willing to travel around to help Finnish basketball rise, the sky is the limit for Finland in the upcoming future.