Emma Koivisto interview: Hunger, humility, Helmarit – What stirs within, for the super Finns
Emma Koivisto is as unassuming in character as she is competitively wholehearted. It is difficult to imagine a more fitting embodiment of the Finland team she represents, where hardiness in numbers comes complete with an essential drop of dry humour.
UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 is finally here, with much to be heard over the coming weeks about what it means to various people. Understandably, a great deal of that will be through the lens of England, as hosts of not just a tournament they are desperate to win, but a showcase for the women’s game arguably never quite seen before.
Make no mistake, though, it carries every bit as importance to so many across the 16 competing nations, and for those experiencing it for the first time, perhaps even more so. Finland defender Emma Koivisto, announced this week as Liverpool’s first summer signing, belongs to that particular category.
“The moment when we secured the place in the EUROs is a moment that I’ll never forget; it is one of the only times that I have cried out of happiness after a game,” she recalls. “Playing in the EUROs means a lot, especially after having been part of the journey leading into the tournament; all the hard work pays off.”
“It will be one of my biggest achievements in my career; it is such an honour to represent my own country in an international tournament. It will be a tournament that I’ll always remember.”
While the 27-year-old has brought characteristic endeavour to each side she has represented, achieving success with her national team manages to touch upon something different. Part of the senior set-up for the past decade, she featured in qualification for their most recent major tournament – EURO 2013 in neighbouring Sweden.
Still just 18 at the time, Emma explains the circumstances that ultimately put her out of contention for the final competition.
“I want to believe that I would have been in the squad, without an injury that I had at the time. I had just recovered from a stress fracture on my lower back, but unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to get in shape before the EUROs.
“Of course, it was sad, and I was disappointed that I couldn’t experience the EUROs then, but at the same time, I feel like I am a lot more prepared for the tournament now.”
It instead led her to the UEFA Under-19 Championship in Wales during the following month, which she reflects upon as ‘one of my best memories that I have ever experienced in football.’ Finland progressed with Germany from a group also containing Nordic rivals Norway and Sweden, and despite defeat to a Beth Mead-inspired England in the semi-final, their showing ensured qualification for 2014’s Under-20 World Cup in Canada.
Belated or not, her time at a senior finals is now, and with a team that she cherishes being amongst. Helmarit are about to play their part in something huge, but their unofficial, adopted theme song holds on to the sort of wryness that countless women’s teams through the years can identify with.
“We listen to a Finnish song called ‘Rahan takii’ by Antti Tuisku before every game; it would translate to something like ‘For money’. It’s a bit sarcastic, because it is about how we would play just for the money we get and not for the love of the game, even though in real life, it’s pretty much the opposite.”
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There is a little more than just dance/pop tracks to lift and unify them when on international duty. Prestige is always there for those representing their country, but for any number of reasons, it does not always result in a harmonious national team.
With the Finnish squad, a sense of kinship is something they don’t need to fabricate.
“We have managed to create a culture where everyone can be themselves and feel comfortable. We have fun together.”
Long-time captain is Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Tinja-Riikka Korpela, whose leadership is centred on empathy. The ex-Bayern Munich player is one of the remaining members of their squad from the 2009 EUROs they competed in as hosts, and someone Emma finds time to highlight when asked of the most colourful characters in their camp.
“We have a really unique team with many personalities, I could almost name anyone in our team. However, I think Tinni is worth mentioning here; she is such a unique person and she is funny mostly because she isn’t even trying to be funny.
“She has a good sense of humour and she’s a great example, on and off the pitch.”
It is Korpela’s partner, Finnish singer Emilia Ex, who has recorded the team’s official song for EURO 2022, ‘Helmarit’ – high in summer-tournament bounce and Suomen sass! When featuring on this site in 2019, Korpela told how Emma’s one-time Brighton teammate Nora Heroum was the Finland player supplying the sounds for the team before kick-off.
Is the current Lazio midfielder still the one to set the tempo?
“I would say Nora Heroum is still our DJ, but nowadays, Elli Pikkujämsä has also taken some responsibility for that job.”
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At club level, meanwhile, it appears that Emma’s Brighton team last season were benefitting from the services of a ringer! Well, one in the making at least.
Shedding some light on that, Emma also shares how she personally likes to be, in order to feel suitably prepared for a game.
“Last season, Danique Kerkdijk was our DJ; she is actually taking DJ lessons, so she is a real DJ. I like listening to music before games but being more quiet by myself.
“I never dance, not in the locker room or outside it, I rather do some activations, foam rolling and stretching while listening to music.”
The 75-cap Helsinki-born player is a three-time domestic cup winner in her homeland, once with HJK and twice with FC Honka (with whom she also won the league in 2017). She was already a senior international when taking the proverbial leap into the unknown – in this case, 5000 miles to Tallahassee.
As a freshman at Florida State University, she was a key part of the Seminoles team that won their very first NCAA National Championship in 2014. Helping FSU keep a magnificent 19 clean sheets that season (setting a new program record), she was their starting right-back as they beat a Virginia team featuring future World Cup winners Morgan Brian (Gautrat) and Emily Sonnett in the championship game.
Special memories were made across her four years in Garnet and Gold, though there were understandably times along the way of needing to reach for a feeling of home. Certain songs were able to help bridge that gap, if only briefly.
“When I moved abroad, I started to listen to more Finnish music; I think that is one way to treat homesickness. I also enjoy listening to indie pop music.
“When I was a kid, I mostly listened to music that my parents were listening to, so I grew up listening to Finnish artists such as J. Karjalainen and Kirka. After my childhood, I had a period where I didn’t listen to music that much.
“In secondary school and high school, music started to interest me more; I listened to artists and bands like Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, London Grammar and MØ.”
We got our National Championship rings #näitäeilöydyjokakodista #jenkkielämää pic.twitter.com/g1YWgqCS3w
— Emma Koivisto (@emma_koivisto) March 19, 2015
A Svenska Cupen (Swedish Cup) winner with Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC in 2019, she tasted Damallsvenskan success the following season. It was the club’s first league title, shortly before they were memorably plunged into turmoil by the withdrawal of their lead sponsor, only to then begin life under the (men’s top flight) BK Häcken name soon after.
As it was, Emma was set for a move to England, announced as a new addition for Brighton & Hove Albion in February 2021. The Women’s Super League side were getting a player also capable of featuring on the wing (insert pun about Seagulls…), though even from full-back, there are bursts of adventure in her game sometimes, when running down the flank to take players on.
Before her new colleagues really got to see the best of her in match action, she was of course put to the test in the now-customary fashion.
“I have only had to sing in front of my teammates when I joined a club in Sweden and when I joined Brighton. I couldn’t pick the song in Sweden, and in Brighton, I was allowed to sing with two other new players, Maisie Symonds and Hollie Olding, so I didn’t pick the song there either.
“If I would have been singing alone, I would have just picked a Finnish children’s song, because they are usually easy to sing and it doesn’t even matter if you can sing or not.”
Finland having their own official song for the EUROs now means that footage of Emma appears in a music video, but what if she was put in the admittedly-frightful position of having to take over the recording of a track? Given her choice of any song to cover, and any teammate(s) from across her career to collaborate with, two internationals from her time in Sweden are her pick.
“I would choose Olivia Schough and Emma Berglund; they are good – or alright – at singing, and most importantly, they would definitely put on a great show. I wouldn’t have to do anything, because they would take the whole stage, and that would be great, because I am so bad at singing and I hate performing.
“Also, I never remember the lyrics! We would probably cover some Swedish artist, because Olivia and Emma are both Swedish; maybe we could cover Olivia’s sister, who is a singer.”
Part of Sweden’s EURO 2022 squad, Schough featured on here back in 2015, and she comes from a musical family, with sisters, Lydia, Matilda and Lovisa releasing the song ‘Dansa Fotboll’ for EURO 2013. The FC Rosengård forward has also performed publicly with her father and siblings on various occasions.
Away from multi-talented footballers, though, are there any artists (from all-time, living or dead) Emma would especially relish the opportunity to see perform?
“My dream is to go to see Coldplay – they are so good! I haven’t been to many concerts but I think I would say the best one has been by a Finnish artist, Anna Puu; she is one of my favourites.
“I haven’t been to a concert by a non-Finnish artist and I haven’t attended a festival either, but I really want to go to one.”
As well as putting her alongside the likes of Iceland star Dagný Brynjarsdóttir and new Manchester City signing Deyna Castellanos, her time at Florida State was also the first time she was surrounded by hip-hop in a changing room. Having become accustomed to American-English, Emma admits that moving to England was almost like starting the language all over again, with some accents still especially puzzling.
If that wasn’t enough, perhaps the most confusion of all was caused (in part…) by Captain Birdseye.
“I have also noticed that breakfast in England is a lot different compared to Scandinavian breakfast. I was surprised when I saw that some players ate fish fingers with ketchup on top of toast – I would have never come up with an idea to mix those three things.
“Also, I still haven’t learned to like beans; how can someone like beans that are in a sweet sauce?!”
The football has at least offered familiarity, albeit with a more frantic speed of play that she describes as ‘quite transitional’ compared to Sweden. There has also been the adaptation of going from a leading team who typically dominated possession, to one of the WSL’s middle pack, generally meaning greater defensive onus.
She has, however, provided some notable attacking contributions, like her headers last season at Birmingham City and Arsenal, and a superb angled finish against Reading in the FA Cup, one of two she got against the Royals in 2021/22. Her four goals put her among Brighton’s four joint-leading scorers, which tells a story of their finishing frustrations, but also the additional threat Emma can provide.
She will soon begin life as a Liverpool player, joining Matt Beard’s Reds as they return to the WSL following promotion. Praising both Brighton’s facilities and overall staff expertise, she details what she picked up during her time playing for Albion’s ex-England manager Hope Powell.
“Hope is a really professional coach who has a lot of experience. She’s a big name in women’s football, and many, including me, have huge respect for her.
“She’s a coach that has an eye for details; we analyse the opponent team very carefully and prepare for the game all week. In addition, she often says to me that more is not always better and sometimes I just have to calm down.
“She knows that I don’t mind running but she has said that I have to choose the right moments to run. Also, she has highlighted how important rest is.”
The EURO draw was never going to be overly kind on Finland, and group opponents Spain, Germany and Denmark are three who will each believe they can go all the way. Coached by Anna Signeul, who led Scotland to their debut tournament at EURO 2017, Helmarit know they are underdogs, and intend to embrace it.
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For Emma, she hopes more than anything that their national concept of ‘sisu’ spirit will show through to all those watching in England and around the world. Key, she feels, to strengthening the national team, and therefore raising women’s football’s profile further back home, is to get more of their players to leading leagues and club teams, where their day-to-day development can be of elite standard. She also credits the work done in branding the top-level domestic competition, known since 2020 as Kansallinen Liiga.
While Helmarit are there to give all they can to progress this month, EURO 2022 should also be a celebration of what they achieved in getting there. After nine years, they no longer have to watch on from afar.
Like so many overseas players around the globe, Emma has admitted the loneliness that disappointing results and performances bring, without the distraction of loved ones close by. The end of this past season did give her the chance to go home, while she will also have her support system proudly watching from the stands for Finland’s upcoming group games.
“My family and a few friends are coming to watch our games. My parents come pretty much to every national-team game, so it’s not a surprise that they are coming to the EUROs, too.
“Due to COVID, they haven’t been able to travel as much to our games, so they are really excited for the upcoming tournament. My brother is coming all the way from the US, where he works, to watch us play, which I really appreciate.
“I am sure that we’ll see many Finnish flags in the crowd.”
Arriving in England a few days ago, Helmarit have set up camp, turning part of Buckingham temporarily into Little Finland. With each of their group fixtures at Stadium MK in Milton Keynes, it all starts against Spain (now sadly without Barcelona star Alexia Putellas) this Friday.
After so much build-up, tournaments, relatively speaking, go by in the blink of an eye. Nevertheless, there is always a substantial chunk of downtime between the games – where friendships and connections in a team are really put to the test!
Choice of activities may be admittedly scaled back at such a time, but what does Emma usually enjoy away from football?
“I am quite an active person and I like being in nature. I often go for walks, in nature or by a beach, and simultaneously call home to my family and friends.
“I also love playing other sports, such as golf, tennis, and padel and ice hockey during winters; I love pretty much every sport that involves a ball. I also like cooking and baking and reading food recipes.”
Part of her routine just before a game is to visualise uncomplicated passages of play that she will try once the action starts. She can, however, afford to get a touch more adventurous in this one.
Like most who have featured on here over the years, the closing scenario puts her into a small-sided line-up, with the power to choose who completes her team. Rather than naming the ‘best’ they have ever played alongside, the interviewee is simply asked for examples of those they would definitely enjoy stepping into this enclosed chaos with.
Here comes an all-Nordic concoction that is three parts Finnish (including Emma), with a double Swedish sprinkling.
“Hmm, this is tough, there are so many to choose from. I think I would choose Elin Rubensson, because I loved playing with her in Gothenburg.
“I played as a full-back and she played in front of me as a winger, and we connected so well. We didn’t even have to talk on the pitch because we knew what the other one was thinking and going to do.
“Then, I would pick Jenny Danielsson from the national team; we used to play for the same club team in Finland (FC Honka) and I really like playing with her. She is so technical that it didn’t matter what kind of ball I played to her, she was always able to control it.
“She is also so relaxed and funny. Then, I would pick Tiina Saario, who used to play for the Finnish national team, because she is such a lovely person and a great leader on and off the pitch.
“Lastly, I would pick Stina Blackstenius, because we need someone to score goals.”
To catch each of these interviews, you can follow me: @chris_brookes
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