IFK Mariehamn dubbed the Finnish Leicester after stunning title win
The Aland Islands, an archipelago between Sweden and Finland in the Baltic Sea, only has a population of 29,000 people. On Sunday, they became one of the smallest communities in the world to have ever celebrated a championship title.
More than 4,300 fans came to the tiny Wiklof Holding Arena, where IFK Mariehamn needed to beat Ilves on the final matchday of the remarkably exciting and dramatic season in the Finnish Veikkausliiga. With just two games to go, four teams had realistic hopes of winning the title race. Three were left in with a shout ahead of the last round of fixtures.
HJK Helsinki and SJK Seinajoki, the richest clubs in the country, played each other and hoped the unexpected leaders would drop points. They didn't get their wish. Swedish defender Bobby Fridberg da Cruz scored his first-ever goal for Mariehamn and after Ilves managed to equalise, Brazilian striker Diego Assis, who came on as a substitute, sealed it with 15 minutes remaining. The incredible title had been won there and then.
It was the same Diego, one of the crowd favourites, who scored a brace in the Cup final a year ago and led Mariehamn to the first trophy in their history. That triumph was an emotional moment for the legendary coach Pekka Lyyski, who worked at the club for 13 years, built the team from scratch and led them from the third tier to their first-ever promotion to the top division in 2004.
Glen Wilkie, an Englishman who played for Mariehamn in late 90s after being released by Leyton Orient, told ESPN FC: "They were a semi-professional club those days, and most of the players were from Aland Islands. They wanted to become better, but didn't know how. Pekka came in and restructured everything."
In the beginning of 2015, Lyyski announced that it would be his final season before retirement, and lifting the cup was seen as the perfect farewell present. Without him, however, Mariehamn were expected to struggle in 2016. The press were so pessimistic about their chances that Urheilulehti magazine predicted they would finish last and get relegated. The new joint coaches, Peter Lundberg and Kari Virtanen, had other plans.
The very choice of two coaches is extremely unusual in Finland and was met with scepticism but it is quite common in Sweden. Lars Lagerback and Tommy Soderberg led the national team together, while Lagerback also worked with Heimir Hallhrimsson with the Iceland national team during Euro 2016.
That brings us to the unique mentality of the people from Aland Islands. In many ways, they are much closer to Sweden than Finland. Swedish is the main language there, and some people don't even know Finnish at all. They also enjoy significant autonomy, and have their own parliament, flag and police.
"When Finland declared independence in 1917, people of Aland wanted to join Sweden. As many as 95 percent of them voted for it in an unofficial referendum, but Finland refused," Finnish journalist Juhavaltteri Salminen explains.
"The matter was settled in 1921 by the League of Nations, who let Finland retain sovereignty, but forced them to make concessions. The region has always been part of Finland, but has special geographical, lingual, historical and political characteristics that set it apart."
That's what makes Mariehamn a unique club. Wilkie, who fell in love with the islands and visits at least twice a year, says: "The club has a real community feel to it, and they need it to survive. A lot of former players whom I know volunteer on matchdays, helping wherever they can, assisting supporters and even carrying the stretchers."
In fact, all the 29,000 people of the region are behind the team. "Aland islanders are very proud of what other Aland islanders achieve," says Victor Sundqvist, a local journalist who writes for Nya Aland newspaper.
"We support each other all the time. Our community knows no limits. Here in Aland, we feel that we are important. We have the world at our feet."
The remoteness helps to create a very special atmosphere in the squad. The team travel to away fixtures by ferry -- it takes six hours to reach Turku and nine hours to Helsinki -- and as a result, they spend a lot of time together and know each other extremely well. Swedish midfielder Sebastian Wiklander, who played for Mariehamn a decade ago, said last week: "IFK are one big family. It feels like Mariehamn are against the world. That makes the team stronger."
It is only natural the club nurtures local talent. It made sense to promote the 35-year-old Lundberg, who was born in Aland and played an important part on the pitch in the historic promotion in 2004 alongside the current captain Jani Lyyski, the former coach's son. Lundberg worked as Pekka Lyyski's assistant for four years before taking over, and the club believed that his partnership with the veteran 58-year-old Virtanen would take them to success.
Mariehamn excel at developing youngsters at their academy, and yet it is impossible to sustain a successful professional club in such a small community without bringing talent from outside.
"IFK often sign players who, for some reason, failed to make a breakthrough on the mainland, but take great steps forward on the island. They are also good at finding quality players abroad," Salminen says.
One of those discoveries is the American midfielder Brian Span, who used to play for FC Dallas and Orlando City and became one of Mariehamn's leaders. Another great find is the Jamaican striker Dever Orgill, who grew up at the Vancouver Whitecaps before moving to Aland Islands in 2013. He scored 13 goals this season -- almost a third of the team's total.
While the press were not expecting a lot at the beginning of the year, the club quietly believed they could fight for European qualification, but even the most optimistic fans were stunned by the team's achievements.
Finland football legend Jari Litmanen described Mariehamn as "a fairytale" and called them "the Finnish Leicester." He has a point, and there are significant similarities between the Premier League champions and the tiny club from Aland Islands.
"Lyyski was an old school coach who played direct football, and Lundberg built on his work to take the team forward. They still play rather defensively, but use high pressing as well.
"That enables them to win a lot of balls and hit their opponents on the counter," Sundqvist explains.
In fact, just like Leicester in 2015-16, Mariehamn are second last in Veikkausliiga as far as ball possession statistics are concerned, but second behind HJK with shots on goal.
In addition, Mariehamn became more solid at the back compared to previous terms. They only scored 40 goals in 33 matches -- fewer than their direct rivals, but they enjoyed the best defensive record with 25 goals conceded. Team spirit, hard work and remarkable self-belief allowed them to win the most sensational title in the history of Finnish football.
"I can't even put my feeling into words. When Diego scored the winner, I was close to tears. The Champions League anthem will be played at our stadium next season. It is incredible," Jani Lyyski said, and most of the fans in the country are glad for the underdogs.
Now, more than ever, Aland Islands are on the map, and sky is the limit for the small, proud and unique community.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin