The limits of athletic insanity are maxed out every summer in Hyrynsalmi. Some 260 teams from all over head to the endless swamp and forest areas of eastern Finland to battle it out at the World Cup in swamp soccer.
The swamp soccer cup is often more show than sport
Pölhövaara is a swampy area near the town of Hyrynsalmi, some 650 kilometers northeast of Helsinki. Forests and swamps stretch across the countryside as far as the eye can see.
Once a year, this unassuming area becomes home to a very unusual sports event: swamp soccer. It all started 10 years ago with a handful of Finnish teams. Since then, the event has grown into a major spectacle, attracting some 260 men's, women's and mixed teams from various countries.
The soccer fields, marked with yellow plastic bands, actually have more similarities to pig pens than they do to pitches. The game lasts for two periods of 25 minutes each. On this swampy ground, it involves wading, crawling or sculling in dark brown mud. A bright red t-shirt soon turns into a dirty rag after kickoff, and many a face and hair is smeared with dirt.
Forgetting your everyday life in the mud
"Who is going to win? Lomalyly! Who isn't a pussy? Lomalyly! Who is going to be champion? Lomalyly!" fans shout during the game Lomalyly versus FC Killer on field number four.
Each team has five field players and a goal keeper. Lomalyly's goalie is up to his knees in mud. A player for the defense can only get his right foot up with great effort in order to kick the ball in the direction of the opponent's half of the field. The approaching striker simply pushes it into the mud, accompanied by the fans' encouraging cheers from the sidelines. More carnival than soccer tournament
This tournament is by no means a place to marvel at soccer talent during the 880 matches -- and it isn't necessary, either, says Sari Knappe from one of the women's teams. The main reason to be here is to have fun and strengthen the team spirit, she says. The participation fee of some 200 Euros per team is worth it. So are there any similarities to soccer?
The party continues in the sauna shed
"Hardly. Two goals and the ball," Knappe says. "Oh, also the referee. But he is actually just a prop on the sidelines."
There are actually more similarities to carnival here. Players wear wigs with braids or curls, in bright yellow or pink, and oversized sunglasses -- which are also useful against the mud splatter. The outfits range from skimpy shorts to suits and ties to workwear. A team of orderlies from a psychiatric clinic is playing in white gowns and green caps. No Finnish event without a sauna
Off on the sidelines, where the swampland crosses over into a pond, there's a long makeshift shed housing the ubiquitous Finnish sauna. Smoke rises on the outside, inside there's a sizzling sound. There are six rooms, with two wood-heated sauna stoves each. Here, the sauna fulfills its original purpose, says this visitor.
"You can cleanse yourself after the game and warm up," he says. "It gets really hot in there and there's a great atmosphere."
Jorma wants to take a dip in the water
A muscular package named Jorma plunges into the pond from the pier.
"Get out of the way," Jorma yells. "I want to get in the water!"
The water is crystal-clear, the temperature more than refreshing: ten degrees Celsius. Ample amounts of beer are being consumed in a big tent near the sauna.
Rafael, one of the 3500 participants, says somewhat stunned that he has never seen anything like this, much less taken part himself. The exchange student from Poland says he is mostly amazed by the exuberance of the Finns.
"The Finns are usually more quiet types, but here, they're totally different," Rafael says. "Maybe it's the alcohol -- at least from the perspective of a foreigner." It's all a matter of Sisu
Back on field number four, where the battle between Lomalyly and FC Killer ends in a one-to-one draw, the atmosphere is somewhat subdued.
"We're still looking for our playing rhythm," says Lomalyly's team captain Pekka Keränen, who works for the church in Helsinki in his civilian life. "It only goes right when our back is to the wall. We need to win our next game and then we make the next round. Now, it all depends on breaking out our Sisu."
Sisu -- the Finnish magic word means endurance and the fighting spirit. Sisu will come, the team is certain.
Hyrynsalmi has hosted the swamp soccer world cup for a decade
The Lomalylys are participating for the ninth time already. These are level-headed, quiet family men with serious professions. But in July, they head to the swamps. Their private lives are put on hold for three days in the mud, with the vague hope of winning the trophy and medal.
But once again, their dream wasn't fulfilled. Their efforts were only enough to get into the round of the 32 best teams. Still, there is a lot of enthusiasm, Keränen says.
"Rummaging in the mud is a one-time experience and you forget your everyday life in a flash," Keränen says.
There is no doubt that both players and viewers alike will return for a fresh taste of the swamp soccer spirit next summer.