STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Talented Norwegian teenager Martin Odegaard may have joined Real Madrid in January but Scandinavian clubs are still struggling to catch up in the transfer market, former Finland international and HJK Helsinki CEO Aki Riihilahti said.
A fan favourite during a five-year stint as a player with Crystal Palace, Riihilahti said clubs in the Nordic region have been overtaken by those in Africa, South America and Asia when it comes to supplying players to the top European leagues.
“We have been quite late to adapt, the game has changed and you need different kinds of qualities -- the ability to do technical things, to make the right choices at high speed,” Riihilahti told Reuters.
“In general we have too many players that are pretty good at everything, but they lack the specific strengths that are needed to compete at a European level.”
Nowhere is that more apparent than in European competition, which HJK learned the hard way when they were eliminated in the group stages of this season’s Europa League after coming up against Club Brugge, Torino and FC Copenhagen.
“Our players make mistakes and get away with it in the Finnish league, but when we did it in the first two games of the Europa League, they ran all over us,” said Riihilahti, who was capped 69 times by Finland and appointed CEO by HJK in 2013.
“But the last three games we reached up to that level.”
Aside from stints as a midfielder in England and Germany, Riihilahti also played in Finland, Norway and Sweden.
The 38-year-old, who retired from playing after winning the double with HJK in 2011, is adamant that in order to survive his club must continue to produce and sell young players to bigger European teams.
“It’s important to understand where we are,” Riihilahti said. “I would put more focus on the youth structures and developing players, that is what we have to be better at.”
One of the talking points of the recent transfer window was 16-year-old Odegaard’s move from Stromsgodset to Real Madrid, but Riihilati said that other Scandinavian clubs must provide solid, if less spectacular, players to bigger clubs.
Citing a number of recent sales by his own club, Riihilahti believes there is good value on offer in the Nordic leagues.
“Whether the players we sold are as good as Odegaard, I don’t know, but if you look at the market in general, the big countries see that there are good players in Scandinavia that are not as expensive in other places,” he said.
Editing by Michael Hann