In life there are times when you get a sense about someone who you talk with; a moment when you realize that their story might not be finished yet. Mikael Forssell’s career as a footballer was exceptional – his goalscoring feats for club and country remembered fondly. But now retired, Mikael is embarking on the next chapter of his story, focused solely on self development and gaining momentum towards the path well travelled into football management. It’s a path he was destined to take, one he has been learning for his entire career, and one that I am sure he will be successful in, much like he was as a player. Forssell epitomizes the next generation of football managers and coaches that are set to emerge. He is smart, well educated, passionate and level headed and sees football differently, having witnessed it firsthand progress over the past two decades or so from the old fashioned sport draped in legacy, to the evolving game embracing technology and ideas at a frightening speed. I caught up with him recently to talk about his career, both past and future.
Back of The Net: Football appears to be a key part of your family with both your father (Bengt Forssell) and older sister (Christina) joining you in representing Finland. Do you think you were always destined to play professionally?
Mikael Forssell: I think so! I fell in love with the ball at an early age and of course when you already “have that expertise” in the house it was very natural that my sport was going to be football.
BOTN: I see that you were born in Germany. Was that because your dad was playing there? When did you move back to Finland?
MF: My dad was working in Germany at the time and I was born during that time. We moved away from Germany when I was only 1 and a half to Sweden for my dad’s work and afterwards to Finland (both my parents are Finnish) when I was 4 years-old.
BOTN: You joined HJK’s youth development team and eventually played your way into the first team, but then left on a free after only one season. What happened there?
MF: I was always interested in moving abroad at an early age. I believed at the time that I would develop better as a footballer if I joined a team in Europe. Luckily there were some chasing me at the time, and eventually I chose Chelsea. Also, maybe HJK Helsinki’s “transfer department” could have played my contract situation slightly better on their terms.
BOTN: Given how things turned out over your seven years at Chelsea with the difficulties you faced in getting a consistent run in the first team, and the numerous loan moves, do you have regrets about moving there when you did?
MF: Absolutely not! That is football! I still had amazing times and moments at Chelsea, which I’m very proud of, and also I have fond memories of people that are still working there. My dream is to go back working there one day.
BOTN: Chelsea has a reputation for acquiring a lot of talented youngsters from across the world and farming them out to their various feeder clubs for development purposes. Last season they had an incredible 38 players out on loan. Do you agree with this approach? Do you think it’s fair on the players themselves?
MF: I think no player can argue what the situation will/could be at Chelsea when they are signing. It is an honour for a player to sign for such a big club. The fact is that that’s football business and there are only a limited number of players and teams in the top flight. Only the best will survive. Of course, in an ideal world all would get a chance, but unfortunately that is not football.
BOTN: After spells at Crystal Palace and Borussia Monchengladbach on loan, you decided to move permanently to Birmingham City following a loan period there. I believe that you turned down a move to Bayern Leverkusen to make that switch. What was it that appealed about Birmingham at that time?
MF: I was almost about to sign for Bayer Leverkusen but in the final moment Birmingham made a move for me. I had only just returned from a successful spell from the Bundesliga and thought that I needed to play a full season in the Premier League. Birmingham had a very good team that season and it was such a pleasure to play in that attacking minded team.
BOTN: Birmingham proved to be one of the most successful moves of your career. Why do you think it proved so fruitful?
MF: The manager at the time, Steve Bruce, had a great atmosphere in the team and many players had played in bigger teams and were all hungry to show that they were great players that were let go. Everything fell into place that season and I formed a great partnership with Clinton Morrison, who I had played alongside at Crystal Palace earlier in my career.
BOTN: You returned to Germany with a move to Hannover which seemed to be a perfect fit for you. But it proved to be a difficult time in your career, both with injuries and lack of form, but also emotionally when the club lost its captain and goalkeeper Robert Enke, who sadly took his own life. How difficult was it for the squad in the months following Enke’s passing? Do you think enough is being done in football to support players with mental illness and depression?
MF: It’s only now that depression is being talked about. To the outside world it might look like we as footballers “have it all”. It is a fact that we are very privileged people in this world, but the fact is, depression doesn’t look at age, face, color, status…basically nothing. And even for myself, who has never suffered depression, it has been hard to understand what it is, but now after reading a lot about it and seeing it close by, it is a horrible illness. The good thing is that help is more available these days, but I still think players in some sense need courage to come out and admit it and it should not be like that.
BOTN: After Germany, you returned to England to play for Leeds before heading home to HJK. Was it always the plan to return back to the club where it all started? Was it easier to go back given your status as an iconic part of the Finnish national team?
MF: I actually didn’t go to Finland to “ease off football”. I went there to prove a point that I could still score goals. I scored 14 goals that season and next season earned a move to Bochum, which was 2nd Bundesliga.
BOTN: You are the 2nd highest goal scorer of all time for Finland behind the great Jari Litmanen. What did you learn from playing alongside Litmanen? Do you think you complemented each other?
MF: He was the perfect partner in crime at his peak. He was always looking forward and seeing my runs…runs that only a few could see. He fed me balls constantly from every area of the pitch and when he eventually dropped out of the team it was harder for me to get the balls.
BOTN: Finland has never managed to qualify for a major international tournament. Why do you think that is? Do you think the new Nations League will give Finland a better chance of qualifying?
MF: I hope the Nations League is a gateway although it is not an easy process either. I think we have lacked an identity for a couple of years now and also the quality of players is currently not strong enough. We have great players in the team but the team is not broad enough.
BOTN: Since retiring you have completed an MBA in Sports Management and are now working towards getting your UEFA A licence. I know that you have ambitions to be a manager one day. What type of manager do you think you will be?
MF: I finished my MBA in Sports Management this summer. And yes, I am working on the UEFA A license too. I believe I am good with people and want to get the best out of every player. I would be demanding but rewarding and I would play football that defends on the opposition side of the pitch and plays quickly forwards after winning the ball. A mix of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp! I call it Ploppo! [laughs]
BOTN: For a striker, is it more difficult to adapt to a club’s tactics and formations following a move than say a defender? I would imagine that there is more pressure on you to adapt quicker and start scoring goals than your defensive teammates?
MF: Well, I guess all have pressure but for a striker you are dependent of the passes of your teammates. If they for any reason can’t find you it will be very difficult to score so in that sense, yes there is more pressure!
BOTN: Finally, some quick hits: favourite international goal?
MF: First goal against Germany in the 2001 World Cup qualifiers where I went around Oliver Kahn and slotted it in the empty net.
BOTN: Proudest moment(s)?
MF: Being part of the Chelsea Premier League winning team in 2005 and the season in Birmingham where I netted 19 goals in the 03/04 season.
BOTN: Hardest opponent you faced?
MF: Vincent Kompany.
Thank you Mikael, and good luck with your UEFA A license!