Liverpool legend Sami Hyypia takes Mail Sport deep into the Arctic circle on a polar expedition as he reminisces about his glittering Anfield career and reveals why he prefers the snow to management

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Fresh pine trees wrapped in white blankets of snow, glistening under the hazy Arctic light. The sun barely appears in Lapland at this time of year but technicolour Polar clouds float overhead, filling the sky like Mother of Pearl pillows. The only sound is occasional bird song. Still and silent like a postcard from a winter wonderland.

Suddenly a flash of red roars by, rumbling like the engine of a Formula One car, jolting the scenery back into life. It is Sami Hyypia, face hidden behind a balaclava and a helmet, full throttle on his snowmobile. Head to toe in the colour of Liverpool’s home kit, of course.

We travel in convoy, accelerating from nought to 60kph in what feels like no time at all, weaving through the wilderness of northern Finland. Fast enough to leave a stream of icy powder that sneaks into every gap in your helmet to remind you the temperature has dropped to -5°C.

He leads us through hidden tracks, trails of endless beauty, wary that if you veer off course you sink into several feet of fresh snow. Occasionally he speeds off into the distance. It is reminiscent of his Liverpool team in the 2000s, when Michael Owen would leave defenders chasing his shadow.

Around 20km into the journey, we pull over to take in the view. ‘I love it out here,’ says the former Liverpool captain, now settled back in his home country. ‘You can go for days on the snowmobile. Hundreds of kilometres, one town to the next.

Mail Sport went deep into the Arctic circle to accompany the Liverpool legend on a polar expedition

The 50-year-old enjoys riding his snowmobile in the winter, while he does Motorcross biking in the summer

The 50-year-old enjoys riding his snowmobile in the winter, while he does Motorcross biking in the summer

Hyypia made over 300 appearances for the Reds in a decade-long stay that yielded six major trophies including the Champions League

Hyypia made over 300 appearances for the Reds in a decade-long stay that yielded six major trophies including the Champions League

‘It’s a hobby for me. In the summer I do Motocross biking. I went to Donington racetrack when I lived in England, then started to compete when I finished playing. In the winter, maybe three months a year, I stay up here. I like cross-country skiing, too. I did a 70km race here last year. I like to challenge myself.’

Icicles form beneath the engine as he speaks. ‘You should come out here when it’s minus 30! I like this kind of cold. The air is dry. It’s not like the cold in Liverpool where your clothes get wet and it goes deep into you.

‘I grew up in the south and we used to get snow all the time, but the climate has changed with global warming so you’re never sure now. At school, sometimes we would train for football outside, totally icy, in half a metre of snow. It gives you something, mentally… guts.’

Those guts made Hyypia an Anfield legend, making 464 appearances and captaining the club to the treble of UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Cup in 2001. He is just as tall and slender as in those days playing centre-back in front of the Kop, keeping fit with ice hockey and cross-country skiing.

‘The dressing-room banter is the thing I miss but I have it when I play ice hockey. I’m usually a centre forward now!’

Just above the Arctic Circle, we are a few hours away from the Russian border. Hyypia reminisces about his national service in the Finnish military after school, briefly steering the subject towards politics. ‘We are still quite calm. I don’t think the threat is there, but it was probably the right time for Finland to join NATO this year. With the guy in the east, you don’t know what he’s doing.’

We start up the engines and journey deeper into the woods. ‘Let’s keep going. We have a couple of hours before it gets dark.’ He leads us on a 120km trail, barely seeing a soul until we pull up at a roadside restaurant. There is a thick-coated black dog sitting outside the entrance and a lone trucker who stopped off to order the sauteed reindeer. One of the country’s national dishes.

Hyypia removes his headwear and orders a coffee to warm up. The bleached blond hair is no more. Those days when he marshalled the defence at Anfield with his peroxide partner Stephane Henchoz are in the past. His youngest son was born in the Wirral and is now 17 years old. Life has moved on.

Now 50, Hyypia remains a sporting icon in his home country. Fame was never something he craved, he was a boy from a rural papermill village who simply wanted to play football. But it was a by-product of his success in Liverpool, where his £2.5million transfer fee in 1999 from Willem II was one of the shrewdest pieces of business in the club’s history.

‘When I came to Liverpool, no one really knew me. It was like a dream come true. I never wanted to be a known person, I wanted to live my life like any human being, but I understand that comes with the profession. After my first season we went out after an event in London and the first pub I stepped into someone said, “Whey, it’s Sami,” and I was thinking, “What is going on?” 

Somehow it was a burden but it showed that I was doing something right. That was something I maybe didn’t want but I understood it was there. Now I have to just live with it. When you have your helmet on nobody really recognises you. And now I don’t have the blond hair. I stopped dyeing it maybe 10 years ago. It’s a bit darker now. That’s my mask.’

Hyypia remains a sporting icon in his home country. Fame was never something he craved, having come from a rural papermill village

Hyypia remains a sporting icon in his home country. Fame was never something he craved, having come from a rural papermill village

Former centre back Hyypia with Mail Sport's Nik Simon (right) and Kevin Quigley (left)

Former centre back Hyypia with Mail Sport’s Nik Simon (right) and Kevin Quigley (left) 

As darkness begins to fall, Hyypia suggests it would be wise to head back towards town. Official sunset is 12.31pm — 15 minutes after sunrise — but there are a couple of twilight hours either side. With full beams on the snowmobile, we whizz through 50km of trails back to Levi, a small skiing resort. We pass a group of tourists being pulled along on a snow safari. ‘We celebrate Christmas on the 24th here. Santa lives here so he comes earlier. We have a big piece of ham with carrot and sweet potato dishes.

‘At Liverpool, when we played on Boxing Day, we normally spent the 25th in a hotel. The English players were unhappy but I was OK because I would celebrate with my relatives the night before. We might have some turkey in the hotel but at that time the hotel food wasn’t the greatest. The main thing was about getting energy inside you so it didn’t matter what it tasted like. It didn’t taste like anything.’

And his Secret Santa present at the club? ‘The papers were always writing, “How can a centre-back dye his hair?” I got some bleach!’

Back in the town, Hyypia refuels his Lynx snowmobile before popping home for a sauna. He reserves a table at a local bar where the manager, his friend, a Manchester United fan, greets him with a couple of remarks in Finnish about last Sunday’s 0-0 draw at Anfield.

‘I watched the game in here,’ says Hyypia, ordering a pint of lager. ‘The game is quicker than it was in my time. I don’t know how well I would cope with the tempo now. I love to watch Virgil van Dijk. He is the best, he has everything. If I was as quick as him then I’d have been the best in the world, but I wasn’t.

‘I don’t think anybody wants to be a centre-back anymore. In my day there were still centre-backs who couldn’t play football. They were big and strong but they couldn’t play football. Now the best teams play from the back and it’s very important that your centre-back can pass the ball. Goalkeeper is the same. I remember when the rule changed that you couldn’t pass back, I was playing in Finland with a keeper who was really struggling. Nowadays some keepers are better than the outfield players.’

So who was the toughest player Hyypia ever marked? ‘Thierry Henry had everything. His pace would give me problems. I played against the Brazilian Ronaldo in his prime. He was 19, playing for PSV Eindhoven and we played against him with my Finnish team, MyPa, in the UEFA Cup. We drew 1-1 in the first leg in Finland, but lost the second leg 7-1 and he scored four goals! He was so good. His pace, how quickly he turned. He was strong like a bull.’

Over dinner, Arctic salmon soup and Lappish cheese, Hyypia lets out a toothy grin as he orders the local aperitifs. ‘You can’t come to Finland and not try Jalo,’ he says, laughing at our faces as the strong brandy hits the back of our throats.

Virgil Van Dijk was often compared to the Finn and the Dutchman followed in his footsteps by becoming only the second foreign player to captain the Reds

Virgil Van Dijk was often compared to the Finn and the Dutchman followed in his footsteps by becoming only the second foreign player to captain the Reds

Former Arsenal star Thierry Henry tormented Hyypia and his Liverpool teammates for several seasons

Former Arsenal star Thierry Henry tormented Hyypia and his Liverpool teammates for several seasons

He rarely does interviews but it stirs memories, like the night a team dinner in Liverpool was interrupted by gunshots. ‘That was pretty scary. Banging and screaming. The shootings were about the bouncer after somebody was removed from the restaurant. There were eight or nine of us around the table and we jumped behind the wall. When we came out Christian Ziege was still sitting at the table. He hadn’t moved at all. He was quite cool!’

To this day, Hyypia is one of only five players to spend a decade at Anfield during the Premier League era, alongside Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Lucas Leiva and Jordan Henderson. He names Gerrard as the best he ever played alongside. ‘I remember my first training session with Stevie, pre-season of 1999-2000. He looked like a 15-year-old kid but he was so good. How he kicked the ball, the tempo, he was tough. When he went to tackle he really went hard.

‘I still remember the day when Gerard Houllier and Phil Thompson told me that the captaincy was going from me to Stevie. We were going through a tough period and they told me after one training session. So I tried to find Stevie but he had already gone. The next morning I saw his car there but I couldn’t find him anywhere. I didn’t know if he was hiding from me because he thought I was p****d off.

‘I saw him tying his laces and I think he turned his head the other way, but I said, “Congratulations, you’ve really earned it, if you need help I will always be there”. He could relax and take a breath. That was in 2003. It was great to see how he developed… he could have played any position.’

The conversation moves onto management. Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa and Fernando Torres are among Hyypia’s Liverpool team-mates who eventually joined him in the coaching world. ‘There was intelligence in our team,’ he says. ‘We had a lot of leaders. If the captain or the vice-captain had a bad day then someone else would lift up the spirit. Our team that won the 2005 Champions League had a lot of good characters. Milan had an incredible roster in the final and you could think, “How could we beat them?” but our strength was that we were tight as a group with a lot of leaders.’

Hyypia has had spells in management with Bayer Leverkusen, Brighton and Zurich but he is yet to enjoy the same success that he had as a player

Hyypia has had spells in management with Bayer Leverkusen, Brighton and Zurich but he is yet to enjoy the same success that he had as a player 

Hyypia went on to manage Bayer Leverkusen, Brighton and Zurich. His diligence and organisation shines through in the way he conducts himself, but he is yet to enjoy the same managerial success that he had as a player.

‘Management interests me but now I know which direction the business is going, I don’t know if I want to be involved. There’s no patience anymore. When you go somewhere, you have to win straight away. 

Now they are kicking out managers after three months and that’s ridiculous. I believe in something longer term. When I see managers age 10 years in one year, I don’t want to do that. The pressure as a manager was totally different. If somebody’s booing when you lose that’s totally fine. 

IT’S ALL KICKING OFF! 

It’s All Kicking Off is an exciting new podcast from Mail Sport that promises a different take on Premier League football, with a show every Monday and Thursday this season.

It is available on MailOnline, Mail+, YouTube , Apple Music and Spotify

But as a manager, when you lose, that nastiness or criticism is towards one guy. It made me feel uncomfortable. Somehow I wasn’t tough enough. I was too nice but I will never be an a**hole.

‘I wouldn’t change any decisions I made. Taking a job, I would be more demanding to protect myself. In almost every club I worked for I had little or nothing to say about transfers and that made it very difficult. At the moment I don’t work, I just want to enjoy life.’

These days he gets his kicks in new places, like the spectacular surroundings of Nordic nature. The temperature has dropped to -10°C so he orders a Minttu-kaakao — hot chocolate with mint liquor — before heading into the cold. The northern lights have appeared, magnificent waves of green, dancing in the night sky. Why would he want to be anywhere else?

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