The Finnish capital of Helsinki may not be the first place you’d expect to find a museum crammed with Manchester United memorabilia, but thousands of miles from Old Trafford is a building where Jere Virtanen houses the fruits of a longstanding obsession.
Virtanen’s love for United is as old as his love for the game itself, roughly dating back to when he was first given a red jersey at the age of five.
He’s now preparing to open The Red Room later this year – 210 square meters in the center of Helsinki filled with more than 33,000 items devoted to the football club, everything from scarves to signs, posters to programs.
“I have been collecting memorabilia and other stuff from United I’d say for more than 20 years, and at some point, my home, my office and my parents’ place were full,” Virtanen tells CNN Sport.
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He has acquired the collection from auction brokers as well as his own trips to Manchester to see United games.
Among the haul is a rare Roy Keane match shirt from 1999, a decanter marking the 25th anniversary of United’s 1968 European Cup win and even objects dating back to before the club was founded as Newton Heath L&YR in 1878.
Virtanen estimates that the museum’s contents is worth five or six times what he has paid over the years. The Keane match shirt and original benches from Old Trafford are among the most valuable items, although he admits he’d never consider selling them.
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There will be individual sections on the players Virtanen most admires – George Best is his favorite – and prominent moments in the club’s history, including the Munich air disaster.
Best is widely regarded as the one of the greatest footballers of all time. As a United player, the Northern Irishman won two league titles and one European Cup triumph in 1968, the same year he was voted the continent’s best player.
The Red Room was scheduled to be unveiled in March before the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
A new opening date is yet to be confirmed, but original plans to have former United players Lee Martin, Wes Brown, Ben Thornley and, to Virtanen’s delight, Bryan Robson open the collection are still in place.
“I started playing with number seven because of Robbo,” says Virtnanen.
“He was the first player to affect me and that is why I hoped that he’d be the one (to open the museum). It is absolutely amazing and I feel so humbled and privileged that Robbo and all the others are coming to Helsinki.”
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‘Like a religion for me’
Virtanen says he usually attends between three and 10 games a season, but opening the museum, alongside his work as CEO of social media monitoring company Gofamer, means visits to Old Trafford have been more of a rarity of late.
But that hasn’t affected his love for the club.
“It’s like a religion for me, the United family,” says Virtanen. “I travel all around the world to see other fans and they have become second family to me.
“From the beginning of the club, there are so many stories, so many players who, even if you haven’t seen them play, it’s like you have and you know them.
“It’s a way of life nowadays. After the museum it’s going to be an even bigger part of my daily work. It’s something to get your mind away from day-to-day stuff and always makes you smile more.”
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As an overseas United fan, Virtanen has plenty of company. Last year, data released by the club revealed it to be the best-supported team in the world with 467 million fans.
China was singled out as a fast-growing market, while Scandinavia has always been a hotbed of United support. In 2019, the Manchester United Supporters’ Club network announced the region as the biggest official members group in the world ahead of Hong Kong, Iceland and the Republic of Ireland.
“The club doesn’t really belong to us in Manchester and it hasn’t for a long time,” Manchester United historian Jason Leach, who works in the club museum at Old Trafford, tells CNN Sport.
“We are probably the first club to have a fan base or fan bases around the world in terms of the history that we’ve got … that’s down to the stories we can tell, the players that have played for us going back way, way beyond the Premier League.”
Leach puts much of United’s enduring popularity down to Matt Busby, the decorated manager who helped the club win the European Cup, five league titles and two FA Cups, as well as taking pre-season tours overseas to Europe, USA, Canada and South America at a time when football rarely got on TV.
He also points to the Munich air disaster of 1958, which killed eight members of the “Busby Babes,” only for Busby to rebuild the squad and lead United to European glory 10 years later.
“That was something that for most football clubs would have finished them,” Leach adds.
“For us, it was kind of like our defining moment. It almost makes it unbelievable what the club has achieved since.
“For people who are football fans outside of Manchester itself, draws them in because of that sort of spiritual tale.”
Some 350,000 visitors flock to the United museum at Old Trafford each year – an “outrageous figure,” according to Leach – and Virtanen’s Helsinki equivalent becomes the latest of a number of collections dotted around the globe.
Overseas fans have gradually become part of the club’s heartbeat.
“Their passion is as strong as mine and I live over the road and they live thousands of miles away,” says Leach.
“From being a young kid and going to the matches with my dad and thinking, ‘This is my team and everybody comes from Salford where I live,’ to now thinking, ‘It might be my team, but you know what, we belong to the world.’
“I’m proud of that. You don’t want to be insular with it and just think that the only people who go to Old Trafford are from the surrounding areas. For United, those days disappeared a long time ago.”