IN Finland, where there exists ever-increasing pride in their sporting exports, they relish relating the story of the Sunday School teacher who chides the errant child in her care. "Do you know what happens to the little boys who don't go to Sunday School, but play ice hockey instead?"
"Sure, " the lad replies.
"They grow up and become professionals in Canada and earn a hell of a lot of money . . ."
Except now, while ice hockey, indeed, still flourishes, it's actually more likely that the talented youth of the nation will grow up determined to emulate rally or Formula One drivers Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen, and Premiership footballers like the Southampton goalkeeper Antti Niemi, a man who, from being but an afterthought in Dick Advocaat's plans at Rangers, has developed to become one of the most coveted custodians in England.
So revered, in fact, that whenever the name Niemi appears in newspaper reportage, the names of Arsenal or Manchester United, or both, tend to be juxtaposed within the same sentence. It's inevitable, really. While both those clubs yearn to reinforce the security behind their respective back fours, his own club has an ominously vulnerable appearance about it when the big-spenders come laden with offers.
In the court of King Harry, Niemi is the principal keeper of the keys to Premiership security, and though the Southampton manager may well contend that "we'd be mad to sell Niemi and [Kevin] Phillips", the suspicion is that, should the Saints not elude the slavering jaws of relegation, Niemi will be a key sale item of what will be transformed, inevitably, into a St Mary's trading post.
What irks him, however, is the imputation that he would contrive at enforcing such a move. "Quite honestly, I feel like refusing to talk to the press ever again, " he said after one recent headline suggested he had told Manchester United to "come and get me".
Fortunately, that antipathy had been mollified somewhat by the time we meet on Thursday at the Saints' Staplewood training ground. "I consider myself quite a loyal person, " he explains. "Even if the worst happened and we go down, I won't knock on the manager's door and say that I want to go. I believe that you get what you deserve in life. That applies to football, too. After the season has ended, whether we're in the Premiership or not, then it's up to the club to talk to anybody who is interested.
"We are all in this together.
I'm part of a team that is not doing well; I don't think I'm in a position to make any demands at the moment.
Anyway, my wife's ideal future is that Southampton stay in the Premiership and I stay here for another three years, whatever. Our daughter is five and she's already lived the first few weeks of her life in London, followed by Edinburgh, then it was Southampton. Ideally, we would like to stay here for her sake. But if something happens, it happens." Three managers in one season . . .
Paul Sturrock, Steve Wigley and now Harry Redknapp . . . is scarcely conducive to stability, and hence consistency.
However, Niemi insists: "Of course, we can still get out of trouble. If we finish 17th, it will have been a great season. But it's the end of January already and we still have to face all the big boys. It's going to be a struggle to survive.
"There's no magic tricks in the situation we're in, " he adds. "The manager hasn't changed the system too much, just changed a few players. There's only one way we can get out of trouble, and that is working hard, and hopefully adding two or three players to the squad."
You suggest to the goalkeeper originally lured south by Gordon Strachan for A£2m, that his presence represents a bright beacon amongst the gloom for Redknapp? He cannot be implicated in the wretched sequence of results.
"No, " says Niemi. "It's a team sport and to be honest I don't think I've made so many winning saves as I've done in the previous two seasons."
That said, he hasn't contributed a surfeit of errors, either. The truth is that lustrous goalkeeping reputations are constructed not so much on saves made as blunders avoided. Niemi's credit rating is unusually high, despite results, compared with many of his peers. Can you recall his last obvious aberration? In fact, as he'll remind you himself, it wasn't so long ago. "The Spurs game [at White Hart Lane] was awful. We lost 5-1 and I made a mistake for the last goal, but if you're going to make a mistake, that's the time to do it!" There is sympathy, not schadenfreude, when he witnesses one of his brethren, a Dudek, a Carroll or an Almunia, costing his team points.
"It's really difficult to explain to anyone who hasn't played in goal at this level but you just feel so bad that you haven't done your job properly, and you've let people down . . . your own fans and your teammates. Personally, I can live with it, though. It's not a problem. I sleep well, and go to training the next day and start again."
When we speak, he had just returned from training following treatment on that injury sustained at St James' Park which reduced his contribution to five minutes.
"Just a few studs in the kneecap", Niemi describes Shola Ameobi's accidental followthrough. Just as long as he's available on Saturday, that will be the primary concern of the Saints' faithful on an FA Cup afternoon in which Hampshire becomes less a divided county and more two warring factions when, for the first occasion, the vagaries of the draw pitches Redknapp against the club from which he resigned in November. Defeat will either bring a mournful tone to the Pompey Chimes or a funereal pace to the Saints' march. Unlike the league, there is no sanctuary in a draw.
"In Glasgow, the atmosphere is quite nasty, although there's the religious issue obviously, so that's a different matter. But I do sense how much it means to the fans here, and what a hostile environment it will be, " says Niemi. "It's difficult to understand why people should hate each other so much, being from the same country, but then they always say that the civil wars are the cruellest ones. Maybe it's the same in football; that the local derbies are the most passionate."
Niemi believes the fact that he is a relative newcomer will help him escape potentially distracting emotions experienced by those with a close allegiance to either side.
"Wherever I've played, in Glasgow, in Edinburgh and now here, there's been local derbies, and people always ask the same question: 'Do you appreciate how much it means?' I have to be honest.
I don't. I wasn't born here.
I'm a foreigner who arrived here two or three years ago.
I've played in three games against Pompey, and for me, it's just another fixture. You see, my enemy is always the ball. That's what I concentrate on. It doesn't matter what shirt the opponent is wearing."
Certainly, after 14 years as a professional, starting at HJK Helsinki, where he embarked on a north Europe tour with stop-offs at FC Copenhagen, Rangers, Charlton on loan, and Hearts before berthing at Southampton, he regards the abuse and scorn from behind the goal from opposition supporters with studied indifference; if truth be told, even with faint amusement.
"There's a lot of things I love about the game, " he says.
"But there's also an ugly side, though sometimes when I'm getting serious stick the worst thing is keeping a straight face. You just want to laugh and say 'Honestly, you don't mean to say that my mum was a hooker, do you?
You don't even know her.
She's a lovely lady.'" Like many of his ilk, he regards Peter Schmeichel as an inspiration. "One of my best-ever moments was when we played against Manchester City in the first season I was here. Before the game, he came up and just said quietly: 'Good luck, Antti.' I thought 'Oh, my God. Peter Schmeichel wishing me good luck . . . and knowing my first name.' I thought, 'Antti, you've come a long way.'" Many miles, and years, in fact, for the 32-year-old since goalkeeping first entranced him as a five-year-old with a natural affinity for a role in which his shot-stopping and reactions are his prime assets . . . together with a nerveless demeanour.
"Some goalkeepers like to shout and pump themselves up when they get on the pitch.
I'm the opposite. I'm always pretty laid-back. The important thing is that you are yourself and not try to act like anyone else, " he says. "If I go in the dressing room at half-time and try to tell Jason Dodd or Kevin Phillips 'fucking get at them' [he clenches a fist for emphasis] or something, they'd just look at me and say 'oh, shut up' and 'sitdown'. It's not me. It wouldn't be natural."
Helping to preserve Southampton's Premiership status, and maybe even assisting them to another FA Cup final, are what comes naturally. But then this is a man who prefers to live by a particularly pertinent Finnish saying: "A man is valued by his work, not his words."