After years and years of disappointment Finland are finally among Europe’s elite and the country look to write history next summer.
When you think of Finland you think of glistening ice-sheets, blankets of white snow and the shimmering emerald Northern lights.
In terms of sports, hockey dominates the region. The Finnish national team are littered with stars and are the current World Champions.
Hockey is played as a pass time everywhere around the country.
Kids grow up idolising the Finnish Flash, Teemu Selänne, or the legendary Jari Kurri.
Football due to its inaccessibility has always been in the shadows of hockey. The Finnish football association was established all the way back in 1907, however, for over a century the national team brought little to capture the nation’s imagination.
Even with stars like Jari Litmanen or Sami Hyppia, the elusive qualification to a major tournament, one way or another, remained an insurmountable climb.
Until a new generation heralded a ‘golden era.’
Finland’s blustery conditions make football a hard sport to play outside during the cold winter months. It is why so many have flocked to hockey and the winter games like skating and skiing.
In the past, pitches with the right conditions to play the game were scarce, but that’s changed in the last decade.
‘Finland have benefitted from a lot of UEFA/FIFA money over the years to assist installation of all weather pitches and investing in coaching. It is quite expensive for young kids to register with a club but the standards have risen considerably over the last 10 years,’ Rich Nelson who runs Escape To Suomi, an English site dedicated to Finnish football, tells First Time Finish.
With the sport becoming more accessible the culture is growing.
‘Hockey is still the number 1 spectator sport but football is a lot closer than it ever has been. The football culture is kind of a hybrid of English and eastern European, there is a lot of the fashion and style of the English with labels, while the Eastern Europeans tifos, flares and marching are apparent.’
With stars like Litmanen and Hyppia to emulate and idolise the next generation of talent have grown up with a tangible proof that they can make it from the country.
So much hope vested on the shoulders of Finland’s ‘golden team’ of the early 00s, but the pressure was too much. The new generation of Finnish stars don’t have that. While the ‘star’ power might have faded, there is a new element of cohesion in the squad. Rich Nelson echoes this sentiment.
‘The late 90s/early 00s vintage were always seen as a gold standard but there is an acceptance that the current squad are achieving more by qualifying – an emphasis on the team over the individual. They’re still massive names, but they don’t loom over like they did, even Litmanen who is still involved in the FA in a development role.’
The more investment around the national team has also provided a much stronger domestic division. HJK have dominated the Veikkausliiga for many years and have always been a relatively strong force in Europe, but in KuPS, the club based in the capital have a new potentially indomitable rival. KuPS were on the brink of history and were only a game away from making it to the Europa League group stages this season, which would have been the first for the Finnish side.
Their success is another indication of Finnish football’s continuous growth.
It is also supplemented by the concentrated emphasis on youth development guided by Finland’s head coach, Markku Kanerva.
‘The players coming through are part of a big continuity drive from youth levels, where Kanerva is a big part of that. Forss in particular was held back because he barely played for the U21s, but the public demand for him to play was thus that this was his first call-up.’
A strong core
Finland’s success equally down to the fine balance in their current roster. In addition to youth talents like the aforementioned Forss and Onni Valakari, who recently scored in a 2-0 win over France, there is a strong core of experience in the squad.
‘Hradecky is probably the best individual in the squad, playing at a consistently high standard in a top league, and has been excellent for Finland too,’ Rich Nelson says.
And alongside the Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper there are stars like Teemu Pukki and Tim Sparv who have a wealth of experience.
Players like Glen Kamara, who developed in Arsenal’s academy are starting to hit their prime. Kamara has become an integral pivot in Steven Gerrard’s Rangers side and has excelled this season. He is also a crucial member of Finland’s starting eleven and is able to dictate games.
Jere Uronen who is currently at Genk is another player to watch, the marauding full-back offers a vital outlet in attack, and with Champions League experience under his belt, he will play an integral role at Euros.
23 year old Bundesliga midfielder Fredrik Jensen is another one to watch. After two disappointing campaigns marred by injuries the Augsburg midfielder is finally starting to show form reminiscent of his Twente heyday and is featuring regularly for the Bundesliga outfit.
Robert Taylor, of English descent, is a tidy midfield player who has featured at a plethora of lower league English clubs before finding his feet in Scandinavia. Having scored his first goal for the national team against Bulgaria and currently excelling at SK Brann, Taylor could potentially earn himself a bigger move with solid displays in the Euros.
Former wonderkid and Liverpool trialist, Joel Pohjanpalo is also an excellent understudy for Pukki and for the first time showing signs of his early potential in the Bundesliga with Union Berlin after scoring 9 goals in 14 appearances for Hamburg in Bundesliga 2 during the second half of last season.
Finland’s opponents at the Euros will be Belgium, who are ranked number one in the world, and hosts Denmark and Russia. It is a tough group but with strong performances in qualifying, narrow defeats to Italy and now a victory over France, the Finns have proven they can withstand unfavourable challenges.
‘I think getting out of the group stage at the Euros would be the big achievement – perhaps nicking a win would be enough, but (on current schedule) playing at two hosts is a pain. There aren’t high expectations thankfully. Finishing above Russia would be fun,’ Rich Nelson admits.
Led by Markku Kanerva, who has been actively working in the Finnish national set-up since 2004, (he spent six years as the manager of the U21s and five as the assistant manager of the senior team prior to becoming the head coach) Finland are guided by a pragmatic man.
Kanerva’s football is often concentrated on defensive focus with quick counter-attacking interchanges.
It’s a tactic which has paid dividends and it concentrates on Finland’s best assets which helps to bring the maximum out of the team.
‘Kanerva is such an established figure within the FA that it’s fair to say he’s had a big impact – he has a lot of faith in young players, has brought the team together well after a lot of senior players retired/stopped after WC2018 qualifying. Tactically he is quite rigid to either 442 or 352, but the team are generally hard to beat and he likes a pacy wide player,’ Rich Nelson concludes.
With football more accessible, the sport growing in popularity and now a first major tournament to look forward to, Finland’s footballing craze has truly begun.
Like Iceland, the Scandinavians have the potential to cause a few upsets in the tournament ahead.
One thing for sure, perhaps for the first time in the summer hockey will not be the most watched sport in Finland as the Euros unfolds.