All that’s wanted is a home win over Liechtenstein, one of the world’s feeblest teams, in Helsinki and Finland will take their place in next year’s European Championship. The temperatures are plummeting and the days are getting shorter as another harsh winter approaches in Finland. Expectations around the country’s soccer team are rising though, like never before.
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On Friday, Finland could seal a place in the finals of a major football tournament for the first time in its history. After so many past disappointments, it is a day many in this Nordic country of 5.5 million inhabitants better known for its hockey team, rally drivers and javelin throwers thought would never arrive. It is one that could transcend football, changing the mentality of a nation.
“There are always cynics with a sort of ‘Ah, they are never successful to do it anyway’ feeling in more or less all we do, whether it is music, anything, said former Finland player Aki Riihilahti, who is now CEO of Finnish champions HJK Helsinki. The Finnish nature is that only when there comes an external acknowledgment of achievement do, we go and support it.”
Finland has had better teams down the years, on paper anyway. They’ve had more celebrated players, Finland remains, somewhat embarrassingly, the only major Nordic country to have never qualified for a major tournament.
So, what’s changed? The hiring of a former primary school teacher as a coach has plenty to do with it. Markku Kanerva was promoted to the job in December 2016, having previously been an assistant with the team and a former player in the 1980s and ’90s. He inherited a team that had gone all of 2016 without a win and also one that was about to lose some of its best players.
Kanerva also approaches coaching like he would teaching, encouraging his players to interact more, take responsibility, and learn what they have done wrong so they can improve. The results have been striking. Finland won its group in the inaugural UEFA Nations League competition after winning its opening four qualifying games, earning promotion to League B, and guaranteeing a playoff spot for Euro 2020 that might not be necessary.
In Euro 2020 qualifying, the Finns reacted to an opening loss to Italy by winning four straight Group J games without conceding a goal. After eight games, they are in second place, behind already-qualified Italy but five points ahead of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Armenia. With two teams advancing automatically, Finland needs one win from its final two qualifiers over the coming days, starting with last-place Liechtenstein, to make history.
“This is the lost piece of the puzzle,” said Marco Casagrande, over-all secretary of the Football Association of Finland. All the other things in our sports we have achieved to do, but this is something that’s still unraveling us from being a real sports country.”
“It didn’t help, Casagrande said, when everyone was saying, ‘You are losing all the sports and Iceland is going to the Euros. Come on guys, what are you doing?'”
When Finland won the men’s hockey world championship this year for the first time since 2011, there were wild celebrations in central Helsinki as champagne-swilling fans braved the cold weather by stripping off and taking a swim in the fountain and climbing on the famous Havis Amanda statue. Expect more of the same if the country’s football players finally make the long-awaited international breakthrough.
“Finnish people would all celebrate like a big festival,” Riihilahti said. “It will go crazy.”
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