The postponement of Euro 2020 put Finland’s major tournament debut on ice but, when the finals do come around, the Nordic nation have their sights set on emulating the remarkable recent achievements of Iceland.
One of the enduring memories of the last European Championship in France in 2016 is that of Iceland — roared on by a huge support and their “Viking Thunder Clap” — knocking out England on their way to the quarter-finals.
Iceland reached the last World Cup too, and still hope to go to the next Euro along with Finland, who will be there when it finally goes ahead a year behind schedule.
“In a way it’s already a dream for us to play in the finals, but we are not going there just to participate, we want to achieve something more,” Finland coach Markku Kanerva told AFP in an interview ahead of his team’s latest get-together and a friendly against world champions France on Wednesday in Paris.
“It’s the same with Sweden in the World Cup, they did very well,” said Kanerva, with a nod to Finland’s neighbours who reached the quarter-finals in Russia in 2018.
“I believe they are examples for us because they are from the Nordic countries as well and there are some strengths in all our Nordic countries, mentally and, as I mentioned, we are organised teams and we can also learn what have been the key factors behind their success.”
In a nation of 5.5 million people where football plays a distant second fiddle to ice hockey, Finland had never really come close to reaching a major tournament before, even in the days of the great Jari Litmanen, a Champions League winner with Ajax in 1995.
But Kanerva was appointed in 2016 and led them to Euro 2020 as they finished second in qualifying behind Italy.
“We weren’t the favourites in our group because Italy was the favourite, then Bosnia and Herzegovina and Greece as well, they were the main candidates to qualify. And we managed to surprise them,” said Kanerva, whose side are 55th in the FIFA rankings.
– Pukki ‘a huge figure’ –
He was grateful for the goals of Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki, a “huge figure in Finnish football” according to Kanerva, and who contributed 10 in the qualifying campaign as the team did their bit to raise the sport’s profile at home.
“People are talking more about football and congratulate us, me and all the players as well, and there are many people who said, ‘I never believed the Finnish national team could qualify for a major international tournament,’ and they’re very proud of that, and we are as well.
“The players believe in themselves and as a team we believe we can achieve something new and we actually did it.”
Excitement about going to the Euro increased when they were drawn in the same group as neighbours Russia, Denmark and the world’s top-ranked team Belgium.
It is only 200 kilometres from the Finnish border to Saint-Petersburg, where they are due to play Russia and Belgium, but talk of an influx of Finnish supporters is on hold due to the health crisis and rumours the Europe-wide format might be changed.
Nevertheless Finland are preparing the best they can, and are currently doing well in the Nations League, notably beating the Republic of Ireland home and away.
Over the next week, after facing France, they play in Bulgaria and Wales where they will be without Augsburg’s Fredrik Jensen, a scorer in each of the last three Nations League matches.
But Kanerva can call on the likes of Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, midfielder Glen Kamara, ex-Arsenal and now of Rangers, and Bundesliga-based Joel Pohjanpalo.
And then there’s Pukki.
“He was one of the key players in our qualification, scoring ten goals…so of course that’s his role, to score goals,” said Kanerva.
“And Teemu can’t score goals without good delivery, and that’s very important to keep in mind that someone has to assist his goals as well. So of course there are many other important players in the squad with a very huge role behind our success.”