“Why not us?” has been a familiar refrain in Finnish football in recent years. They have watched from afar as their Nordic brethren from Iceland captured the world’s imagination with their performances and their thunderclap and wondered when it would be their turn. They have looked in from the outside as their Scandinavian neighbours have all had stints as regular tournament qualifiers over the years, with some distinction on occasion. Finland, though, has never known the joy of a tournament summer, never experienced those pre-tournament hopes and dreams, never reached the high points of a player’s international career.
For a nation of five million, this disappointment has been brought into sharper focus following Iceland’s recent success with a far smaller population. But equally, countries such as Northern Ireland, Wales and Croatia have reached levels significantly far beyond anything Finland could even dream of, with smaller populations in each case. Finland’s lack of an appearance at a tournament finals has led to an entrenched and enhanced sense of disappointment.
Could this all be about to change, however? Under the leadership of Markku Kanerva, the national team have begun their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign in impressive style, recording three wins on the bounce after an initial loss to Italy. Finland now sit second in their group, with a real opportunity to push towards a first tournament qualification.
This has come on the back of a successful Nations League campaign, Finland winning their League C group to earn promotion to League B. Crucially, that gives Finland the prospect of a playoff place for a spot in next year’s Euros, should they fail to make it through their qualifying group. For a team that has perennially fallen short, this has been an impressive rise.
It’s not as though Finland has failed to produce world-class players in the past, however. In Jari Litmanen, they had one of the finest attacking talents in Europe through the 1990s and early 2000s. The generation that Litmanen inspired and was a part of towards the end of his career – alongside Sami Hyypiä, Antti Niemi, Teemu Tainio and Mikael Forssell – was probably the finest that Finland has ever produced, and yet that squad was unable to break through the glass ceiling of qualification.
None of the current team are household names such as some of the above, though Teemu Pukki has hit the headlines for Norwich at the start of the 2019/20 Premier League campaign. However, there is now a real sense of hope in Finland that the time for that historic breakthrough could be close at hand.
A limited, restrictive game plan based on a tight defence and relying on the likes of Pukki to capitalise on sporadic goalscoring opportunities has given Finland the hope that they can reverse the tournament fortune that has been their wont throughout their history.
Founded in 1907 while still a part of the Russian Empire, the Finnish FA have been a member of FIFA since 1908. Early World Cup qualifying campaigns failed to yield so much as a single victory until September 1965 – a 2-0 win over Poland – while in European Championship qualifying, the wait extended even further until they won their first two matches of qualifying for Euro 1980 against Greece and Hungary. That campaign would actually be the first peak in Finnish football as the Huuhkajat (Eagle Owls) came within a point of qualification behind Greece.
The sense of improvement that had begun in the 1970s appeared to continue with another near-miss in qualifying for the 1986 World Cup, this time losing out by two points, however the malaise would soon return. It wasn’t until Litmanen’s late-1990s peak that they next came within touching distance when, under Danish Euro 92-winning coach Richard Møller Nielsen, they only needed a win in their final match at home to Hungary to seal a place in the playoffs for the 1998 World Cup. Fate took a cruel twist as Finland, leading 1-0 going into injury time, scored an own goal, shattering their dreams in the process.
They were developing a habit of performing well, picking up the odd decent win, but not having the consistency to see it through. They had an impressive win over ultimate quarter-finalists Turkey in Euro 2000 qualifying, achieved two draws with eventual runners-up Germany in World Cup 2002 qualifying, as well as a home draw against England and a 5-1 rout of Greece. Again, it wasn’t enough, despite being the only team in the group unbeaten at home. This was to be only a brief high point, as the poor results returned in the next few campaigns.
The subsequent peak came under the stewardship of England’s Roy Hodgson, who oversaw the efforts to reach Euro 2008. Again, it came down to the final match when a win away in Portugal on the final day would have sent Finland to the finals at Portugal’s expense. The match ended goalless, with Finland fielding a 38-year-old Litmanen, and the Portuguese – Ronaldo and all – sneaking through from the group along with Poland.
Ultimately, it had been a poor defeat away to last-placed Azerbaijan that cost Finland, although this campaign did see the Finns reach their highest ever world ranking to date of 33rd.
The 2010 World Cup saw another third-placed finish with some more impressive results, as they were the only team not to lose to eventual semi-finalists Germany, leading both home and away before conceding late equalisers on both occasions. Those campaigns were another all too brief highlight, however, as the performances and results tailed off once more.
The last World Cup campaign saw Finland finish fifth in their group, though they did record a win over Iceland who, frustratingly for the Finns, went on to win the group and then hold Lionel Messi and Argentina to a 1-1 draw in Russia.
While these series of peaks and troughs are what you would expect from a nation the size of Finland, they should be considered alongside the fact that this is a more successful sporting nation on a number of other fronts. The successes of the likes of Iceland has brought Finland’s football failings into sharper focus, but in other sporting pursuits they do regularly perform at the elite level.
Finland were recently crowned men’s ice hockey world champions and came close to repeating that feat in the women’s equivalent. Football clearly lags significantly behind in terms of popularity at the top level, partly through environmental factors of course, but also through a lack of a coordinated, consistent approach.
Football has also historically been of lesser significance in Finland than the likes of Formula 1, rally driving, long-distance running, javelin and skiing. All of these sports have seen Finland enjoy eras of sustained success, and although more people play football in Finland than they do ice hockey, fortune has never smiled on them.
One theory goes that with Finland one of the few European countries to still have national service, young players are taken away from their clubs at an important stage of their development. This was explored in depth in an article by Paul Brown in The Blizzard, although it must be mitigated by the fact that the likes of Litmanen and Hyypiä came through national service to play with distinction at the highest level, as have countless ice hockey superstars.
Fundamentally, the issue historically has been more a case of a lack of an Iceland-style investment in facilities and youth development, and a more strategic approach to player development. This has begun to change but will take time to bear fruit. However, with the stimulus provided by the present crop of Finnish internationals, there is every chance that the coming generation will be inspired by the current one.
Finland have been one of the big successes of the UEFA Nations League, winning what was a tough group in League C to earn promotion to the next level. They won their first four matches, beating Hungary, Greece and Estonia (twice) all without conceding a goal. A single-goal defeat to Greece in Athens in their penultimate match put the Greeks within three points of Finland at the top of the group, but actually confirmed Finland’s promotion. With Greece the only team that could catch Finland on points, Finland led the decisive head-to-head record by virtue of their 2-0 win in the home fixture.
A further defeat – 2-0 in Hungary – was therefore rendered irrelevant. Finland had not only earned promotion but a place in the playoffs for Euro 2020, where currently Norway, Scotland and Serbia await them, though this may change should any of these countries qualify through the regular qualifying process.
What was evident through their Nations League campaign was the four successive clean sheets that were the backbone of the Finnish success. Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that those four shutouts came through only allowing four shots on target by the opposition in those games combined. Indeed, two of the three goals they conceded across their six Nations League matches came when promotion and that playoff spot were already secured.
This steadfastness at the back is evidence of the highly organised, limited but effective game plan being employed by Kanerva, which is also born out by the relative lack of goals upfront. It is a plan that has been bought into by the unified squad, aided by the fact that the line-up is generally consistent from match to match. In this way, Finland have found a way, admittedly against opposition below the elite, to build a habit of winning close matches.
This improvement has continued into European Championship qualifying, with the Huuhkajat heading into the last months of that campaign in an automatic qualifying place, sitting second in their group. Their only blemish, and tellingly their only goals conceded in four matches thus far, came in the opening group match away to Italy.
That 2-0 defeat in Udine in March has then been followed by three successive 2-0 victories. Away wins over Armenia and Liechtenstein meant that any potential banana-skins were avoided (Greece lost 3-2 at home to Armenia in the group by way of comparison) either side of a more significant home win over Bosnia, thanks to a Pukki brace Again, the defensive solidity was to the fore, with Bosnia only achieving one shot on target in the whole match, although Edin Džeko was guilty of some wayward finishing.
Further tests await, with the return in Bosnia and two clashes with Greece still to come in the group, but other than the return match in Italy, there is noting to hold any undue fear for the Finns. Could it be that the backstop of the playoff place they have already secured is rendered redundant by successfully holding on to second place in this group? “Why not us?” the Finns ask.
With the iron grip of a defence used to stopping the opposition, a striker in fine form and a new-found belief throughout the team, Finland might just be providing the answer themselves and making a first appearance at a tournament finals next summer,
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams