Finland’s time has finally come: the inside story of qualification for Euro 2020

Finland’s time has finally come: the inside story of qualification for Euro 2020

The large tifo, unveiled above the fans’ heads as the teams came out for this momentous evening, read, “Suomi: aika meidän tullut on”. Finland, our time has come.

This display had been months in the planning, and two weeks in production. It was a straightforward message for the biggest night in Finland’s football history. The chilly night may have been nudging freezing, but it sizzled with excitement as the fans had begun to arrive in Helsinki’s Telia Areena, as the footballing hopes of a nation lay on the line. It was a night that had been anticipated for years. 

The shattered dreams of campaigns past merely served to heighten the expectation. So too the barren years of disappointment between the all too brief flirtations with qualification. All of that was in the past. All that mattered to those making their way to the stadium, and those watching across the country and elsewhere, was what would happen over the next 90 minutes, when Finland would go on to seal a first-ever qualification for a major tournament.

While the banners were being laid out prior to the match by a team of helpers, most of whom had no idea what the final display would look like, thousands were assembling in the city centre, ready to march together to the stadium. While these marches are not unusual for Finland games, like so much else on this night, this time everything was different. 

The sheer volume of fans marching to the stadium was beyond anything that had gone before, and it included fans from across the spectrum, more than ever before wearing Finnish shirts or scarves. Several also wore owl masks, in homage to the team nickname, Huuhkajat – Eagle Owls. As the atmosphere and noise began to build, flares were lit and the chant of the night began to resonate across the throng: “Rive, [head coach Markku Kanerva] will take us to the Euros.”

It took an hour or so to walk the 1.5km to the stadium, with even those stuck in traffic as a result of the march joining in the chanting and beeping their horns in support. The atmosphere was one of positivity and excitement, rather than tension and stress, as the collective unity overcame any individual nerves. “The temperature was almost zero, but it was warm because of all the celebrating people around me,” said Ville Rantala, who had gone straight from his office to the march. “I had been nervous for days before the game, but soon I relaxed as the people made so much noise that I started to feel more confident. Today would be the day when we finally qualify.”

Another of those marching, Jarkko Savolainen, remarked: “For once, Finland felt like a football nation. Something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time.” This is the heart of what happened in Finland when they beat Liechtenstein in their penultimate European Championship qualifier, ensuring their maiden qualification. It marked a change in fortune but also in outlook, and in respect for the sport in a nation where winter sports rule.

Not all of those marching to the stadium beforehand were lucky enough to have tickets to the match, with many simply revelling in the euphoric atmosphere before heading back into town to watch it in the huge fan zone or preferring to keep warmer by watching it in a bar. Many were trying their luck hoping for reasonably priced black-market tickets – far from a regular sight at Finland matches – but for such an occasion, the prices had escalated beyond what all but the most desperate were willing to pay.

The main stand, the pohjoiskaarre, in the small, compact stadium was full well before kick-off. Another to have joined the march from the city centre, but now sat in the relative comfort of the main stand, was the former Finnish Minister for Culture and Sports and former chair of the ruling Left Alliance, Paavo Arhinmäki. He wasn’t meant to be there, though. He was meant to be some 400km north of Helsinki, attending the first day of his party congress in Kuopio, scheduled for the same time as the Liechtenstein match. “So, I will miss it,” he told me, referring to the congress rather than the match. He wasn’t going to let the matter of party politics interfere with a moment of national sporting history.   

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The stadium, home to HJK and being used by the national team while the adjacent Olympiastadion is being renovated, only holds a shade over 10,000 spectators. While this led to a more intense experience for those lucky enough to be inside, it means that many more were left looking on from the outside.

A handful of hardy souls took that literally. Ossi Pärssinen was one of a number of fans on a nearby hill overlooking the stadium, braving the cold and peering in on the historic events taking place below. Public big screens popped up across the country, providing a collective place to gather and watch. One Helsinki church – Paavalinkirkko – hosted a public showing, no doubt with countless prayers for sporting success being offered throughout. Others rushed home from work to watch with family and friends at home or in bars. Across town at the Apollo Live Club, Norwich were hosting a “Pukki Party” in honour of their striker, now leading his country’s attack.  

These are just a handful of the stories of the greatest day in Finland’s footballing history. A match against Liechtenstein is rarely described in such a way, but this would be the day when Finland sealed a place in a tournament finals for the very first time, sparking celebrations on a par with those seen when the national ice hockey team unexpectedly became world champions earlier this year.  

The joyous and optimistic mood was in contrast to some elements of the Finnish sporting media – often more ice hockey focused, and as a result a little disparaging towards football. However, there is a history of disappointment and lack of success in football that had scarred many of those watching through the years. While this history made the qualification all the more rewarding, there was often a note of caution lurking in the background, given past events.

For many present, this was the culmination of years of loyal support, devastated dreams and repeated lows. Of travelling Europe in hope rather than expectation, and of suffering the slumps with the hope that one day there would be a peak. Over the course of the preceding few weeks, the atmosphere and tension had steadily built alongside each other. “It’s a mixture of tension, hope and fear that somehow we’ll manage to mess it up,” was how one fan, Jyri Paavilainen, dryly noted, the years of disappointment making pessimism rear its head even in this promising situation. “Three years ago, it seemed that it’s impossible to reach a Euro or World Cup in my lifetime,” said 29-year-old Jan Moilanen. 

The rise to the brink of qualification has been as rapid as it is impressive. The pervading pessimism of some of the fans’ attitudes over the years is grounded in the painful truth that, more often than not, while Finland have been able to put in some good performances and earn some fine results, they have lost sufficiently often as to remain a touch behind those nations fighting for qualification. On the rare occasions that they have had a real push for a finals place, things have not gone well.

“The first Finland game I remember properly was the infamous home game against Hungary,” another fan told me, with a hint of pain. Needing a win to secure a playoff spot for a place in the 1998 World Cup, Finland led through an Antti Sumiala goal as the match neared its conclusion. As the clock ticked into stoppage time, they still led. But this was to be no celebratory night. 

In the teeming rain in Helsinki, a farcical late scramble, where the ball pinballed around the Finnish goalmouth, ended with it being cleared off the line only to rebound off the back of the unlucky goalkeeper, Teuvo Moilanen, and into the net. To add to the anguish, this was the final act of the match. Finland had it won and yet had found a way of letting it slip. As ways go of seeing your World Cup hopes destroyed, this had to be one of the most absurd.

This painful past, and the self-inflicted manner of that Hungarian nightmare, has hung heavy on Finnish football shoulders. “That, to me, has been the whole picture of our team,” reflected another fan of that late heartbreak. This match has lived in infamy in Finland as the ultimate disappointment. To get so close only to see it snatched away in such circumstances was too much to bear. 

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If there was any crumb of comfort, it was found when Hungary were resoundingly thrashed 12-1 on aggregate in the playoffs by Yugoslavia. That mitigated the devastation with a dose of reality in that Finland were unlikely to have overcome Yugoslavia either. But many of the fans I have spoken to recently cited this match as the starting point of a closer following of the national team; as though the collective despair enabled the development of a deeper desire to see the team finally succeed, and a closer group of supporters was born.

However, the disappointment remained. Finland’s next near-miss came in 2007 under Roy Hodgson when, similar to now, a win in their final qualifier would send them through to the Euro 2008 finals. Liechtenstein were not the opposition on that occasion, however. Rather, Finland had to travel to Lisbon to take on Portugal, Ronaldo and all. Needless to say, hopes were higher than expectation on that occasion. 

Finland ran Portugal close in a goalless draw, however it was largely thanks to an inspired goalkeeping performance from Jussi Jääskeläinen that they weren’t beaten. They only occasionally threatened to get the win they required if truth be told. “I cried then,” Finnish fan Aki Lyyski told me. He also “cried a little” when Finland’s fate was put firmly in their own hands in last month’s qualifiers. Tears of joy, not pain, this time at the thought of a first step into the unknown for Finnish football.

Fast forward 12 years and, having impressively won their Nations League group, simultaneously earning promotion to League B and sealing the back-stop of a playoff place for Euro 2020, Finland took this form into the regular qualifiers. With Italy topping the group, Finland have remained steadfastly in second place despite the challenges of Greece, Bosnia and Armenia. Other than narrow losses to the Italians, it was only in a 4-1 defeat to Bosnia last month that Finland were badly beaten. The trip to Sarajevo had seen thousands of Finnish fans tag along, hoping to see their team edge closer to qualification.  

Antti Talasterä was there, having trekked to Bosnia via a ferry and two flights with no ticket for the match. He was not alone in his intrepid travels, so much so that the official Finnish supporters’ association bought spare tickets on the black market to sell to their fans and laid on buses to get them to the stadium in Zenica. In more than 20 years following Finland away, Antti has only seen his time win twice – Wales in 2009 and in Estonia last year – and the trip to Bosnia never looked like adding to that list despite the huge following, although the Finns have often travelled for the enjoyment rather than the results.  

His first trip abroad with Finland was to Nürnberg in 1999 to see his side beaten 2-0 by Germany in a Euro 2000 qualifier. Only a handful of fans made that trip. Antti recalls seeing four fans in the airport on the way wearing some noticeable national team attire.  The contrast to the recent Bosnia trip is stark, with thousands present in an electric, fun-filled atmosphere. The change in the level of expectation is equally stark. Now they travel in numbers and fill their stadiums with something more than mere hope: there is tangible anticipation, if not full-on expectation, which is a new experience for Finland.

“I had serious conversations with my friends saying, ‘It’s possible that we will not qualify in our lifetime’,” he notes. But now, Antti was in the main supporters stand for the climactic clash with Liechtenstein, having turned down the option of the warmth of an executive box courtesy of a friend – boxes that the Finnish FA had unsuccessfully tried to buy back just for this match. Instead, he opted for the atmospheric warmth of being a part of the main throng in amongst the noise, the flags and the tifos. He would be well at home there, given he was once partly responsible for a record-breaking large Finland flag back when he began following the national team.  

A few days after returning from Bosnia, Finland beat Armenia in Turku to get their hopes back on track, but it was what happened shortly afterwards that was even more significant. “The greatest result we could have wished for,” was how Antti described the 2-1 win by Greece over Bosnia that meant Finland now only needed to beat Liechtenstein to claim their place in the finals. “That was a very fun day,” he added, as the post-match celebrations from the Finland match went into overdrive once the nation had watched in delight as Greece gave them the ultimate helping hand. The closing stages of the campaign had been dubbed “the dream of generations” by the Finnish FA, and that dream was now all set to become a glorious reality.

“The mere thought of our country qualifying has felt like a distant dream, a bit of a fairy tale really,” another fan, Lauri Kansikas, told me. “You could compare this to England winning the World Cup for the second time, people will be all over the place.” 

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In the aftermath of the Greek victory over Bosnia, Finnish social media with messages and videos thanking Greece. Fate was now firmly in Finnish hands and the pressure was on. In 1997 expectation had weighed heavy, while in 2007 it had been more hope than certainty.  Two decades on, with only Liechtenstein in their way, Finland were in the unusual position of being favourites to qualify. 

Having previously felt qualification was a thing he may never see happen, Antti Talasterä’s outlook had been utterly reversed through the course of this campaign. “No chance we will fail to qualify. I believe fully,” he told me, adding, “I hope these words don’t come back to haunt me.” Had it gone wrong, Antti had taken the step of mitigating against the potential footballing heartbreak with the prospect of financial gain, with a bet that could have gained him €20,000 if various unwanted scenarios had come to pass. “It’s a bet I want to lose,” he added. “It’s a life insurance policy.”

Keith Miller, an Englishman, was in Bosnia too. Having followed the team across Europe for years, he made the trip to a home match in Finland for the first time for the Liechtenstein match. “I’ve got to be there. It’s going to be historic,” he said. Keith, known as Keke to his Finnish friends and listeners to his appearances on the Finnish Football Show podcast, has become a supporter of the team initially through having married a Finn and spent time watching JJK, the team from his wife’s home town of Jyväskylä. The friendships struck up there led to Keith following the national team, meeting up with his friends and making new ones all over Europe.  

“Being a regular Finland away fan is like being in an exclusive club,” he told me. “The same faces travel to every away game and I have made some great friends from these trips.”  The camaraderie, feeling of belonging and sheer sense of fun from being a part of Finland’s following has made these adventures a rewarding experience. The spirit of the underdog appeals too. “I think that being a fan of West Ham for so long and developing an underdog spirit made it easy to become a Finland fan. We are the underdog 99 percent of the time,” he said. 

Football in Finland is an underdog in itself, almost a left-field activity to follow, which brings some benefits. “It almost has the feeling of supporting a club side. When you go away and meet the same people, it’s great.” Keith secured a ticket through his membership of the official supporters’ club, and his first home match enabled him to meet up for the first time with some of those he records those Finnish football podcasts with.

Another Englishman who follows Finland is Steve Bunting, who had come to love the country and its football while studying on a nursing placement in Espoo, and meeting and connecting with fellow football fans. “There is nothing I look forward to more than returning to Finland, whether it be to watch football or a social visit to visit friends,” Steve told me. 

His trips following Finland have given some great, and at times unusual, experiences, but what comes across is the sheer joy and pleasure taken from supporting Finland and the people he has met as a result. This connection to the country, but also to a rewarding and enjoyable way to be involved in following international football, is almost the equivalent of shunning the moneyed spectacle of the Premier League to enjoy the purer pleasures of non-league football. Only in this case, it will take Keith, Steve and other international followers of Finland to Euro 2020. Many Finnish expats, too, were travelling back home for this decisive match, wanting to be a part of the occasion and the anticipated celebrations.

Finland’s captain, Tim Sparv, captured the mood and their recent rise perfectly ahead of the match. “The hype around our team at the moment is greater than it’s ever been, and it’s fantastic to be a part of it,” he said. “It will mean so much to a lot of people. Just three years ago I think Finland’s ranking was close to 100, and now we’re close the qualifying for the European Championship, so it would be an amazing achievement for us and every football fan in Finland. The biggest thing to happen in my life.”

One of those to whom it would mean the most was Gunnar Yliharju. Now 80-years old, Gunnar had been working as a coach in the national team setup for four decades. An interview with him was aired on Finnish television the day before the match, where he stated that a place in the finals would mean more than anything to him, to the extent that he could die happy if Finland were to achieve it.

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The match itself began to a backdrop of noise and emotion, with any lingering nerves settled as the Finnish team set about their lowly opponents with confidence that reinforced their newfound status as favourites to qualify. They had already had an early goal disallowed by the time Jesse Tuominen fired Finland into the lead in the 21st minute.  Once Pukki added two more goals in the second half, the party was well underway.

One fan watching on, Jarkko Savolainen, had already shed a tear as he sang the national anthem with the crowd before the match, and when Tuominen’s opening strike went in, his tears began again as the reality dawned of what was about to be achieved. “We had been so overwhelming in the first half an hour that I already felt nothing could take this away from us. It really is happening,” he told me after the match. 

“During the second half, some of the old memories went through my head. The bitter disappointments, goals conceded in the last minute, almost torturing yourself to watch the matches sometimes. Still never turning your back to the team. It would all be finally worth it. We have deserved this. Our time has come. I hugged my dad and the people standing beside us. People from all stands were joining the singing and the atmosphere just kept on building.”

Within moments of the final whistle the watching fans poured onto the pitch from all sides in celebration, while fireworks illuminated the sky from outside the stadium. “I don’t have a clear view of that moment,” recalled Jarkko Savolainen. “I found myself on the pitch hugging pretty much everyone I saw in front of me. Some people were going mental, others just burst into tears and fell on the ground. Just a beautiful, beautiful moment.  After minutes of wild celebration and chanting it really hit me. We are going to the Euros! I had to take a few deep breaths and have a little walk on the pitch. Somehow my feelings mixed between overjoy and confusion.”

Finland goalkeeper Lukáš Hrádecký was leading some of the chanting, while happily taking swigs of the beers that supporters were offering him. Later, in a television interview, he burst into song with a delirious version of Sweet Caroline: “Good times never felt so good.” Also interviewed post-match was Gunnar Yliharju, the 80-year-old former coach who was overwhelmed by the occasion. Several of the players dedicated the win to him, with Pukki interrupting Yliharju’s interview to give him a big hug.

Back in the city centre, celebrations were well underway. In scenes reminiscent of when the ice hockey team became world champions in May this year, the crowds were congregated at the Havis Amanda statue, known as ‘Manta’, in the main Market Square, where any major public gatherings are held. More fireworks exploded in the sky above, while on the ground flares lit up the surroundings, with drums, singing, chanting and car horns providing the soundtrack. People were climbing on traffic signs, and one brave soul stripped naked and climbed on top of the statue. Other statues around the city centre ended the night decked in Finnish team shirts and scarves.

A level of resourcefulness was necessary for those who wanted to take their celebrations a step further, as there was nowhere to buy alcohol at that time of night. The preparations by some for this situation had been as thorough as the team’s preparations for the match itself. “I myself had stashed beer into a luggage safe,” Tuomo Niemi told me. “I went to get champagne from my workplace, where I had stored it in the fridge,” was Ville Rantala’s version.  

Jarkko Savolainen had a more sentimental twist on this theme, sharing the moment with his dad, Kalle. “After leaving the stadium, my dad took out a bottle of champagne which he had bought on the ferry on our way home from the under-21 Euros in Sweden in 2009, the first ones Finland ever qualified to,” he told me. “Back then he said that the bottle would be kept waiting for the day Finland qualifies for the Euros or the World Cup. After opening the bottle, we shared a long hug with tears running down our cheeks. That was the most emotional and joyful moment of my life so far.”

For the supporters of Finnish football, this was the ultimate release. The realisation of their dreams, after so much disappointment, and a new respect for football within Finland itself in comparison to other sports. “What the qualifying means to me is that finally we have proof that Finland plays good football and we have quality players and coaches,” said Tuomo Niemi. Finland’s Prime Minister, Antti Rinne, got in on the act too, tweeting: “Oh Finland is, oh Finland is, oh Finland is finally in the championship.”

To see the reactions of fans, players and management at the end of that match was to witness what football means to so many people. It demonstrated why it resonates so deeply, and how this achievement in qualifying for the very first time meant so much to so many. Tim Sparv was equally overcome in the aftermath. “One day, when things settle down, I’ll try and describe what it means to us. Today, though, I just want to say thanks. Thank you for being there during the hard times. Thank you for believing. Thank you for helping us make history. We’ll be forever grateful.”

As the words had said on the giant tifo in the stadium, Finland’s time has indeed come.

By Aidan Williams @yad_williams

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