The lessons a buoyant Finland can take from Iceland’s Euro 2016 success

The lessons a buoyant Finland can take from Iceland’s Euro 2016 success

“Press against the lips. Touch me everywhere. Look deep into my eyes. Do you know the beauty of the moment? I want to make love to you!” It was karaoke night and Finland national team coach Markku Kanerva was up. Rather than shy away or pull rank, Kanerva joined in. Aware of just how important it is to create a positive atmosphere, the coach of one of the 24 nations who’ll be at Euro 2020 took the mic and sang a Finnish classic, Pelle Miljoona’s 1979 hit Tahdon Rakastella Sinua (‘I want to make love to you’, in English).

That’s one example, but there are many that outline the kind of person Kanerva is. He’s the man who took Finland to their first ever major tournament and he’s a school teacher at heart. That’s something he hears a lot, something all of Europe will hear a lot over the coming months as Euro 2020 approaches. Just as everyone watching an Iceland game at Euro 2016 was repeatedly reminded that co-coach Heimir Hallgrímsson was a dentist, it’ll be the same with Kanerva as his side take on Belgium, Russia and Denmark.

He doesn’t mind; he’s used to it. Even during his playing days with HJK Helsinki, his hometown club who he had three separate spells with and who he played in the Champions League with in 1998/99, he was the only one who also held a regular job outside of football. He liked it that way. He’d take on the PSV Eindhoven of Ruud van Nistelrooy, the Benfica of Nuno Gomes or the Metz of Louis Saha at night and then teach in the morning. 

Kanerva taught various subjects and physical education was logically one of them. Even when he spent time playing at Elfsborg in Sweden, he continued teaching and was assigned a group of rough and tough kids. “I viewed it as a challenge,” he later told Ilta-Sanomat. “The headmaster gave me free reign, so long as the students weren’t committing vandalism. I asked them what they’ve like to do in the class and the answer was football. And also boxing, because those skills were apparently needed on the weekends.”

When he returned to Finland, the coach completed a thesis on technical football coaching and soon moved properly onto the training pitch. Initially it was with HJK, before he worked with the national team’s youth set-up, years after earning 59 caps for his country during his own playing days. From there, he held a number of roles within the Finnish federation, from under-21 coach to assistant to caretaker manager, up until the point where he was named permanent head coach of the Huuhkajat – the Eagle Owls – in December 2016.

That was just a few months after Europe had been caught up in a feel-good wave of thunder-clapping. Iceland had gone to Euro 2016 for the first time in the country’s history and had made it through the group stage by beating Austria and drawing with Portugal and Hungary, before knocking out England in the last-16 and eventually exiting against hosts France in the quarter-finals. They were the little national team that could compete. Kanerva watched on with interest.

With Iceland having been drawn in the same group as Finland for qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, where the islanders would impress once more, he got to take a close look at the team that played the starring role in the most recent Nordic success story. The first meeting of that qualifying group had already taken place in Reykjavík, when Iceland won 3-2 and when Kanerva was assistant manager. But, following the dismissal of Hans Backe, Kanerva was promoted to the head coach role, defeating Iceland 1-0 in Tampere in the return game.

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

Something special was being built and Finland went on to finish top of their League C UEFA Nations League group – ahead of Hungary, Greece and Estonia – and second in Group J of Euro 2020 qualifying, only behind Italy. With a 3-0 victory over Liechtenstein in the penultimate matchday in front of their home fans at the Telia 5G Areena in Helsinki, they were in. 

That’s when the Iceland comparisons really started. Tactically, these teams qualified in different ways, though. Finland played a compact 4-4-2 during qualifying, a little like Iceland had done before them but with less reliance on set pieces and with more creativity out wide.

In some ways, the comparisons made sense. They were at least understandable as they’re both northern teams, small countries and qualified for their first-ever tournament. They also have charismatic goalkeepers in Hannes Þór Halldórsson and Lukáš Hrádecký, and have top-class Premier League attackers in Gylfi Sigurðsson and Teemu Pukki. Even the coaches were compared, with Kanerva’s teaching background and Hallgrímsson’s dentistry considered similarly modest and noteworthy. 

For Kanerva, the only comparison that he wants is in terms of results, and that’s why he is planning to meet Hallgrímsson’s Iceland co-coach Lasse Lagerbäck, who is now in charge of Norway, and Sweden boss Janne Andersson in Stockholm in the coming months. Kanerva wants to learn about the tournament experience and the unique challenges that this brings.

It’s not tactical lessons that Finland are taking; Kanerva is his own man and it’s far too simplistic to suggest that all teams north of Poland play in the same way. Keep in mind that Helsinki is 2,500km from Reykjavík – as far as London is from Istanbul. But there are motivational and mental lessons to learn from heading to a major tournament as a small Nordic team that most are already writing off as also-rans.

As Finland and Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Hrádecký told These Football Times: “Iceland has definitely been a big inspiration for us. I think the coach has actually communicated how they’ve been learning from each other. What Iceland did was unbelievable and we hope to copy that of course. I’ve heard some of the statements where the press of Denmark or the press of Belgium are treating us like an easy three points, like we’ll be an easy game.

“We have a group chat on WhatsApp with the players and we’ve already been firing it up. It only motivates us more to hear this kind of news that they completely disregard us from the group. We don’t want to go there just to visit and be tourists. We want to surprise them and we want to attack them hard.” 

That’s exactly what Iceland did at Euro 2016. Their first game against Portugal was supposed to be something of a warm-up for the eventual champions and Cristiano Ronaldo, but it ended up being a 1-1 draw, after which the superstar number 7 was visibly angry. “Iceland didn’t try anything,” he bemoaned afterwards. “I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end. It was unbelievable. When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.”

Back in Iceland, they were drinking those quotes in. That was a victory in itself. Now, Finland will look to similarly rile up the continent’s superstars. While remaining clear that they’re writing their own story, they’ll take inspiration from Iceland. They’ll try to similarly shake up the Euros. 

By Euan McTear @emctear

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