On Friday night in Helsinki it is unlikely to get above 5C when Liechtenstein visit but the Finland players will be warmed by the prospect of qualifying for their first major tournament. They have come close in the past but those packed into the 10,770-capacity stadium will be hoping to witness history.
Those on the pitch are the least surprised about being 90 minutes from next summer’s European Championship. They won their Nations League group, earning promotion, and the momentum has continued into qualification, meaning they need only defeat Liechtenstein, who are yet to win in qualifying.
Roy Hodgson managed a Finland side that missed out on Euro 2008 after drawing their final group game away to Portugal when a victory was required. That is the closest they have come in recent times. This squad is led by the head coach, Markku Kanerva, and the captain, Tim Sparv, a former Southampton midfielder. The two were in the same roles when the Under-21s qualified for the European Championship a decade ago, something that has aided the partnership.
Kanerva is relatively unknown outside his homeland, having spent the majority of his playing career in Finland and worked in the national setup for the last 15 years. “He’s a former teacher, so he’s very theoretical, so a calm presence in the dressing room,” Sparv explains. “He is very open and gives a lot of responsibility to the players, which suits us very well, and he wants our feedback and asks us if there is anything we want to change, so he’s been really good for us. He’s been in this environment for a long time, so he knows the players very well from the youth teams.”
Mutual respect between coach and players has built a strong bond in a squad that lacks notable stars. Five of the players were part of the team that travelled to the 2009 European Under-21 Championship in Sweden and feel they can go where no other senior side have gone before. “Sometimes I say: ‘The best players don’t necessarily make the best team,’” says Sparv. “The golden generation of Finnish football of Jari Litmanen, Sami Hyypiä, Jussi Jääskeläinen, Antti Niemi, Hannu Tihinen, Mikael Forssell [had] so many good players and everyone expected them to be the group that would qualify for a championship. They never made it and people were surprised they didn’t. Maybe that has taken some pressure off our shoulders and we can just play without that pressure.”
The Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki has scored seven of Finland’s 12 goals in the qualifying campaign, helping them to five wins. The spine of the squad has been fleshed out with youngsters to create a disciplined team who have conceded only eight goals in as many games, earning five clean sheets in the process.
“I don’t think it’s just one key element that improves us,” Sparv says. “We have a coach and coaching staff who have created a really good environment for us to work in, a really safe environment for the younger players where they can take a few more risks on the pitch. We usually have a very simple tactical plan: it’s 4-4-2 where everybody knows their role, then we have some X factor in Teemu Pukki up front who has been scoring goals for fun these past few years, and then it’s this mix of youthful energy and older players stepping up to play some of their best games for the national team.”
All that stands between Finland and the European Championship is the world’s 181st-best side and even if they do not get maximum points against Liechtenstein they will have another chance three days later in Greece. Their efforts have led to greater interest in football across the country and a win on Friday would continue that growth as they compete with winter sports for fans.
“It would be huge to qualify,” Sparv says. “I think it would be great for the players and the country as a whole. The hype around the Finnish men’s football team at the moment is greater than it’s been and it’s fantastic to be a part of it. 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 to qualifying for a European Championship, so it would be an amazing achievement for us and every football fan in Finland.
“If we qualify for the European Championship it will give that extra boost and maybe we’ll change mindsets a little so that it won’t be a surprise when Finland qualify in future, it’ll be the norm.”
Since leaving Southampton, without making a first-team appearance, Sparv has represented Groningen and Midtjylland, where he was won two Danish titles. The midfielder will be leading the celebrations if qualification is confirmed. “It would definitely be the biggest thing to happen in my life in all categories. It has been a big part of my life for the past 17 years. I’ve captained every youth national team up to the full national team and it’s been a crazy experience but I love the responsibility. It was always a dream of mine of representing my country and I feel very proud and blessed to have this opportunity.”