At the final whistle there was joy, a loud joy. Most of the 10,000 fans in Helsinki that evening rushed onto the pitch. In the melee that followed, Paulus Arajuuri had a bloody nose. Never before has beaten Liechtenstein been celebrated in this way.
But never before have Finland’s men qualified for a major tournament.
“It was an incredible feeling after the game,” said coach Markku Kanerva. “Everyone expected us to win and in a way it was difficult to prepare the team for that because we all knew it was so close that our dream would come true.
“After we made it 2-0 I was hoping we would finally get it. After the final whistle it was amazing. People rushed out onto the pitch and we were all celebrating. . “
Kanerva, the 57-year-old schoolteacher turned coach, was the man who helped make the dream come true. He found himself soaked in the showers afterwards. It was just the start of an unforgettable evening. But remember he does. “That day, November 15, 2019.”
A few days later, they lost their last group game against Greece. “We had had a bit of a party.” But no one was bothered then or now. Finland – a year later than expected – is finally switching to the euro. “We have waited a long time. Decades. Now this is really happening.”
There have already been great players. Jari Litmanen, of course. Sami Hyypia of Liverpool. Both have won the Champions League. But they couldn’t achieve what this group did.
“If you compare to the so-called golden generations, we don’t have so many players in the top leagues right now. It’s hard to say what our secret is,” Kanerva said.
How did they handle it? The expansion of competition has helped, but that’s not all. Finland did not require a play-off. They finished second behind Italy in their group, ahead of the former Greek champions as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina.
With the women’s team qualifying for the Euros next summer and the men’s futsal team competing in its equivalent this winter, something is brewing in Finnish football.
“Three teams,” says Kanerva. “A fantastic historic achievement. We are very proud of it. Hopefully this is the start of a bright future. It won’t end this summer, it will continue, and there is still a lot to improve.”
He’s too modest to tell, but Kanerva’s role in improving so far shouldn’t be overlooked. He was seen as a disappointing appointment by some in 2016 given his modest coaching career. He was the man of the federation, working inside the system for more than a decade since leaving his sole role as club head coach in Finland’s lower leagues in 2003.
But the experience he had, as an U21 coach, as his predecessor’s assistant with the senior squad, as well as the 59 caps in his playing days, have proven to be more relevant. “After analyzing what I could improve, change and develop, we came up with a strategy.”
There is no elation with Kanerva. He is thoughtful. Despite his success as a player, he marks his time as a teacher in Sweden, a role he played alongside his duties with Elfsborg as a young man, as being essential to his development as a person.
He started out as a language teacher before moving into sports and math. “It was a bit of a balancing act to make sure it didn’t bother my football. But it helped me socially. I made friends outside of my football team. It was a great great experience. “
Perhaps more relevant this summer is the fact that only one Finnish coach has ever led a men’s side to a UEFA final – and that was Kanerva with the U21s in 2019.
Twelve years later, he will draw on this experience.
“I got some good information on what it takes to be your best as a coach. In a way, it’s a little stressful. Important games, media tasks, session plans. I’ve been thinking about this tournament, I’m focusing more on what should I pay less attention to?
“I’m not saying I’m going to change a lot, but maybe I’ve learned that it’s important for a head coach to rest because it’s so important to be your best in training sessions and team meetings. There is so much to do for that. you have to plan the schedule that you have time to rest. “
The captain of the Under-21 team was Tim Sparv, the same man who will captain Finland when they kick off their Euros campaign against Denmark on Saturday. The star striker was Teemu Pukki, the same man who is expected to score his country’s goals this summer.
“He’s definitely one of our key players,” Kanerva said of Pukki.
“But I always insist on team effort. Teemu’s job is to score goals, but someone has to play the key passes, so he will need other players’ help as well.”
There’s also a word for Glen Kamara, the Rangers midfielder whose composure on the ball impressed the manager. But the mantra is clear. Team spirit is what will define Finland.
He led them here. The victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina in qualifying was huge, but the coach instead highlights the 4-1 loss to the same opposition as a key moment. His players got back on their feet and clinched an important 3-0 victory over Armenia days later. “It shows the mentality of the team,” he said.
“They’ve grown mentally during this process. Everyone on this team is ready to work. The unit is there. It’s a team. The players know their roles and the requirements of each position. They know the plan. match and they’ve learned a way to play. “
There is no illusion. Finland will need a lot more than that if they are to progress from a group that includes Belgium, the highest ranked team in the world. “This is the most difficult.”
The previous two matches, against Denmark and Russia, would be more winnable without the fact that they will take place in Copenhagen and St. Petersburg respectively.
“I wish all my players were in the top five leagues like the Belgium team. But we’ll see what happens. Maybe they will play so well that they will get contracts with bigger clubs? L ‘Euro is a big window for them to show what they can do.
“If you look at the FIFA rankings and the quality of the players, everyone can see the difference. But we have managed to achieve good results before.”
The most significant came last November – almost a year after the Liechtenstein game – when they stunned world champion France by beating them 2-0 in Paris.
“Beating the world champions away was definitely the highlight. Although it was a friendly game, it gave us a lot of confidence. We showed that we can challenge these other teams.”
This summer, they will take inspiration from Iceland’s race to the quarter-finals five years ago. Lars Lagerback, the manager of this team, even told them about it.
“He told us a bit about the miracle of Iceland. It showed that even smaller countries can live their dreams and that they can come true. He is an important example for us.”
Unfortunately, circumstances make it unlikely that the support will be as spectacular as that provided by the Icelandic fans at Euro 2016. It is a missed opportunity. “Before the pandemic, 30,000 Finnish fans were planning to travel. That says a lot about the support.”
Instead, it’s the format that offers hope. A counterattack from Pukki, a set piece, might be enough to secure the group stage victory that could take them to the knockout stages.
“However, this is a football game. Eleven against eleven. I have to be sure they’re excited but relaxed enough to show their best. It’s a huge thing for the players too.
“They are very exciting, a little nervous. I don’t need to motivate, maybe I need to calm them down so that they can give the best of themselves. It will be the challenge, for them to know that ‘they don’t have to be scared against these big teams.
“That’s what I’m going to stress.
“Our strategy is that we generally have to defend very well against the best teams for sure. On the other hand, we have to create scoring chances to win, so that will be a huge challenge. We will see. We are not. not the favorites but we believe in ourselves. “
Much like against Liechtenstein, the excitement is palpable and a man stands at the center of it all, the composed scholar figure preaching calm amid the chaos.
“I hope this inspires and motivates everyone working in football in Finland – the players, the coaches, anyone involved in Finnish football. But it’s all about the smaller goals. Score the first goal. Keep the first blank sheet Get the first victory.
“Achieve these goals and our dreams can come true.”