Finland: A Tale Of Hope and Close Misses

Finland are yet to occupy a space of any relevance in world football’s consciousness, but their story is one that needs telling.
Finland: A picture of hope amongst dark clouds (Art by Onkar Shirsekar)
Finland: A picture of hope amongst dark clouds (Art by Onkar Shirsekar)

A lion’s share of you are probably familiar with the story of Pandora’s box, an artefact in Greek mythology connected with the myth of Pandora in Hesiod’s Works and Days. According to the myth, Pandora opened the jar, in the process defying the ban set by the gods. To punish her for her crimes, all the plagues of humanity were released from the jar: war, hunger, diseases, misery and death. Only one thing was left at the bottom—hope.

French philosopher Albert Camus (1913–1960) rewrites the myth: after all the evil of mankind, the last and the most execrable scourge to burst from the jar is hope. Just the hope that everything could be different makes the human life heavier than that of an animal which is content with its own part, never acknowledging the happiness of others.

The birth of a golden generation

“In sport, a golden generation or golden team is an exceptionally gifted group of players of similar age, whose achievements reach or are expected to reach a level of success beyond that which their team had previously achieved.” Yes, I am lazy and I copy-pasted that from golden generation’s Wikipedia article.

With the 20th century coming to an end, the golden generation of Finland was creeping closer to the flourishing stage.  At the forefront, Finland’s ranks featured a 1995 Ballon d’Or finalist Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypiä, the man whose shadow still floats above the world’s costliest defender. Antti Niemi, the man between the goalposts, was craved by Sir Alex Ferguson himself. For the first time since the Summer Olympics of 1912 and the days of Aulis Rytkönen, the Huuhkajat faithful had a reason to hope.

The year was 1997. Finland v Hungary. The last game of the World Cup qualifiers. 1–0 lead in the dying minutes of injury time. The eyes of the Finnish supporters kept eating the scoreboard. Like a dog seeing a leash brought out, they sensed the approaching party. They were allowed to enjoy. But then, just moments before full time, something happened. First came a breeze, then a rumble, and finally a deafening whistle. Hungary received a free kick from 40 metres. As the men dressed in ominous red lined up for the FK, the uncertainty of Antero Mertaranta’s voice reverberated in the minds of those who heard him go: “Now I must say, it would be heinous if Hungary scored from this set piece.”

The referee looked on as the wall found its place. Lights turned green and Hungary’s № 5 started his run-up. Bang. Ball’s trajectory darted towards goal, but the wall stood strong like the house of the third pig. Somehow, however, the leather sphere crumbled its way for a corner. The Finland faithful knew the corner was going in. It had to. Football’s that cruel sometimes.

And because of the context, you probably know how the corner unfolded. The montage that followed would’ve made Lev Kulešov blush. The corner sailed in, but it was not buried with with a Ramos-esque leap. There were no salmon rising from a fresh summer stream.

One Hungarian player managed to get his head to it and flicked the ball to the middle of the six-yard box. Try as they might, the Finns failed to clear it. With their eyes closed, the men donning the white-collar desperately tried to fling the ball out of the danger zone. The Hungarians were pure bystanders by then, following the tragicomic screenplay that was portrayed in front of them. Mixu Paatelainen, Sami Hyypiä, Harri Ylönen, Sami Mahlio, Teuvo Moilanen and 1–1. “Oh God forbid!” Mertaranta bewailed the sight.

The last six touches that led to the decisive goal came from the Finns’ uncreative feet.

For a moment, one could witness how they didn’t want to be seen with that white shirt of theirs. Their faces were distorted by desolation and embarrassment. “My whole world turned upside down in a matter of seconds,” Litmanen later recalled in his autobiography Litmanen 10.

Unfortunately, for Litmanen, the disappointments would not end here. Three years later, the FA appointed Antti Muurinen as Finland’s head coach.

Antti Muurinen: The wrong man in the right place at the right time

Of all the long-term coaches, Muurinen is still the most successful one with a winning percentage of 47.2. With him in charge, Finland took part in three qualifiers. The last two left nothing to write home about but the first one, the 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifying, felt like a step in the right direction. In the particular qualifiers, Finland finished third behind Germany and England, drawing against the eventual World Cup runners-up twice and against The Three Lions once.

As a testament to this team’s ability, Finland sunk the Portuguese golden generation 4–1 for fun—just a few months after.

***

Despite a good track record, however, Finland underachieved after the fashion of Bart Simpson. Muurinen’s reign was thoroughly plagued by poor tactical choices. Too often the Finns had to rely on individual beams of gold in a stream of muddy fuss.

World-class performers such as Litmanen and Hyypiä were accustomed to playing under the likes of Louis van Gaal and Gérard Houllier. Quite reasonably, they were shocked once they heard of Muurinen’s ideas. Muurinen had difficulty keeping up with the players—his blueprints were archaic and he had already fallen out of the game’s evolution. At worst, he didn’t even understand what was being asked.

Gradually, he became a joke among the players. The voluntary executives let him talk about tactics, but ultimately the players agreed on tactical patterns with each other—Litmanen and co. named themselves as de facto head coaches.

Semi-postal football stamp issued as part of a set to commemorate the XV Olympic Games in Helsinki.
Semi-postal football stamp issued as part of a set to commemorate the XV Olympic Games in Helsinki.

The players launched internal complaints about the problems and the lack of tactical astuteness, but nobody cared. Everyone turned the other cheek. Hence the players grew content with their destiny. “Their job was to play.” Nothing else, nothing more. But one must wonder what could have happened if the golden generation had made their resentment known to the public. What if they turned their back on Muurinen, like Bayern Munich players did to Carlo Ancelotti? They could have refused to play. They could have forced the FA to dismiss him. But no. They were content with giggling behind his back.

Roy Hodgson: The man whom the Finns nearly wrote love letters to

After the FA (finally) became aware of Muurinen’s tactical and result-related shortcomings (the supporters had to make a formal demonstration before any action took place), the establishment went on to hire Roy Hodgson for the gaffer’s position. For the Englishmen and Kopites, Hodgson is better not talked about—but for the Finns, he nearly grew into a national hero as his onus was to take Huuhkajat to the Euro 2008.

At his disposal was the sunset version of the ‘golden generation’, remains of what they once were.

Hodgson’s qualification campaign kicked off well, the team winning three and drawing two of their opening five matches, leaving them top of the table, albeit briefly. Two wins, three draws and two defeats later, a win against Azerbaijan kept the chance of qualification possible. And so, it all came down to the last fixture against Portugal. A win against A Seleção das Quinas would’ve guaranteed a place at the European Championships.

Of course, it didn’t happen. Even though Hodgson’s conservative tactics succeeded in nullifying Nuno Gomes and omnipresent Cristiano Ronaldo (Luis Figo was injured), Finland failed to put any real pressure on the Portuguese defense, aside from the Bruno Alves howler that nearly led to an own goal.

After the game, the Finnish people had no other possibility than to believe in pre-determinism. They were destined to lose, reaching a major tournament had become a burden too heavy to carry. Like leaves falling off a cherry tree, their faces shattered to pieces, turning into a bunch of figures without shape or control. They tried to say something but couldn’t, instead they choked.

Shortly after the disappointment, Hodgson resigned, citing the need for a new challenge as his rationale for departing.

Relapse: Chance of a lifetime given to a wrong man

Before 44-year-old Mixu Paatelainen took over the national team midway through the Euro 2012 qualifying, there was the ill-fated stint by Stuart Baxter between his and Hodgson’s. This brief sojourn inspired novelist Jari Tervo to colourfully and brilliantly describe the national team as ‘national shame’. “Should Baxter resign?” he asked. “Of course not. Why should he be let off the hook, let off easy? Why should another coach steer a sinking ship to an already predetermined harbor, to the seabed? I would definitely like Stuart Baxter to continue as the head coach of the national team. It’s a proper punishment for him.”

After Baxter left, Paatelainen stepped in. The onus, however, was not on him to deliver right away but to make it to the Euro 2016—the qualifiers that were dubbed the “qualifiers of all-time” before the games had even begun.

Paatelainen’s era in the qualifiers did not quite get off to a flying start. First, Finland had to make a full day’s work against San Marino, managing to defeat the army of Lilliput just 1–0. In the next group match, Sweden coasted past Finland 5–0, with Zlatan further cementing his place in the hearts of the blue-yellow faithful by adding a hat-trick to his record-long tally.

The news broke to me via radio just when I was having breakfast at my grandma’s. As the news reader read the results, my grandfather dropped a sigh I had not heard before. It was long and deliberate, but not a single bit surprised.

Losing had become our nature. It had happened so often that we had gotten used to it. It had become a new norm.

Eventually, Finland dropped to a antepenultimate position in the group in an otherwise forgettable qualifiers, leaving only Moldova and San Marino in the dust. Despite the collective disappointment, Mikael Forssell showed that he still had it by notching up seven goals. Only Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Miroslav Klose amassed more.

***

Next up: 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualification – UEFA Group I. Finland were drawn in the same group with Spain, France, Georgia and Belarus. Finland’s group included just five nations, while the others had six each.

And as expected, Finland finished third with considerable leeway to both directions. One fixture, however, burrowed into the minds of the Finns for the times yet to come.

On 22 March 2013, in Gijón at El Molinón, the reigning world champions and FIFA World Ranking leaders Spain were to play against Finland—the national side that was then ranked at 87. Finland had no Spanish legs, no home field, not anything to achieve.

From the beginning of the game, Paatelainen parked the bus. And by parking the bus I am not referring to José Mourinho’s way of parking the bus, I mean a proper ‘bus parking regime’. As if ten sweeper-keepers donning a white shirt were left standing inside the box.

Finland did not even try to score a goal. For some forty-nine minutes, the tactics worked. But then, from a corner, Sergio Ramos happened.

The Andalusian towered over Joona Toivio and clinically tricked the ball out of Niki Mäenpää’s reach. By then it seemed like the game would surely be over. Finland, however, did not blink, but continued to operate in accordance with their archaic blueprints.

79 minutes deep into the match, with the touch of an angel, Teemu Pukki denied Ramos’ opener by putting the ball behind the back of Victor Valdés.

The draw was subsequently dubbed as ‘the Miracle of Gijón’ and it felt like the evening could be a precursor for what was about to follow. Ballads were written, awards were presented.

A year after the World Cup qualifiers arrived the Euro 2016 qualifying. Oh boy, were the Finns excited. Finland were drawn in the same group with Greece, Hungary, Romania, Northern Ireland and Faroe Islands. The draw was met with widespread celebration on Twitter. “We are walking to the games,” wrote Finland international Timo Furuholm.

But as you already know, Finland would be nowhere to be seen in France. Paatelainen would fumble.

After a narrow win at the expense of Faroe Islands and a draw against Greece, they knelt four times in a row, scoring just once. After the fourth defeat in the hands of Hungary, Paatelainen was relieved of his duties.

Prior to the start of the qualifiers, the Huuhkajat faithful had felt that the upcoming year would see their victory, but now, the fall of their dream concretized in a crude way.

However, with four qualifying matches left, Markku Kanerva was hired to work as the interim coach and to bring good weather. With Kanerva at the helm, Finland travelled undefeated—winning the top seeded Greece and playing out a draw with both Romania and Northern Ireland.

Rollercoaster and new hope under Kanerva

Despite the positive results under the guidance of Kanerva, the Finnish FA held an obscure open application process to find the new coach. One hundred and fifty candidates filed their resumes.

Despite the open application process, the Finnish FA headhunted Hans Backe, the Swedish troglodyte who had already accepted the fact that the managerial career of his was done and dusted.

When Backe got to steer the national team through the year of 2016, failing to register a single W in charge, it was to the dismay of no one. In the 2018 World Cup qualifying, he coached just four games, with none of them leaving anything positive to write home about.

In the first qualifying match, the fresh-faced Kosovo happily retreated to the Southeastern side of Europe after what was deemed a cramped draw in the Nordics. And a month later Iceland avoided their first home defeat in three years, completing their outwardly picture-perfect comeback and taking a permanent lead in the sixth minute of time added on. 3–2.

But Reuters’ match reports, for example, omit the controversy, that surrounded Iceland’s third, game-deciding strike. They don’t tell you that the goal was practically never given birth.

In official papers, the goal scorer is Ragnar Sigurðsson, but as the slow motion footage shows, Sigurðsson’s strike never crossed the line. The referee Svein Oddvar Moen only reacted when Alfreð Finnbogason challenged his inner Sergio Ramos.

Lukas Hradecky of Finland had already captured the ball and was holding on to it in the midst of a scramble of hungry Olympians. That was before Finnbogason decided to rush into the turmoil and force the ham into the oven, with no regard to the rule book. Hradecky’s grip gave in as Finnbogason booted the ball into the net.

Once Moen, who was subsequently suspended by the way, approved Iceland’s third goal, the Finnish captain Niklas Moisander lost his cool. Moisander seemingly attempted to rip Moen’s shirt into pieces and was understandably booked for the absurd challenge. But it could be argued that red card should have been condemned as Moisander’s act made Ronaldo’s ‘light depiction of dissatisfaction‘ look like a scooter standing beside a truck.

The whole situation looked like a lost frame from Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. It felt like they’d been there before, guess they should have seen it coming.

In the third qualifying match-up, Croatia defeated Huuhkajat 1–0 with Finland failing to register a single shot on target.

“Such data shan’t be taken seriously. A statistic that only depicts the shots on target is bullshit,” Backe waved after the game. If one listened closely, it could have been heard—the desperation that he could not keep from creeping into his voice. It became apparent that he wasn’t in touch with reality anymore.

Photograph of the Finnish national football team of 1953.
Photograph of the Finnish national football team of 1953.

Having dismissed Backe after Finland’s third consecutive defeat, the Finnish FA decided to resort to the familiar and proven by giving the ship’s wheel to Kanerva. Kanerva had to resume again from the ruins that the former coach had burned during his era. Kanerva’s workload was not eased by Roman Eremenko’s doping ban. Eremenko, the only player who knew how to put up a delicatessen into the centre of a cyclone with aplomb, got caught for doing cocaine. And because his name wasn’t Paolo Guerrero, he was banned for two years.

But Kanerva didn’t flinch. Instead of complaining, the man set out to put the Huuhkajat back on rails—this time with a three-year contract in his pocket, traveling undefeated through the last four matches—including a draw against Croatia and a win against Iceland.

A thrilling draw in Croatia inspired the immortal and ever so humble Luka Modrić to go on a rant about Finland’s level of play.

“When we were looking for the goal, we had a few chances and initiative. When we scored, it was unbelievable that we would retreat against Finland, of all teams.”

Indifferent to Modric’s opinions, Kanerva is now preparing to guide the national team to a major European stage via the wormhole of Nations League. With a few tactical changes seasoned with Zinedine Zidane-esque luck, he might actually pull it off.

For years Finland rumbled like a dyed-in-the-wool drunk towards failure after failure. The FA couldn’t care less about nourishing the youth or being transparent in their actions. Coaching was unprofessional and undetailed, at best. Strikers didn’t know about the analyses of goal scoring patterns, and developing playmakers didn’t receive enough passes per training session.

But now, at last, Finland’s ranks include players specialised in their position—players who have been educated at home. Wingers who can make flanks unpleasant places for defenders and false nines who know how to slalom in between the lines.

The hope of resurgence is there.

If football owes Messi the World Cup, then it definitely owes Finland a place in a major tournament—given their great teams of the past. Given their fans’ never-ending hope. The Finnish media is still a hub for the ongoing erosion of hope, but the fans are a whole different lot.

Like Tervo pointed out in his aforementioned column, even a not so disastrous game gets them excited after a disastrous one.

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Marco Heta

Found writing in third grade, discovered football in seventh. Five years later, combined them.