By Kevin Ashby in Preston
Michael Käld wondered what he had let himself in for when, in a five-week spell shortly after his appointment in 2001, Finland lost their first three qualifiers for the 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup: 1-0 to Switzerland, 8-1 to Switzerland and 6-0 at home to Denmark.
Nearly four years on, however, the 51-year-old wears the look of a contented man after guiding his unfancied side to the semi-finals of the 2005 UEFA European Women's Championship. Reflecting on Wednesday's 4-1 defeat by Germany, Käld said: "We have to learn from these games. It's our first time in a championship like this and we have reached the semi-finals - I can't be disappointed and am very proud of my team."
Finland opened their campaign with a 3-2 reverse against England but recovered to hold Sweden to a scoreless draw before eliminating Denmark following a 2-1 victory in Blackpool. It was a remarkable achievement for a country with only 19,000 registered players, the lowest in the tournament along with Italy who failed to play with any of the passion and verve which helped the Finns advance to the last four.
Germany gave Finland a footballing lesson at Deepdale - one Käld hopes to learn from if his side are to continue their ascent up the world rankings. "They're so strong, so good in every position," he said of the finalists. "They showed us that we have to train harder. Germany are able to switch from defence to offence without hesitation and are so powerful. They only give opposition players a second or two to make a decision, if you take two or three touches they're all over you."
Finland's star midfielder Anne Mäkinen agreed with her coach, saying of Germany: "They have no weak links - any of their players could make the all-star team and that's a pretty big step for us. It's like playing against men because they're so strong. I've played for Finland for 14 years and now we're starting to catch up. Reaching the last four is a big accomplishment for such a small country."
Mäkinen was at her effervescent best in England and gained plenty of central midfield support from Jessica Julin. Goalkeeper Satu Kunnas was another to enhance her reputation along with Anna-Kaisa Rantanen. In defence, Tiina Salmén lived up to her billing as Finland's brightest youngster with some assured performances against Europe's leading strikers. Käld now hopes to cash in on the team's new-found stardom back home.
"This competition was very important as everybody back in Finland is talking about women's football and that should mean plenty of new girls taking up the sport. We have to get more players involved but more importantly we need to get more coaches involved. I think coaches back home in Finland watching these games will now be interested in women's football. It's a good chance for more of them to switch."
Like his side, the affable Käld excelled himself at EURO be it in victory or defeat. His next step is to guide the team to the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup from a pool in which Denmark represent the stiffest opposition. "We play three qualifiers this year," he said. "I will be asking all the players if they're ready to take us to the World Cup because there are many youngsters knocking on the door. Either way, I think we will play a good qualifying campaign." Expectations have been raised.
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