The end of Antti Muurinen's spell as Finland coach was predicted by many to be the dawn of a lean period for Finnish football.
Muurinen had brought renewed confidence to the side, without managing to guide them to the finals of a first major tournament. When he was dismissed from his job in June 2005, it was widely anticipated that the more talented and experienced members of the squad would take it as a cue to hang up their boots. However, the footballing apocalypse never quite happened, and following the appointment of Englishman Roy Hodgson at the start of 2006, it seems Finland's veterans have decided to have one more go at breaking their qualifying duck.
The Hodgson era did not begin with a bang - indeed, the team failed to win a match in the year leading up to the UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifiers and many feared the worst after their 2-1 home defeat by Northern Ireland in an August friendly. The coach, however, was not too concerned. "What's important is to get results when it really matters," became Hodgson's mantra. And with Finland's opening two Group A games netting four points, it appears that the coach's confidence has had an impact on his side.
An impressive 3-1 win against Poland in Bydgoszcz was followed by a 1-1 draw against Portugal in Helsinki though defender Sami Hyypiä was left feeling underwhelmed. "It really is a little bit weird that we are disappointed after a draw with Portugal, but we felt the match could have been won," he said. Hyypiä's discontentment is a fair reflection of the renewed optimism among Finnish supporters. As they look ahead to long journeys to Armenia and Kazakhstan in their next two qualifiers, the success-hungry public are suddenly expecting nothing but six points.
For Luton Town FC's Markus Heikkinen, that sounds a little presumptuous. "People who say six points is the only possible outcome do not know about our opponents or the conditions in Armenia and Kazakhstan," he said. "We are certainly looking for wins but to take them for granted would be a big mistake." Nonetheless, the experienced Jari Litmanen is not the only Finn buoyed by the good start that Hodgson's men have made to life in Group A. "There's a long campaign ahead, but no one can take these points from us," said the captain. "It's nice to make a good start for a change."
Finns are hardly renowned as positive thinkers, but Hodgson's enthusiasm is beginning to pay off. Defender Hannu Tihinen was even eyeing the UEFA EURO 2008™ finals when he decided which club to join this summer. "One of the reasons I chose FC Zürich was to get acquainted with the stadiums in Switzerland," he said. "It would be a dream to play here for Finland." A dream, perhaps, but after years of being told Finland would never reach a final tournament, some believe their time has finally come.
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