Four years ago Maija Saari was preparing to represent Finland on home soil at UEFA Women's EURO 2009 – now she is getting set for the 2013 finals in Sweden.
Saari showed her worth in captaining Finland to ultimately comfortable qualification from a UEFA Women's EURO 2013 group where four teams had a chance of finishing top – and then being named her country's best female player in November. Although her club AIK Fotboll ended up relegated, the 26-year-old will remain in Sweden's premier division after being snapped up by ambitious newcomers Mallbackens IF.
In this summer's tournament Finland will take part in the inaugural game against Group A rivals Italy in Halmstad on 10 July, before travelling to Gothenburg to face the hosts. "It is going to be a very exciting year," Saari told UEFA.com.
Thinking back to 2009, when her goal earned an opening-day victory over Denmark, the left-sided defender added: "It was amazing to play your first finals game as hosts and I hope that, as football is very popular in Sweden, there will be lots of people at the games there too. I hope all the Finnish people will come to cheer us."
Since 2009, when Finland were pipped by England in a thrilling quarter-final, things have not always gone well for Finland. Long-serving coach Mikael Käld stepped down at the end of that year, with some key players also retiring. His Swedish successor Andrée Jeglertz saw the side suffer some heavy defeats in his first 12 months, before their form improved in 2011 as they stormed to qualification.
"When Andrée took over, the first year was pretty hard as we lost many games," Saari said. "Last year, and in this qualifying campaign, we found a way to win games and turn the hard away games to our advantage."
As for the coach himself, Saari continued: "He's fantastic. He is very positive in trying to get a winning mentality for the team. I think he has found very good tactics for the squad we have, for the players we have. We have lost many older players who had the experience to play those tough games that you have to win. I hope we can find a winning culture again this year, especially in the final tournament."
Saari, indeed, is now one of the more experienced squad members and has benefited from playing professionally, mainly in Sweden, since 2009. "There are many [Swedish] clubs that have the money to have professional players, and that isn't so common in other countries," she said. "When players are professional they can improve and the league is better."
The eventual aim, of course, will be to reach the 28 July final at the Friends Stadium in her one-time Swedish home town of Solna. "I haven't seen the new stadium but I have heard it will be fantastic," Saari said. "That would be the dream."
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