For the first time in European Championship history, Finns will watch the UEFA EURO 2020 finals draw wondering when their own team's name will be selected.
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Finland's football fans have wept many tears of frustration at their national team's agonising failures to qualify for major international tournaments.
Tears flowed again two weeks ago. But this time, they were tears of joy. At long last, the Huuhkajat, or Eagle Owls, had finally got the job done – booking an historic first- ever berth at the UEFA EURO 2020 finals next June/July.
The Nordic nation of some 5.5 million inhabitants celebrated wildly after their team's comfortable 3-0 success over Liechtenstein in Helsinki. The victory ensured Finland will have a front-row seat at next summer's pan-European festival of football, staged in 12 host cities across the continent.
"Everyone was crying on 15 November – including me," admits Hannu Tihinen, the Football Association of Finland's sports director, when we met him at this week's UEFA Coach Education Conference in Cyprus. "It was such a beautiful day…"
"The Finnish people had been waiting for this moment for 112 years [the Finnish FA was founded in 1907]. It was amazing to see their reaction – I was so happy for them."
"So near, yet so far" has been par for the course for Finland in major qualifying competitions over the years. Two campaigns left especially painful scars.
In November 2007, a combative side coached by Englishman Roy Hodgson needed to beat Portugal in their final group match in Lisbon to reach UEFA EURO 2008 in Austria and Switzerland. Instead a tense goalless draw put Portugal through at the Finns' expense.
"I played in that match," says Tihinen, a defender who represented Finland 76 times and made almost 400 appearances in a club career that took him abroad to FC Zürich (Switzerland), Anderlecht (Belgium), West Ham (England) and Viking Stavanger (Norway), alongside spells closer to home with KePS and HJK Helsinki.
"We actually played very well that night and we could have scored, we had a couple of chances – but in the end, there was disappointment… and there were players crying in the dressing room afterwards."
Memories of a damp October night in Helsinki ten years earlier are no less bitter.
The team were a goal up entering added time in their closing group match against Hungary. With a play-off place for the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France beckoning, a late, desperate Finnish goal-line clearance rebounded off goalkeeper Teuvo Moilanen and back into the net.
Shift in Finnish fortune
This month, footballing fate finally relented on Finnish football.
Finland's change in fortune owes much to a solid defence, the conveyor belt of goals supplied by Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki and the astute acumen of coach Markku Kanerva. Together, these strengths blended perfectly to ensure a comfortable second-place finish behind runaway group winners Italy.
There were encouraging signs even before the EURO Qualifiers. Finland enjoyed a fruitful adventure in the inaugural UEFA Nations League in 2018/19 – four wins from six matches helping them to top their League C group and secure a well-deserved promotion.
Brave new generation
"The previous disappointments were probably worse for those people who had lived through long years of Finland's football history," Tihinen reflects. "But, to be honest, the current generation of players have a different mentally – they're brave, not afraid to do things on the ball. That perhaps explains their success."
Kanerva, the 55-year-old coaching mastermind behind Finland's EURO and UEFA Nations League achievements, is a former teacher and one-time head of the national coach education set-up. Tihinen says that Kanerva's innate ability to nurture strong bonds with his players and his coaching staff have been essential elements in the team's positive results.
Some team members have accompanied Kanerva as they rose through the national team ranks from Under-21 level to the national side. "That's been a big help – a lot of players know him well," Tihinen explains. "He pays great attention to detail – the players know that's his style, and it means that they know what to do on the pitch.
"He's also been brilliant in giving the right roles to his staff – we perhaps don't have as big a staff as other countries, but everyone knows their role exactly. I'm especially pleased for those people who've worked for the team for 20 years, giving to the players and coach. They've got their reward now."
"This historical achievement wouldn't have been possible without great teamwork, a fantastic team, an excellent coaching staff and pedagogical leadership, which is a foundation of Finnish coach education and society."
- Markku Kanerva (Finland national team coach, former FA coach education head)
Solid basis – and a scoring threat
Stability and consistency were telling factors on Finland’s road to the EURO finals. "We were really solid," Tihinen says. "We only played badly once, away from home against Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we did well in the two games against Italy, although we were beaten home and away."
Allied to this solid base was the crucial presence of a proven goal-getter Pukki, who found the net ten times in ten European Qualifiers.
"He's done fantastically well for his club and the national team over the past 18 months," Tihinen says of the scoring machine who, in addition to his exploits with Finland, fired Norwich into the English Premier League last season.
"I'm delighted for him, and it's obviously a big help to the team to have someone who can score like that."
Finding Finland's football identity
Football is the number one participation sport in Finland with 140,000 registered players – but the number one sport in terms of popularity remains ice hockey. The Finnish FA has worked tirelessly to narrow the gap though a comprehensive reorganisation drive – part of a wide-ranging ten-year national football strategy.
"A lot of work has been done to create a Finnish football identity and philosophy, and to reinforce the relationship between the association and the clubs," says Tihinen.
"On the coaching front, we've been working hard to put new coach education and player development structures in place that are in harmony with the national schools' system – well-educated coaches developing kids and youth players."
The objective is to increase momentum on both levels. "We want our coach education and player development activities to be as efficient as anywhere in Europe."
A new experience
The warm glow of the national team's historic success has shone brightly throughout the Nordic country. However, the UEFA EURO 2020 draw in Bucharest will be a reminder of the hard work ahead as Finland prepares for its first ever finals competition.
"The EURO is something new for the players, for the staff, for the association," Tihinen emphasises. "So we have to prepare as well as possible over the next six months."
The example set by another Nordic nation, Iceland, in reaching the EURO quarter-finals in France in 2016 offers a positive omen for Tihinen's beloved Eagle Owls. "If our players can stay fit for next summer, then I really do think that we are capable of beating anybody."