June 22, 2021

How Finland made history under Kanerva

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When the final whistle went there was joy, boisterous joy. Many of the 10,000 fans in Helsinki that evening rushed onto the pitch. In the melee that ensued Paulus Arajuuri suffered a bloodied nose. Never before had beating Liechtenstein been celebrated like this.

But never before had Finland’s men qualified for a major tournament.

“It was an unbelievable feeling after the game,” says coach Markku Kanerva. “Everyone was expecting us to win and in a way it was hard to prepare the team for that because we all knew that it was so close that our dream would come true.

“After we made it 2-0 I was hoping that finally we were going to get it. After the final whistle, it was unbelievable. People rushed on the field and we were all celebrating.”

Kanerva, this 57-year-old schoolteacher turned coach, was the man who helped deliver the dream. He found himself soaked in the showers afterwards. That was just the start of a night to remember. But remember it he does. “That day, 15th of November 2019.”

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Image: Finland fans celebrate after the team’s qualification for Euro 2020

Days later they lost their final group game to Greece. “We’d had a bit of a celebration.” But nobody was bothered then or now. Finland – one year later than expected – are finally off to the Euros. “We have waited a long time. Decades. Now it is actually happening.”

There have been great players before. Jari Litmanen, of course. Sami Hyypia of Liverpool. Both won the Champions League. But they could not achieve what this group have achieved.

“If you compare to the so-called golden generations we do not have so many players in the top leagues right now. It is hard to say what is our secret,” says Kanerva.

How did they manage it? The expansion of the competition helped but that is not the whole story. Finland required no playoff. They finished second behind Italy in their group, ahead of former champions Greece as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina.

With the women’s team qualifying for the Euros next summer and the men’s futsal team competing in their equivalent this winter, something is afoot in Finnish football.

“Three teams,” says Kanerva. “A fantastic historical achievement. We are very proud of that. Hopefully, it is the start of a bright future. It will not end this summer, it will continue, and there are a lot of things still to improve.”

Finland coach Markku Kanerva
Image: Finland coach Markku Kanerva’s steady hand has guided the team

He is too modest to say it but Kanerva’s role in the improvement thus far should not be overlooked. He was seen as an underwhelming appointment by some back in 2016 given his modest coaching career. He was the federation’s man, working inside the system for over a decade since leaving his only club head coaching role in Finland’s lower leagues in 2003.

But the experience he did have, as an U21 coach, as an assistant to his predecessor with the senior team, as well as the 59 caps from his playing days, proved more relevant. “After analysing what I could improve, change and develop, we came up with a strategy.”

There is no bombast with Kanerva. He is thoughtful. Despite his success as a player, he points to his time as a teacher in Sweden, a role he took on alongside his duties with Elfsborg as a young man, as being critical to his development as a person.

He began as a language teacher before branching out into sport and mathematics. “It was a bit of a balancing act to make sure it did not disturb my football. But it helped me socially. I made friends outside of my football team. It was a very nice experience.”

Jasse Tuominen opened the scoring for Finland against Liechtenstein
Image: Jasse Tuominen celebrates after scoring against Liechtenstein

Perhaps more relevant this summer is the fact that only one Finland coach has led any men’s team to a UEFA Finals before – and that was Kanerva with the U21s in 2019.

Twelve years on, he will lean on that experience.

“I got good information from that about what is required to be at your best as a coach. In a way, it is a little bit stressful. Important games, media duties, session plans. I have been thinking about that tournament. What should I focus more on? What should I pay a little bit less attention to?

“I don’t say that I will change much but maybe I learned that it is important for a head coach to rest because it is so important to be at your best in the training sessions and team meetings. There is so much to do that you need to plan the schedule that you have time to rest.”

The captain of that U21 team was Tim Sparv, the same man who will captain Finland when their Euros campaign kicks off against Denmark on Saturday. The star striker was Teemu Pukki, the same man who will be expected to provide the goals for his country this summer.

“He is one of our key players, definitely,” Kanerva says of Pukki.

“But I am always emphasising the team effort. Teemu’s job is to score goals but someone has to play the key passes so he will also need the help of other players.”

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Image: Teemu Pukki and Glen Kamara are among the key men in the Finland team

There is a word too for Glen Kamara, the Rangers midfielder whose composure on the ball has impressed the manager. But the mantra is clear. Team spirit is what will define Finland.

It has carried them this far. The win over Bosnia and Herzegovina in qualifying was huge but the coach points instead to the 4-1 defeat against the same opposition as a key moment. His players picked themselves up and secured an important 3-0 win over Armenia days later. “That shows the mentality of the team,” he says.

“They have grown up mentally during this process. Everyone in this squad is ready to work. The unity is there. This is one team. The players know their roles and the demands of each position. They know the game plan and they have learned a way of playing.”

Teemu Pukki of Finland celebrates with fans
Image: Teemu Pukki of Finland celebrates with fans after the team made history

He is under no illusions. Finland will need much more than that if they are to progress from a group that includes Belgium, the world’s top-ranked team. “That is the most difficult one.”

The two matches prior to that, against Denmark and Russia, would be more winnable were it not for the fact that they will take place in Copenhagen and St Petersburg respectively.

“I wish that all of my players would be in the top five leagues like the Belgium team. But we will see what happens. Maybe they will play so well that they will get contracts with bigger clubs? The Euros is a great window for them to show what they can do.

“If you look at the FIFA ranking and the quality of the players, everyone can see the difference. But we have managed to get some good results before.”

Finland forward Marcus Forss celebrates after scoring a goal during the friendly football match between France and Finland at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, Paris outskirts, on November 11, 2020.
Image: Finland forward Marcus Forss celebrates after scoring against France

The standout one came last November – almost one year on from the Liechtenstein game – when they stunned world champions France, beating them 2-0 in Paris.

“To beat the world champions away, that was the highlight, definitely. Despite it being a friendly, it gave us great self-confidence. We have shown ourselves that we can challenge those other teams.”

This summer, they will take inspiration from Iceland’s run to the quarter-finals five years ago. Lars Lagerback, the man in charge of that team, has even talked to them about it.

“He spoke to us a little bit about the miracle of Iceland. It showed that even smaller countries can live their dreams and they can come true. It is an important example for us.”

Sadly, circumstances dictate that the support is unlikely to be as dramatic as that provided by Iceland fans at Euro 2016. It is a missed opportunity. “Before the pandemic, there were 30,000 Finnish fans planning to travel. That tells you a lot about the support.”

Instead, it is the format that offers hope. One counter-attack from Pukki, one set piece, might be enough to secure the group-stage win that could take them to the knockouts.

“Still, it is a football game. Eleven versus eleven. I have to be sure they are excited but relaxed enough to show their best. This is a huge thing for the players as well.

“They are very exciting, a little bit nervous. I don’t have to motivate, maybe I have to calm them down so they can perform at their best. That will be the challenge, for them to know that they do not have to be afraid against these big teams.

“That is what I will emphasise.

“Our strategy is that we have to generally defend very well against the top teams, that is for sure. On the other hand, we have to create scoring chances to win so it is going to be a huge challenge. We will see. We are not the favourites but we believe in ourselves.”

Just like against Liechtenstein, the excitement is palpable and one man stands at the centre of it all, the composed scholarly figure preaching calm amid the chaos.

“I hope it will inspire and motivate all the people working in football in Finland – the players, the coaches, everyone involved in Finnish football. But everything is about the smaller objectives. Score the first goal. Keep the first clean sheet. Get the first victory.

“Fulfil those objectives and our dreams can come true.”