Finns on brink of Euro history

PHOTO: REUTERS
Teemu Pukki (above) PHOTO: REUTERS

Striker Pukki promises 'we'll take care of business' against minnows Liechtenstein

HELSINKI • In Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyppia, Finland have had more celebrated players, but neither were able to take the national team to the cusp of qualifying for a major football tournament for the first time.

A win against Liechtenstein in front of a 10,770-capacity crowd at the Sonera Stadium in Helsinki today will guarantee the hosts, better known for their prowess at winter sports such as ice hockey and cross-country skiing, a berth at Euro 2020 with a Group J game to spare.

It is a prospect that has warmed the hearts of Finns, many of whom are preparing for the onset of another long winter.

Admitting that football fever was sweeping the nation, captain Tim Sparv said: "It's hysterical in Finland right now.

"It's hard to put it into words. It's just amazing the opportunity that we have - a home game against Liechtenstein, the stadium is going to be packed."

Reflecting on the last time his country came this close to qualifying for the Euros - they missed out on the 2008 edition after being held to a goal-less draw in Portugal when nothing less than a win sufficed - Sparv added: "If you were a young Finnish footballer back then, you looked up to Hyypia, Litmanen, Antti Niemi, Jussi Jaaskelainen.

"It was a big deal for me when I first came into the national team in 2009. You have to remember, this was the golden generation.

"Everybody expected them to bring Finland to a championship, so it was a surprise and maybe a disappointment for many that they never managed it."

The names and clubs of the current squad may be less well-known - the 32-year-old Sparv plays for Danish outfit Midtjylland - but a combination of defensive organisation, team spirit and the goals of Teemu Pukki have fired them on the brink of qualification.

While the Norwich striker's form has tailed off in the Premier League - his drought stands at seven games after six strikes in his opening five games in the English top flight - he is still banging them in at international level.

Pukki, 29, has netted seven of Finland's 12 goals in qualifying and with bottom side Liechtenstein's porous backline letting in 23 goals to date, he believes that destiny awaits the team, saying: "I can promise that we'll take care of business.

"For once. For once, I dare to promise."

TENACIOUS TEEMU

We know that if we create a chance for Teemu, he'll score nine times out of 10. He's really developed into a star player.

TIM SPARV, Finland skipper, on the prowess of Teemu Pukki.

Praising his teammate for "bringing that X-factor", Sparv added: "The simple playing philosophy that everybody knows has helped us. He's been so amazing for us.

"We know that if we create a chance for Teemu, he'll score nine times out of 10. He's really developed into a star player."

But while Pukki is Finland's outstanding player, Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky has also proven to be a reliable presence between the sticks, with just eight goals conceded, and Rangers' Glen Kamara provides steel in midfield.

Citing his side's defensive stability and Iceland's recent success in qualifying for Euro 2016 and last year's World Cup as an inspiration, Sparv claimed that Finland's heart and togetherness would finally get them across the line.

"Everybody plays for the flag on the front of the shirt, rather than the name on the back," he said. "No one creates any issues or problems.

"People have been talking about these final two games for weeks. We still have some work to do, but it's going to be a big party all over Finland if we make it."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2019, with the headline 'Finns on brink of Euro history'. Print Edition | Subscribe