‘It will go crazy’: Finland close to 1st major soccer finals

Finland’s Jukka Raitala and Greece’s Giorgos Masouras vie for possession in Tampere. Finland will qualify for next year’s European Championships finals if they beat Liechtenstein in Helsinki. (AP Photo)
Updated 13 November 2019

‘It will go crazy’: Finland close to 1st major soccer finals

  • All that’s needed is a home win over Liechtenstein, one of the world’s weakest teams, in Helsinki and the Finns will take their place in next year’s European Championship
  • It is a day many in this Nordic country of 5.5 million inhabitants — better known for its hockey team, rally drivers and javelin throwers — thought would never arrive

HELSINKI: The temperatures are plummeting and the days are getting shorter as another harsh winter approaches in Finland.
Expectations around the country’s soccer team are rising, though, like never before.
On Friday, Finland could seal a place in the finals of a major soccer tournament for the first time in its history. All that’s needed is a home win over Liechtenstein, one of the world’s weakest teams, in Helsinki and the Finns will take their place in next year’s European Championship.
After so many past disappointments, it is a day many in this Nordic country of 5.5 million inhabitants — better known for its hockey team, rally drivers and javelin throwers — thought would never arrive.
It is one that could transcend soccer, changing the mentality of a nation.
“There are always skeptics — with a sort of ‘Ah, they are never going to do it anyway’ feeling — in more or less everything we do, whether it is music, anything,” said former Finland player Aki Riihilahti, who is now CEO of Finnish champion HJK Helsinki. “The Finnish nature is that only when there comes an external acknowledgement of an achievement do we go and support it.
“For what this will mean, it is more important mentally than factually.”
Finland has had better teams down the years, on paper anyway. They’ve had more celebrated players, too — think of Jari Litmanen, the silky playmaker for Ajax and Barcelona, and Sami Hyypia, the defensive stalwart at Liverpool. Yet getting to a World Cup or European Championship has been beyond them, despite more than 80 years of trying.
Finland remains, somewhat embarrassingly, the only major Nordic country to have never qualified for a major tournament.
So what’s changed? The hiring of a former primary school teacher as coach has plenty to do with it.
Markku Kanerva was promoted to the job in December 2016, having previously been an assistant with the team and a former player in the 1980s and ‘90s. He inherited a team that had gone all of 2016 without a win and also one that was about to lose some of its best players. One midfielder, Roman Eremenko, received a two-year ban for testing positive for cocaine in 2016; another, Perparim Hetemaj, would go on to retire in early 2018 to focus on his club career.
Kanerva took a pragmatic view of the team, picking players according to their individual strengths rather than a pre-existing style and reverting to a straightforward 4-4-2 formation. His approach was based on hard work and strong defensive shape, and relied on the country’s most high-profile player — striker Teemu Pukki — poaching some goals at the other end.
Kanerva also approaches coaching like he would teaching, encouraging his players to interact more, take responsibility, and learn what they have done wrong so they can improve.
The results have been striking. Finland won its group in the inaugural UEFA Nations League competition after winning its opening four qualifying games, earning promotion to League B and guaranteeing a playoff spot for Euro 2020 that might not be necessary.
In Euro 2020 qualifying, the Finns reacted to an opening loss to Italy by winning four straight Group J games without conceding a goal. After eight games, they are in second place, behind already qualified Italy but five points ahead of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Armenia. With two teams advancing automatically, Finland needs one win from its final two qualifiers over the coming days, starting with last-place Liechtenstein, to make history.
“This is the missing piece of the puzzle,” said Marco Casagrande, general secretary of the Football Association of Finland. “All the other things in our sports we have managed to do, but this is something that’s still separating us from being a real sports country.”
Finland’s underperformance on the international stage was bought into sharp focus by Iceland, a tiny Nordic brother with a population of just 330,000, reaching both Euro 2016 and last year’s World Cup.
Casagrande recalls speaking to his colleagues at the Icelandic FA, asking them: “So what’s your secret?“
“It didn’t help,” Casagrande said, “when everyone was saying, ‘You are losing all the games and Iceland is going to the Euros. Come on guys, what are you doing?’“
Iceland’s rise was based on a strong collective effort combined with a sprinkle of stardust by its one standout player, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Finland is pretty much the same.
While goalkeeper Lukas Hradecký, who plays in Germany for Bayer Leverkusen, gets plenty of plaudits, most of the spotlight falls on Pukki, the hard-working striker who has scored seven goals in qualifying and made a strong start to his first season in the Premier League with Norwich.
“Teemu Pukki is really somebody who everybody seems to love,” said Riihilahti, who also played in England’s top division with Crystal Palace, “and has been adopted as the Finnish savior who is bringing us to the promised land.”
When Finland won the men’s hockey world championship this year for the first time since 2011, there were wild celebrations in central Helsinki as champagne-swilling fans braved the cold weather by stripping off and taking a swim in the fountain and climbing on the famous Havis Amanda statue.
Expect more of the same if the country’s soccer players finally make the long-awaited international breakthrough.
“Finnish people would all celebrate like a big festival,” Riihilahti said. “It will go crazy.”


Diriyah Tennis Cup serves up top-class fare

Updated 13 December 2019

Diriyah Tennis Cup serves up top-class fare

  • Day one of the three-day tournament saw Fognini, Monfils, Medvedev and Goffin through to the semi-finals

RIYADH: A new chapter was written today in Saudi Arabia’s sporting history as the first international tennis matches took place as part of the epic month of Diriyah Season.

The Diriyah Tennis Cup presented by Saudi Aramco will certainly go down in history as eight of the world’s best tennis stars met in the Diriyah Arena for the first-ever international tournament played in the Kingdom. 

The event also goes down in tennis history as not only the first in Saudi Arabia, but also one of the first to use Hawk-Eye Live technology. Replacing the need for line judges and providing more accuracy, Hawk-Eye Live sends visual and audio cues to the chair umpire and off-court monitors within a tenth of a second of a ball bouncing, to show faults and out of bounds shots without relying on the naked eye.

The first day as part of a three-day tournament saw all eight players in action in the opening matches. First up on court was Italian and world number 12 Fabio Fognini taking on American John Isner world number 19 and holder of the third fastest serve of all time in Men’s Tennis. Although both players will be written into the Kingdom’s history books, it was Fognini who was the record breaker as he delivered the first international serve and match win ever recorded, 7-6 6-4. 

Speaking after his win, Fabio Fognini said: “I won the first game of the competition, it’s nice. It’s something I will remember for sure and the people will remember as it is the first year we play here. I know they want to do something more [grassroots tennis], especially to improve tennis in this country so I’m happy.”

Commenting after the historic match, John Isner also added: “Very unique to be here and be part of this. I never thought I’d be here playing in Saudi Arabia. Very grateful and happy to be here. The ball kids did great tonight, fantastic job.”

Second up on the Diriyah Arena court was Swiss Stan Wawrinka, the world’s number 16, against Frenchman Gael Monfils the world’s number 10. Monfils took the win in straight sets 6-3 6-3. Monfils rallied the crowd by encouraging them to cheer and danced after some of his winning shots.

“So far it’s great. The offering they have here for us to perform is incredible. The court is one of the best…it’s quite nice. The people are very nice. I feel very good.” said Monfils.

Daniil Medvedev of Russia and Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany met in the third match of the evening. Medvedev made light work of Struff to take the win 6-3 6-1 and advance to the semi-finals.

Speaking after his win, Medvedev commented: “Was a great match. It’s never easy like this, after the end of the season, holidays and in the middle of pre-season to know how you are playing at this moment – are you strong or not? Today was a great match, beating Jan so easy is a great achievement because he’s a great player so I am really happy. The atmosphere was also really good and warm.”

In the final match of the night, Belgian’s David Goffin rallied with Lucas Pouille of France. Goffin took the final place in tomorrow night’s semi-finals beating Pouille 6-2 6-4.

After the match, Goffin commented: “Super organisation – the stadium is very nice. First time for me playing in Saudi, it’s a great atmosphere. I think for the people tonight it was something to see, professional tennis matches here. I think it was great for us and them as well. It’s a nice court and stadium – it could be a very nice center court in a big tournament.”

Today’s results will see Fognini of Italy meet Monfils of France in semi-final 1 and Medvedev of Russia will take on Goffin of Belgium on Friday 13th December. The remaining four players will still continue to play as part of the Consolation Bracket. The Diriyah Tennis Cup will conclude with the final on Saturday 14th December.