I’m nervous. It’s 2008, I’m 21 years old and I’ve just been called up to the men’s national team for the first time. It’s a big thing for me, obviously, but also a little bit nerve-wracking meeting players that I’ve grown up idolising. Ever since I was a young kid I’ve followed their careers. I even got to meet them once, at a summer camp, together with a bunch of other football-playing kids and I still have a massive group photo from the camp hanging on the wall at my mum’s house. Us kids look pretty content in the photo. I’m not a kid anymore, of course, but I’m still just as awestruck.
My strategy for the first few days is to keep a low profile. I’m going to keep my head down and not make a fool out of myself. If I do that I might be welcome back in the future. Well, the first thing I do is to be late for a team meeting. I’m in the wrong room and our team-manager is forced to come and get me. When I walk into our real meeting room I feel stupid. Great first impression, I think to myself.
We play a friendly game against Turkey in Duisburg, Germany, and the reception from the Turkish supporters in the stands is something I haven’t experienced before. They are extremely vocal. This is meant to be a friendly game on a neutral venue but it feels like we’re in Istanbul ahead of a World Cup final.
Up until that moment I felt I had settled in quite well into my new environment but the loud Turkish supporters got my legs feeling like spaghetti. In the end I wasn’t even too unhappy to be left on the bench for 90 minutes. I felt it had been an eventful week with plenty of new things to digest for a novice like myself. I had got my first taste of how it was to represent the flagship of Finnish football and I wanted more.
During the 90’s and 00’s the men’s national team was called ’The Golden Generation’. Jari Litmanen, known as the king in Finland, won the Champions League in 1995 and played for prestigious clubs like Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool. He was not your typical footballer originating from Finland. His technique, vision and goal-scoring ability made him stand out amongst a generation of hard-working and aggressive Finnish footballers. He was more Spanish than Finnish.
Sami Hyypiä was another player that I admired. The blonde giant played ten years for Liverpool and won the Champions League in 2005. A leader. Fierce on the pitch, incredible friendly and helpful outside it.
At one point during this golden period in Finnish football we had ten Finnish players playing in the English Premier League. Our national team had until then never qualified for a major tournament but we felt that with this talented group of players it was bound to happen sooner rather than later.
It didn’t. Time and time again we came close but couldn’t get over the line. New coaches would come in, the expectations would rise, but the end result was always the same. A decent EURO or WC qualifying campaign but never enough to actually qualify. I was watching in disbelief from home. If this group of players can’t make it then who can?
In 2009 I had captained the Finland U-21 side in the European Championships in Sweden. We lost all three games in the group stage against England, Germany and Spain but we had made a mark. Just to qualify for the tournament was an amazing achievement for our small nation and the next goal for us players was to make the step up to the men’s team. A team which still included an aging golden generation.
I was like a sponge the first few years as a proper member of the men’s national team. I was observing, listening and asking questions. ”Keep playing as long as you possibly can” Litmanen once told me at the dinner table.
Litmanen was incredibly meticulous in his preparations. Treatments until late at night, last one in from training, cleaning his Adidas Copa Mundial boots so that they were sparkling for next day’s training. Despite their achievements on the world stage they were so humble, so friendly, which made us youngsters feel at ease.
Litmanen was 37 at that time and was still the best player on the pitch when I played one of my first big games for Finland, namely against Germany, away, in a WC qualifier in 2009. But despite him dominating against a side that had just finished runners up in the EURO 2008 it was clear that the time was ticking. In 2010 both Litmanen and Hyypiä would play their last games for Finland. It was the end of an era.
The following years flew by following the same pattern. High hopes at the start of a campaign, disappointment at the end. In 2014, after a somewhat favorable qualifying draw, a media headline read: ”The chance of a lifetime”. We came fourth.
Things changed after that, but not the way you would expect, like at the end of a movie when everything turns out they way it should. No, we actually went from bad to worse. During an almost two year spell we played 19 games and won only one. For a nation that had been accustomed to disappointments, this was a new low. We were now being ridiculed by everyone and we deserved it. Any talk of Finland someday getting to a major tournament were met with laughter.
And then, all of a sudden, we started winning.
During the years of miserable results we had lost a bit of our identity. Our Finnishness. A Finnish team should always be ultra competitive, resilient, and tough. There’s a particular Finnish word for it: Sisu. After a bit of soul searching amongst ourselves, we finally found the sisu within us.
We were pragmatic defensively, focusing on our defensive shape and keeping our opponents away from creating big chances. We went back to play a 4-4-2 formation where everyone knew what was asked of them. No magic tricks, just 11 unselfish, hard working, players who were sick and tired of being made into a national joke.
Our philosophy in possession was also evolving thanks to a generation of technically more gifted Finnish footballers. We weren’t Barcelona, but we were becoming braver and braver with the ball at our feet. It also helped that we had a Teemu Pukki that was scoring for fun.
Besides the change of mentality and the tactical aspects I also think that our diverse group of players helped us become a successful team. We have players with African roots, players born abroad, players with different native languages. I’m a firm believer that people with different backgrounds and perspectives create better results. We drew strength and inspiration from our contrasting characters.
2019 was the year when everything came together and 15th November the date when Finns, traditionally known for their mild temperament, went absolutely bananas. The deciding fixture was our penultimate game against Liechtenstein. We won 3-0 and that meant that we finished second behind Italy and qualified, for the first time ever for the men’s side, to a major tournament
The transformation had taken everyone by surprise but we had finally jelled. Heroic defending, a Pukki in incredible form and the best team spirit I’ve ever experienced had made us a winning team. To our hard working staff, some of them part of the set-up for more than 30 years, it was the culmination of their professional lives. They, more than anyone else, truly deserved it after dedicating a big chunk of their lives to the team.
Litmanen himself was watching on from the stands together with Finland’s president Sauli Niinistö. They could see how we were thrown up in the air by ecstatic supporters who had longed for this day to come. Through years of heartbreak and misery we had finally secured our place in the history books. It was a dream come true.
Personally, playing for my country has always been a big part of my identity. I played my first games for the U-15’s in 2002 and I’ve captained every age group up until now. Representing Finland is the highest honour I can think of and it makes me immensely proud to be a small part of this team. Litmanen, Hyypiä and the rest of the golden generation didn’t quite make it, but they inspired the next generation that finally did. Our remarkable achievement belongs just as much to them as it does to us.
—– —– —–
(This is the text I wrote for 11Freunde ahead of the EURO 2020)