Samuel Piette and Daniel Lovitz come face to face in a huge encounter between their two countries this evening in Florida, but even they will concede pride of place this evening to their defensive colleague, Jukka Raitala, who on the occasion of winning his 50th international cap, stands along with Finland, a whisker away from a first-ever qualification for a major tournament in the Nordic nation’s history.
All they have to do is avoid defeat at home to little Liechtenstein, who include former Toronto FC utility player Nicolas Hasler, now with Sporting KC in their starting line-up.
Even if Finland lose today, they will still reach the Euros Finals, should Armenia and Bosnia not defeat Greece, and Italy respectively in the day’s other games.
So a huge occasion awaits in Helsinki (On TV LIVE at 1200 today, on TSN3 and TSN5) at the Telia 5G Areena, home of HJK, Raitala’s former club. All Finland’s home qualifiers so far have been played away from Helsinki, in Turku and Tampere, as the country’s largest venue, the Olympic Stadium, undergoes renovation.
Unfortunately for Montreal’s other Finn, Lassi Lappalainen, he misses out, omitted from the 23-man squad (reason not yet confirmed, will try to bring more on this later). Jukka Raitala is named at right-back in the starting line-up.
There seems little possibly of things going wrong for the Finns tonight, although they won’t be counting their chickens, having come close to qualifications in the past only to fall short, but those packed into the 10,770-capacity stadium will be hoping to witness history.
Finnish captain Tim Sparv, a former Southampton midfielder had this to say of his country’s prospects, “Sometimes I say: ‘The best players don’t necessarily make the best team.
“The golden generation of Finnish football of Jari Litmanen, Sami Hyypiä, Jussi Jääskeläinen, Antti Niemi, Hannu Tihinen, Mikael Forssell [had] so many good players and everyone expected them to be the group who would qualify for a championship. They never made it and people were surprised they didn’t. Maybe that has taken some pressure off our shoulders and we can just play.”
The Huuhkajat (Eagle-owls) have led to greater interest in football across the country and a win on Friday would continue that growth as they compete with winter sports for fans.
“It would be huge to qualify,” Sparv says. “I think it would be great for the players and the country as a whole. The hype around our team at the moment is greater than it’s ever been and it’s fantastic to be a part of it. It will mean so much to a lot of people. Just three years ago I think Finland’s ranking was close to 100 and now we’re close to qualifying for a European Championship, so it would be an amazing achievement for us and every football fan in Finland.
“If we qualify it will give that extra boost and maybe we’ll change mindsets a little, so that it won’t be a surprise when Finland qualify in future, it’ll be the norm.”
Since leaving Southampton, without making a first-team appearance, Sparv has represented Groningen and Midtjylland, where he was won two Danish titles. The midfielder will be leading the celebrations if qualification is confirmed.
“It would definitely be the biggest thing to happen in my life in all categories. It has been a big part of my life for the past 17 years. I’ve captained every youth national team up to the full national team and it’s been a crazy experience but I love the responsibility. It was always a dream of mine of representing my country and I feel very proud and blessed to have this opportunity.”