When your country has never qualified for a World Cup or European Championship finals tournament in history, it’s a big deal if you start a qualifying series with three wins from four matches played. Even more so when expectancy, or hope, has been fuelled by the national team recently topping it’s European Nations League C group above the likes of Greece and Hungary, and earning promotion to League B.
These are good times for the Finnish national team, perennial also-rans over countless European qualifying campaigns.
This week they will continue their latest bid for finals glory with two huge games, both at home, in Tampere against Greece (5 Sep) and Italy (8 Sep).
I took the opportunity to chat with Impact’s Finnish connection the morning after the recent 2-1 defeat of Vancouver Whitecaps at Centre Nutrilait to preview the big week ahead.
Jukka Raitala: “Of course [the Finnish] people are getting more excited. For a few years before this we have been struggling a lot, so it’s nice to see the people are behind us, waiting for those games. It’s up to us you know. We have to stay calm. Even though it looks good, there’s still a very, very long road to go.”
Results in recent years under coach Markku Kanerva have made local fans and observers across Europe sit up and take notice. As well as the Nations League success, amazingly Finland has not conceded an international goal at home for 2 years, that’s nine matches comprising Euros qualifiers, Nations League and friendlies, eight of which were won.
“I think it’s tough for every team to come to play against us right now, especially at home. When we’ve played at home we have been fantastic,” said Jukka. “It’s very nice and we have a good team, a good spirit inside, you know everybody working for one big goal and you really can see that on the field.
“Still they are going to be two very difficult games. Each opponent has good individual players. We have to stay focused and keep doing the same things well.”
Lassi Lappalainen (5 caps) relatively speaking, is the new kid on the block in Finland’s senior international set-up. Do the players feel additional pressure when they go back home to play, as expectancy rises?
“Yeah of course, because Finland has never been in a finals stage, so because it’s looking good we don’t want to disappoint the fans and all the Finnish people. So a bit of pressure, yes, but we’ve just done our thing pretty well so far, and if in the last six games we can also do well, then we’ll go through.”
The second game against the Italians in many ways is seen as the glamour game, but a win against Greece is considered more crucial, as Finland’s battle is really for the second qualification spot in the group. Jukka Raitala again:
“For sure if we can get a win over Greece and avoid defeat over the Italians we’ll be more than happy. If we beat Greece, they are almost done. This is the most important game. Let’s put it like this, hopefully Italy defeats everybody [except Finland]. If they do win all their games, that is good for us.”
Lassi agrees the Greece game is the more important of the two. He’ll be taking things one game at a time, not thinking ahead to the clash with Italy, until the Greece game is over.
The head to head between Finland and Greece (W5 D3 L8) makes more encouraging reading than the history of the Finns’ clashes with Italy, a country they have never beaten (D1 L12). The last Finn to score against the Italians was former NASL Dallas Tornado player Kai Haaskivi over 40 years ago, when the Italian ‘keeper was the great Dino Zoff. It’s one of only two goals Finland has scored against the Azzurri since World War Two.
But the weight of history shouldn’t matter on the night, and if the Greeks can be despatched a few days previously, Finland will face the Italians under a little less pressure.
Lappalainen faced the Italians in the 0-2 defeat in Udinese and feels with a little luck the outcome might have been different.
“I played the last 20 minutes. They had a few more chances than us, but when the game was 0-1, Teemo Pukki had a great chance, and I think with his Premier League form now, he would’ve scored it then, so I think we have a good chance to take one point, or maybe three from them if Pukki reproduces current form.”
Pukki with his five goals this season so far for Norwich City, is a sought after name with Fantasy Football enthusiasts back in England, and the Impact pair have been following his progress. He’s Finland’s main hope for goals, and Raitala feels the striker is in the form of his life right now.
“Like Lassi said, the high level at which Pukki is performing now, hopefully he stays fit and he has the same confidence. Everybody can see his confidence is very high, he’s enjoying the time of his career right now. We’re very happy for him and hopefully he can help the team.”
Preparing to face some of Europe’s best
Raitala has played in both full-back roles for his country recently, and the players he must prepare to directly face on the night include recent big-money Everton signing, Moise Kean, Napoli’s Insigne or Bernardeschi of Juventus.
“Our game is more based on collectivism, for instance if we see their wingers are very strong, we’ll need support there. We know individually we might struggle sometimes, that’s why we need to work as a unit instead of leaving guys in trouble in one on one situations. That’s what’s been working very well and that’s what needs to happen against Italy as well.”
Lappalainen has a cool, nonchalant demeanour heading into the big games. Almost like he doesn’t feel or experience fear or nerves.
“Yeah the games are very important, but usually I don't think much about who I am playing against. Of course I know I could face Florenzi (Roma), but I don’t think about that so much though. I really don’t worry who I play against.
“When I came on as a sub in the game in Italy I really didn’t feel nervous at all.”
Lassi is consistent. He already told journalists about not getting nervous before games after his sparkling two-goal debut for the Impact. It’s not to say he doesn’t respect reputations. Playing football and moving up the levels is simply something that doesn’t appear to phase the 21 year-old.
Best Finland Squad Ever?
It’s just possible that the current squad is the best in Finnish soccer history, and probably will be hailed as such should their qualification campaign succeed. Lassi deferred to his older colleague to speak on that one.
“Could be [the best]. If you think of the generation of Hyppia, Litmanen, these guys didn’t reach the Euros [or World Cup] and they were fantastic players playing in big teams in Europe. If you are talking of the team, I think [now] we don’t have the best players at all. OK we have some like Pukki playing Premier League, but our strength is as a team.
“The young generation is very good, like Lassi and players of his age getting into the national team, bringing some new energy. It looks very interesting, but if it’s the best? I don’t know. We’ll see end of November.”
“Our coach has brought a good formation that works for the Finnish team. It looks good, but still we have to stay focused and keep working harder and harder.”
There’s a certain Mr Saputo that may not be too happy with his Finnish players should they manage to shock the Italians next Sunday.
“Yeah, thought about that,” remarked Raitala. “Maybe we don’t get to come back here if we win,” he joked.
Where can you follow Jukka and Lassi’s progress over the next week.
Thu 5 Sept - 2:45 EST: DAZN - Finland v Greece
Sun 8 Sept - 2:45 EST: TSN GO - Finland v Italy
Latest Group J Standings
A win over Greece and a tie with the Italians will leave Finland sitting pretty. Still to come after this week of qualifiers, tough away games in Bosnia and Greece, and home matches against Liechtenstein and Armenia.