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Finland's Drought-Breaking Qualification for Euro 2020

Finnish fans and players celebrate following the end of a Euro 2020 qualifying match in Helsinki, Finland, on Nov. 15, 2019. The 3-0 victory against Liechtenstein secured Finland's first-ever qualification for a major tournament.

Finnish fans and players celebrate following the end of a Euro 2020 qualifying match in Helsinki, Finland, on Nov. 15, 2019. The 3-0 victory against Liechtenstein secured Finland's first-ever qualification for a major tournament.

Finland: From Origin to History

In 1938, a Nordic nation began its first-ever qualifying campaign for a major tournament. It would be a while before that nation even won a qualifying match.
Over many decades, ice hockey, not soccer, was regarded as the primary sport. Even with soccer gaining more attention in recent years, women's soccer, not men's soccer, had often excelled, even with the men's team having its so-called golden generation during the early 2000s.

However, within two years, Finland achieved something most never thought would be possible. Where it was in 2016 was as low an ebb as any nation could be. Nevertheless, Finland began winning when it mattered, and on Nov. 15, 2019, history unfolded on home soil. With a chance at history, Finland secured its ticket to Euro 2020 and its first major tournament. Impressive considering that in 2016, Finland failed to win a single game.

A Half-Century of Seeking Relevancy

Finland debuted at a qualifying tournament on June 16, 1937, at the now-demolished Rasunda Stadion in Stockholm, Sweden. That 1938 World Cup qualifier against Sweden was the first of 22 European World Cup qualifiers. Finland lost all four of its qualifiers and failed to score in any of those matches. The nation waited until Sept. 26, 1965, when it defeated Poland 2-0, to achieve its first World Cup qualifying victory.

Over a year later, Finland debuted in the European Championship qualifying. The Nordic nation recorded two opening draw at its home stadium, with Juhani Peltonen scoring Finland's first qualifying goal ever. It would not be until the late 1970s that Finland had its first realistic chance at reaching a major tournament. Consecutive victories over Greece and Hungary at its Olympiastadion had Finland atop its qualifying group. In a rematch of its opening group match on Oct. 11, 1978, Finland had one of its worst games ever. Its 8-1 loss in Athens to Greece changed the outlook of the group. Though it opened with two qualifying losses, Greece ultimately qualified for its first major tournament, with Finland missing out on Euro 1980 by one point.

Nearly six years later, Finland seemed to also be in contention early during the 1986 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign. Ari Valvee's lone goal gave Finland an upset victory against Northern Ireland on May 27, 1984. However, similar to 1978, Finland suffered another embarrassing loss at London's Wembley Stadium on Oct. 17, 1984. Finland lost 5-0 away to England, and in the end, two points were what Finland missed out on qualification for the 1986 World Cup.

New Names Seeking Glory

Finland's 1990 World Cup qualification campaign saw the nation overmatched against two heavyweights in West Germany and the Netherlands. Nevertheless, it was a friendly one month before that final qualifier that saw what would be the first significant player of what would be Finland's "golden generation." The Oct. 11, 1989, friendly against Trinidad and Tobago marked the first of what would become a national record 137 caps for Jari Litmanen.

It was during the early 1990s that many of Finland's greatest players began their mark. In a friendly against Tunisia, defender Sami Hyppiä earned the first of 105 caps for Finland. He is currently Finland's goalkeeper coach, and it was in this position where Antti Niemi was Finland's top goalkeeper. Paatelainen was one of Finland's goal-scoring players. While Paatelainen's seven goals led in its qualifying group during Euro 1996, Finland lost five matches, including a pair of losses to eventual participants Russia and Scotland.

In 1996, Finland had its coach the nation hoped to reach a major tournament. Finland hired Richard Møller Nielsen as its next manager. Just four years earlier, Nielsen guided his native Denmark to a championship at Euro 1996. Finland's goal was to reach the 1998 World Cup, but that dream seemed in jeopardy after two opening losses. However, Finland managed a stunning draw against Norway. On Sept. 6, 1997, Litmanen opened the scoring in a vital match in Switzerland - a 2-1 victory in Lausanne ahead of its final match in qualifying.

All Finland needed to do was defeat Hungary to reach a playoff. Antti Sumiala's 63rd-minute goal had Finland on the precipice, only for an own goal in stoppage time to deny Finland a playoff berth. Nielsen stayed on to guide Finland during Euro 2000 qualifying. Mika-Matten Paatelainen scored the winning goal against Moldova to open up the qualifying campaign after Finland trailed 2-1. A month later, on Oct. 14, 1998, Paatelainen opened the scoring five minutes into what became an upset victory on the road - a 3-1 victory in Istanbul that saw Litmanen score late in the match. However, Finland struggled in its next four qualifiers, including a scoreless draw in Moldova. In the end, a 4-1 victory against Northern Ireland would not be enough for Finland.

Nielsen left Finland to coach another place. His replacement hoped to achieve history, just as he did at the club level.

A Finn to Save the Day?

Having guided HJK Helsinki to Finland's top-flight division title in 1997, Antti Muurinen managed the Finnish club to the UEFA Championship League. Between 2000 and 2001, Muurinen guided Finland to a triumph in the final edition of the Nordic Football; Championship. Fielding domestic players, Finland won for the first time in a tournament where many games came in Spain. The notable game came on Aug. 16, 2000, when Litmanen's two goals and a late goal from Shefki Kuqi gave Finland a 3-1 victory on home soil against Norway.

The results gave Muurinen confidence that Finland could contend in a qualifying group with Germany and England and Greece and Albania. During this qualifying campaign, Finland even managed a 1-0 lead at Anfield in Liverpool before losing the match 2-1. Finland finished third in the qualifying group and was the only nation not to lose a home qualifier. The two draws against Germany would be why Finland was out. On June 2, 2001, Finland led 2-0 on a pair of Mikael Forsell goals but only managed a 2-2 draw. By the time the two nations met in Gelsenkirchen, Finland was out of qualifying. However, a scoreless draw allowed England to qualify for the 2002 World Cup and consign Germany to a playoff.

The following campaigns did not have as many memorable events. Finland suffered four losses during Euro 2004 qualifying, including an opening home qualifying loss to Wales (its opponent having reached the playoffs that campaign). During the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, Finland won three of its first four qualifiers. Russian-born Alexei Eremenko scored in each of those qualifiers as he finished as the top scorer in Finland's qualifying group.

Finland failed to keep the early momentum, and on Mar. 26, 2005, Finland traveled to Stadion Na Stinadlech in Teplice, Czech Republic, in a crucial qualifier. Finland trailed through the match but came back to tie 3-3. A point away seemed possible, but Finland allowed the winning goal and lost. In June 2005, fans protested Finland's lack of progress; after losing 4-0 to the Netherlands, Finland sacked Muurinen. Jyrki Heliskoski took over for the rest of the World Cup qualifying campaign, guiding Finland to victories over FYR Macedonia.

Finland needed to go abroad for another Mr. Right.

The iconic moment in Finland's Euro 2008 campaign occurred on June 2, 2007. Later named Bubi, an eagle owl inside Helsinki's Olympiastadion, delays a Euro 2008 qualifier between Finland and Belgium.

The iconic moment in Finland's Euro 2008 campaign occurred on June 2, 2007. Later named Bubi, an eagle owl inside Helsinki's Olympiastadion, delays a Euro 2008 qualifier between Finland and Belgium.

Reaching the Apex, Only to Fail

His managerial career included league titles in Denmark and Sweden and guiding Switzerland to the 1994 World Cup and the United Arab Emirates to the 2004 Asian Cup. In January 2006, Roy Hodgson coached his first games for Finland. During qualifying for Euro 2008, Finland achieved the results that helped the nation ascend to unprecedented heights.

That positive start began on Sept. 2, 2006, when Litmanen scored twice in Finland's 3-1 road victory in the first major qualifying match contested in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Finland began qualifying unbeaten in its first five matches, including a 1-1 draw against Portugal. Ahead of a March 2007 road qualifier in Azerbaijan, Finland had its highest FIFA ranking ever at 33rd (it remains the nation's highest to date).

However, Finland suffered the shock loss throughout, losing 1-0 on an Emin Imamaliev goal in Baku. That defeat was the first of two straight qualifying losses, with the second coming at home to Serbia on June 2, 2007. Nevertheless, six days later, Finland revived its campaign with a 2-0 victory over Belgium in a match that proved famous for an owl that swooped inside Helsinki and delayed the qualifier for six minutes. However, three scoreless draws saw Finland in danger of missing out before the nation avenged its loss to Azerbaijan on Nov. 17, 2007. The result set up a must-win match against Portugal, but in the end, Finland's lack of scoring cost dearly as its fourth scoreless draw allowed Portugal to qualify in Porto.

Hodgson left the post, and soon another Englishman took the reigns.

Similar to Paatelainen, Stuart Baxter guided upstart AIK to a Champions League berth. Before taking over Finland, Baxter led Helsingborgs to the Round of 32 in the UEFA Cup. Once again, Finland had a qualifying campaign that included two draws against Germany. Similar to 2001, Finland's first draw saw the nation allow a Miroslav Klose hat trick, with each goal tying the match. The stunning result during qualifying occurred on Sept. 9, 2009, when Finland suffered a humiliating 1-1 home draw against Liechtenstein. That draw, along with two 3-0 losses to Russia, consigned Finland with another third-place finish in qualifying.

However, the 1-1 draw was not the notable result that Finland suffered under Baxter. On Sept. 3, 2010, Finland commenced its Euro 2012 qualifying campaign with what would be the first of six losses - the most notable being a 2-0 loss in Moldova, a match in which Hyppiä received a red card after 36 minutes. Finland matched its most lopsided victory against San Marino on Nov. 17, 2010, but half of its 16 goals during qualifying came in that match.

Baxter would not stay as the manager. Nor would many of the players that helped shape Finland's "golden generation."

Origins Arise From the Youth

A former defender and a current teacher, Markku Kanerva was on HJK's squad during its run in the Champions League in 1998. Kanerva previously coached youth soccer, as he guided Finland to the 2009 UEFA U-21 Championships. Finland lost all three games; yet, many of those players represented Finland at the senior level, including Finland's only teenager on the squad, Teemu Pukki. Kanerva's first caretaker stint lasted only two games in 2011 before Paatelainen took over to salvage Finland's Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.

Paatelainen stayed on for the next four years, including Finland's 2014 World Cup qualifiers in another five-team group that featured the respective former and reigning World Cup champions France and Spain. In a campaign where Finland finished third with only nine points (2 wins) and five goals, the notable result achieved came on Mar. 22, 2013, when Pukki scored the tying goal against the reigning World Cup champions Spain in Gijon.

In the end, Kanerva took over for Paatelainen to finish Euro 2016 qualifying after another failed qualification, with the significant victory being a 1-0 road victory against former European champions Greece. Once again, Finland turned to more experience in its search for its first major tournament when in 2016, the nation hired Hans Backe to be the next manager. Backe had guided Aalborg and København to Danish Superliga and Danish Cup titles but last coached in 2012. Backe's stint came with Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls, where the club had the best record in the Eastern Conference in 2010.

Sinking Rock Bottom

What unfolded in 2016 was disastrous. When the original qualifying schedule came out, Finland was drawn into a five-team group and scheduled its first qualifier in October 2016. Before the qualification campaign commenced in Europe in 2016, FIFA admitted Kosovo as the 210th member, and the Balkan nation became the sixth team in Group I.

Finland hosted Kosovo expecting to win the match in September 2016 but suffered a stunning result as it only managed a 1-1 draw. In the next qualifier, Finland traveled to Iceland and led 2-1 heading into stoppage time. Finland allowed two late goals and lost 3-2. In 2016, Finland lost nine of its 11 matches and failed to win a game. A 1-0 loss in Odesa, Ukraine proved to be Backe's final match for Finland before his termination.

Following that decision, Finland turned to Rive to guide the nation back to respect. In Kanerva's return as manager, Finland defeated Morocco to win its first game in over a year. A five-match winless streak followed, including a home loss to Ukraine to confirm Finland's elimination from World Cup qualifying with four games to play. A month after that loss, Finland sunk to its lowest ranking ever at 110th.

Still, Finland finished strong in its qualifying campaign. On Sept. 2, 2017, Finland upset Iceland when Alexander Ring scored on a free-kick, his first international goal since 2013. Three days later, Pukki scored the 83rd-minute goal to defeat Kosovo on the road. New stars continued to emerge as well. In its penultimate qualifier, Finland scored a 1-1 draw in Croatia courtesy of Pyry Soiri's first-ever goal before finishing its qualification phase with a 2-2 draw against Turkey.

Finland's victory against Iceland kicked off a string of results where the nation lost only three games in 16 matches between September 2017 and November 2018. The most vital wins came during a recently-established competition: the UEFA Nations League, where Finland played matches against Hungary, Greece, and Estonia. No player on the squad proved more vital than Pukki; if his goal in Spain in 2013 announced his arrival, then Pukki's goals in Finland's first three qualifiers proved enough. Pukki was Finland's undisputed star, and the nation achieved promotion to the 2020-21 UEFA Nations League.

When the Turnaround Came at Last

Finland had at least a playoff due to winning its group during the UEFA Nations League. However, its qualifying group saw Finland have a chance of finishing in the top two and automatic qualification to Euro 2020. Along with former champions Italy and Greece, Finland needed to face Bosnia-Herzegovina, Armenia, and Liechtenstein. As being considered a "hard winter venue," Finland opened qualifying with two road matches. Though it lost 2-0 in Italy to open qualifying, Finland managed goals from Frederick Jensen and Soiri, which were enough to defeat Armenia.

The crucial qualifier came on June 8, 2019, in Tampere against Bosnia-Herzegovina, who were also seeking to reach their first European Championship. It would be this game where Pukki announced his presence during group play. Two goals in 12 minutes were enough to secure a valuable victory. Pukki's ten goals came in Finland's seven qualifiers. After scoring against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Pukki opened the scoring three days later in another 2-0 win, away in Liechtenstein. Pukki's 52nd-minute penalty kick was the only goal of a home victory against Greece on Sept. 5, 2019.

Three days later, Pukki scored from the penalty spot in Italy to tie the match. However, Finland allowed Italy's Joginho to score the ensuing penalty kick as Italy won 2-1. What seemed to be a possibility of qualification almost failed after a stunning result away in Zenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Two goals from Miralem Pjanic saw the hosts hand Finland a humbling 4-1 defeat on Oct. 12, 2019.

Pukki made sure Finland returned on track three days. Another two-goal performance in Turku gave Finland a 3-0 home victory; more importantly, Greece gave Finland a lifeline courtesy of an away own goal from Bosnia-Herzegovina's Adnan Kovacevic. That meant that Finland, with a win over Liechtenstein, would qualify for Euro 2020. The opportunity came in Helsinki's Töölön Jalkapallostadion (Finnish: Töölö Football Stadium). With Finland clinging on to a 1-0 lead, Pukki's added yet two more again, and when the final whistle blew, all of Finland celebrated.

After eight decades of misery and heartbreaks, Finland celebrated its historic berth at Euro 2020.

A Long Wait as Another Adventure Begins

Finland finished its qualifying group with a 2-1 loss in Athens three days later. Pukki opened the scoring as he finished with ten goals, tied for third-most during Euro 2020 qualifying. On Nov. 30, 2019, Finland learned its three opponents it would play at Euro 2020 as it partakes in its debut in one of the tightest groups. A rivalry revived will start in Parken Stadium for the first time since 2011. Finland and Denmark will meet for the 60th time, as Finland seeks its first victory since Vesa-Parra Vasara scored both goals in La Manga, Spain - the 2-1 win being the opening match of the 2000-01 Nordic Championship. Then, two games await in Saint Petersburg's Krestovsky Stadium: Belgium and Russia also await Finland.

As for Russia, Finland hopes for its first victory against Russia in over 100 years. Finland reaching Euro 2020 was a milestone worthy of generations' celebrations to keep dreaming.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic altered the sporting landscape. The debut at a major tournament would come in 2021. Before this tournament, Finland would hope to continue its upward trend during the UEFA Nations League qualifiers. Hoping to achieve a promotion to face other European heavyweights, Finland contest six qualifiers between September and November 2020. Despite winning both games against the Republic of Ireland and Bulgaria, Finland was unable to secure a draw in either fixture against Wales. The second loss occurred in a deciding match to determine promotion within the UEFA Nations League, with a 3-1 loss at Cardiff City Stadium.

The winless struggles would continue in early 2021 as the nation began its World Cup qualification campaign. Despite Pukki's three goals in the first two matches, Finland only managed two draws, the second of which saw an 89th-minute goal to salvage a 1-1 draw after trailing 1-0 against Ukraine in Kyiv. Still, Finland struggled in their remaining friendlies, including its final game before Euro 2020 in which the nation lost 1-0 to Estonia.

What would Euro 2020 bring to Finland?

A Mighty Effort

So much changed in the 19 months between Finland's qualification and May 2021 when the FIFA rankings were released before Euro 2020. The nation was ready for its debut on June 12, 2021, against Denmark. The match would be notable for the delay in which referee Anthony Taylor suspended the match 43 minutes after Danish center midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed on the field from cardiac arrest.

Eventually, the game would go on once word that Eriksen was awake.

Until the hour mark, Finland did not even attempt a shot on goal. But having a cross from left winger Jere Uronen, Pohjanpalo not only had the first shot for Finland, but managed to score past Kasper Schmeichel. Finland had the timely goal, and the goalkeeper Lukáš Hrádecký had the notable play on 74 minutes.
Paulus Arajuuri's tackle on Yussuf Poulsen in the penalty box meant that Danish center midfielder Pierre-Emile Højbjerg had a chance for Denmark to tie the match.

Cue Hrádecký as the goalkeeper guessed correctly when Højbjerg's struck his attempt weakly to the right, and in the end, Finland had the dream start despite all that transpired. On to Russia as Finland faced another co-host for Euro 2020 at St. Petersburg. The goalscorer from the last match, Pohjanpalo nearly put Finland ahead with a header goal, only for referee Danny Makkelie to disallow the goal for offside. A scoreless draw was the likely outcome heading into the half, until Aleksei Miranchuk curled his shot right before halftime.

Despite few chances in the second half, Finland was unable to find a breakthrough and now had a tough task against the world's number one nation Belgium, who were through into the knockout stages after two wins.

Still, Finland held their own against Belgium and in large part to Hrádecký, particular with a save on Jeremy Doku. Hrádecký also had the key turning point during the middle of the second half, with the goalkeeper unable to secure a ricocheted shot from Thomas Vermalen on 74 minutes. Finland still hoped for an important draw, but Romelu Lukaku's second goal sealed Belgium's victory.

Only after two separate 2-2 draws on June 23, 2021 in the Germany-Hungary and France-Portugal matches was Finland's elimination from Euro 2020 confirmed. As the year continued, Finland hoped to qualify for another tournament. However, with the opportunity to at least reach a playoff, Finland lost 2-0 at home to the reigning World Cup champions France; with Ukraine winning 3-0 in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland could not qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

Despite the disappointing endings in 2021, Finland made itself a name in a country where ice hockey is the nation's primary sport. The 2021 calendar year saw the nation have a rising star in Pukki. Not only did the Norwich City player become Finland's fifth player with over 100 caps, but his two goals in a 2022 World Cup qualifier made him the nation's all-time scoring leader.

Currently the nation's captain and the captain for German club Bayer Leverkusen, Hrádecký was the best goalkeeper at the group stage of Euro 2020 and is currently on pace to be in the top 10 in caps. Most importantly, Kanerva remains the nation's manager as the nation prepares its UEFA Nations League matches in June and September 2022 with matches against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Romania. Kanerva had the blueprint for the nation to reach Euro 2020, and the now the possiblities remain endless, including the hopes of reaching Euro 2024.

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© 2019 Antonio Martinez