A week ago, Finland would probably have taken this position: taking a point from their last group stage match against Belgium, and they should qualify for the round of 16 at Euro 2020. In their first tournament, it would be a remarkable achievement. But, having beaten Denmark over the weekend, following a 1-0 loss to a largely uninspired Russian team playing at home on Wednesday, it inevitably felt anticlimactic.
Saturday was a strange day for Finland. Under normal circumstances, the momentous occasion would have been cause for celebration. Winning should have made it an unforgettable day, and it was unforgettable, but not because of the 1-0 victory. The image that will stick with everyone involved was not Joel Pohjanpalo’s winning head, but Christian Eriksen lying inert on the field after suffering cardiac arrest. The contrast between the joy with which the Finnish players sang their anthem and the silent celebration of their goal by Pohjanpalo is striking.
“Football was not the most important thing that day,” said Finnish captain and midfielder Tim Sparv.
The players and fans of Finland behaved flawlessly under extremely difficult circumstances: the scenes of fans participating in a call and the response of “Christian” and “Eriksen” with the Danish fans were enormously moving, and the players warmed up. before the Russia game in T-shirts bearing the message, “Get well, Christian!”
Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand had spoken after the Eriksen incident that players had to “dare” to play with “joy and aggression”. This, in a sense, was Finland’s first game in a major tournament, a game in which its players could think about the match itself without the immediate pressure of much greater concern.
The temptation is to wonder if Finland could be the Iceland of Euro 2020 and while there are certain similarities between the emergence of the two nations, there are also big differences. Both, for example, have focused on building all-weather pitches and providing professional training for players of all ages, raising the overall bar.
But Finland has a population of 5.5 million, while Iceland’s is around 350,000. In that sense, it could be said that the comparison should be with Denmark, although much remains to be done. Denmark was an early adopter of the game, took silver at the 1908 Olympics, and it’s a measure of how far behind Finland is that total Danish league player sales last season were worth 20 times. greater than that of the Finnish league.
And while Iceland’s progress to the quarterfinals at Euro 2016 was based on the best generation of players the country has ever produced, this Finnish team is almost certainly not as good as the one it had 20 years ago. like Jari Litmanen, Sami. Hyypiä and Antti Niemi. (It is easily forgotten that David Beckham’s last-minute free kick against Greece that qualified England for the 2002 World Cup was only relevant because Finland drew 0-0 against Germany on the same day.)
The difference is partly due to the fact that the expanded euro format offers an opportunity to more countries, but also a change in mindset. As Eero Laurila, a former journalist who is now coach of the Finnish third-division Espoon Palloseura, points out, Finland used to specialize in individual sports: javelin, long-distance running, cross-country skiing and ski jumping. That started to change with ice hockey, particularly after the “slate revolution” that began to instill more integrated tactics led to improved results, culminating in the world title in 2011, and has now moved on. to football.
The result is a tight-knit and highly organized team, and it looked like they were off to a perfect start in St. Petersburg on Wednesday in their quest to clinch two wins from two games. With Finland pressing in a way they hadn’t against Denmark, Jukka Raitala stole Mario Fernandes down the right and crossed for Pohjanpalo to hard past Matvei Safonov. This time there was nothing quiet about his celebration, but a linesman’s flag ruled out the goal.
Thereafter, he returned to the most anticipated Finnish approach, sitting deep, seeking to absorb the pressure, and using Teemu Pukki at halftime. Russia dominated possession without looking particularly dangerous until, just before halftime, Aleksei Miranchuk exchanged passes with Artem Dzyuba and, with very little recoil, guided the ball into the upper corner, a rare quality moment after a fairly normal half. .
Finland had a lot more of the ball in the second half, but with Pukki far from fully fit and forced out after 76 minutes, there was very little lead, and the only real chance of the half fell in the way of Russian Daler. Kuzyaev, his low shot that was well saved by Lukáš Hrádecký.
It may have been a reality check for Finland, but being in the Euro is a great achievement in itself. And while taking a point away from Belgium will be a big challenge – Finland beat France in a friendly in November 2020, for what it’s worth – there is still hope that it will extend its stay on an important stage.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.