Helsinki Times: The dream ends here

Here’s William Moore’s take on Finland’s failure to qualify, and here is my Helsinki Times piece:
It was always going to be a long shot. Finland needed to win in Porto, while Serbia got less than maximum points in their two remaining matches against Kazakhstan and an already-qualified Poland. So it proved, as Roy Hodgson’s men could only draw 0-0 with the 2004 finalists.

Spirits were high in the build-up to the game. Everyone in the Finland camp believed the pressure was all on Portugal, who needed a draw in front of their home crowd in order to ensure qualification. Felipe Scolari had lost his temper in a previous home game, punching Ivica Dragutinovic in a touchline melee, so it was clear the Portuguese could be rattled.

This view overlooked the pressure Finland themselves were under. For many members of this Finland team, the 2008 qualification campaign was the last shot at glory, the final chance to take their country to its first major tournament. Sami Hyypiä said in the build-up to the game that he would have quit international football after the last campaign, had Hodgson not been appointed manager.

The opening stages of the match showed the nerves this pressure caused. Hardly a Finnish player could keep hold of the ball, as bad decision followed bad decision. Even Jari Litmanen, normally the coolest head in the team, couldn’t seem to find the extra couple of seconds of thinking time he usually makes for himself with his clever movement and excellent technique.

Litmanen had not played a game in five months before last Saturday’s 2-1 win over Azerbaijan, when he came off the bench and set up Sheki Kuqi’s winner. Hodgson had bridled at post-match questions about Litmanen, believing that the rest of the team deserved consideration before he examined the performance of Finland’s talismanic striker. Litmanen had played well, but so had everyone else, reasoned the English coach.

So it was a surprise to see Litmanen start the game at the Dragao Stadium. Finland were under the cosh for much of the match, and he just couldn’t find the spark that might have created something for his side. Indeed, the closest Finland came to breaking the deadlock was when Portuguese defender Bruno Alves nearly scored an own goal in the 85th minute.

So what now for Finland? Roy Hodgson will decide whether or not to stay on, as will many of the senior players. It seems certain that Litmanen and Hyypiä will now retire, but question marks also hang over Joonas Kolkka, Hannu Tihinen and Aki Riihilahti.

The qualifiers for the World Cup in 2010 will see an influx of new faces. Finland’s Under-21 team have had an excellent start to their Euro 2009 qualification campaign, and the likes of Tim Sparv, Ville Jalasto and Tomi Petrescu will be eager to get their chance.

The positives to be taken from this campaign should not be overlooked. This was as close as Finland have come to qualifying for a major tournament, and with a bit more luck they could very easily have done it. The margin for error is tiny at this level of international football, and Finland fell just the wrong side of it.

The excitement generated among fans is one major plus. While the attendance for the Azerbaijan game was poor (just 10,325), the support they offered the team was phenomenal. Some seasoned observers of Finnish football judged it as close as Finland has ever come to a ‘European’ football atmosphere.

That enthusiasm needs to be harnessed if the game is to grow, as Hodgson pointed out in his post match press conference. As the 1,000 or so Finland fans make their way home from south west Europe, many of them are wondering how long it will be before Finnish football has another chance like this.

The flippant answer is of course “two years”, the amount of time until the next tournament, but a player like Litmanen comes round only once in a generation. To do it without him would be an extraordinary achievement, but then again – that is precisely what 14 other countries did this time. Maybe it’s time for Finland to be just like the other teams, rather than “Litmanen plus ten others”.

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2 Responses

  1. hey egan,

    saw your piece on soccernet today. enjoyed the read. as i’m sure you know, it’s leading the “england” section.

    btw, i’m coming back to finland this december for a conference on humanitarianism. will be there but briefly, but i’ll send you my schedule and maybe we can grab a beer or a bite to eat, depending.

  2. Good stuff. I’ll be here till the 17th, then I’m off for Christmas. let me know your plans.

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