Finland’s young guns frighten Germany

Finland were without Jari Litmanen when they took on European Championship runners-up Germany at the Olympic Stadium, but they still managed to put in an excellent performance in Stuart Baxer’s first competitive game in charge, drawing the match 3-3.



FINLAND PLAYED without Jari Litmanen and scored three times against the second best team in Europe. Whatever else comes from the first game of the World Cup qualification campaign, that should be remembered. Litmanen’s fitness has been a dominating theme in the build up to a lot of Finland matches in recent years.

When plans for a statue of Litmanen were discussed in Lahti, wags cruelly suggested that the sculpture should have a glass ankle, so that it could again be broken and remoulded and journalists could fill their word counts by once more guessing the state of Litmanen’s leg.

Finland coach Stuart Baxter had attempted to draw a line under such speculation by clearly setting out the criteria Litmanen would have to meet before being selected for the national side.

The jist was that Litmanen would have to be playing regularly for his club side, and it was this stipulation that led the former Ajax striker to sign for his home town club, FC Lahti, for the end of the Finnish season. He missed out on the Germany game through a bout of flu.

Litmanen is a legend, and is welcome in the Finnish squad, but if he is not fit and in-form then the national side has to have another plan. And what a plan they now have, under a coach favouring a more expansive style than the one employed by the often dour Roy Hodgson.

The Finnish midfield was rejuvenated, breaking forward from midfield and playing early balls for strikers Jonatan Johansson and Mikael Forsell to run onto. Mika Väyrynen was particularly impressive, pinging in the second goal and setting up Daniel Sjölund for the third.

Väyrynen’s situation encapsulates the lot of the Finnish footballer. He left his home country aged just nineteen, and after a successful four years at Heerenveen he got his big move to Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven.

Injuries at crucial times hampered his career at PSV, and after three years there he has now returned to Heerenveen, where the club’s management are less able to replace injured players with big new signings.

Finns are far away from home, if they are successful, and can lack allies when team selection becomes political. For instance Sami Hyypiä, omitted from Liverpool’s Champions League squad because of UEFA’s new quota system for home-grown players, is at a clear disadvantage because he is not playing in his home country.

Swedish players have this option at a much earlier stage than Finns, and often take advantage of it. Henrik larsson moved from Barcelona to Helsingborg, and has since played two full seasons there as well as playing for the national side, and Anders Svensson rejuvenated his international career after moving back to IF Elfsborg at the age of 29.

It would be difficult to imagine a Finnish player similarly changing perceptions and cementing a career in the national side from a Veikkausliiga club. The Swedish squad for their recent qualifers included four home-based players, whereas Baxter only called up Tampere United’s Antti Pohja from Veikkausliiga.

Finland’s football clubs just cannot pay the same salaries as Allsvenskan sides, and the option to play at their home club means a loss of income and prestige that is just too big for Finns to consider until their mid to late thirties.

The root cause of this problem is the lack of a distinctive footballing identity among Finnish clubs, players and coaches. He argues that Finland needs a style, an ethos in order for everyone to know their jobs more thoroughly and to have confidence in the tactical plan he lays out. On the evidence of the Germany game, it seems as though Finland will play an up-tempo, aggressive style of football that is good enough to trouble the world’s best teams.

Baxter has said that he wants his Finland to have two or three younger leaders to replace Litmanen. If Eremenko (20 years old) and Väyrynen (26) continue to play as well as they did against Germany, Finland may well have found them, and journalists might not need the glass ankled statue to write about.


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