Markku Kanerva interview

FINLAND’S UNDER-21 team became the first Finnish national side to qualify for a major tournament this Autumn. They upset the odds, beating a strong Denmark team and a physical Scotland (Perparim Hetemaj refused to play in Scotland after having broken his leg there in a B international, although the Scottish team was quite different in composition for the under-21 game), before overcoming an arrogant but skilful Austria in a dramatic play-off.

The team had caused some excitement even before they qualified, as most of them play in Veikkausliiga for clubs that have nascent, small, but active fan groups. When the ‘little eagle owls’ played at home, the national team’s supporters club SMJK organised buses and flags so that the squad would be well-supported in their bid to make history. This would be unremarkable in many countries, but in Finland it has been unthinkable for football teams until relatively recently.

Not a single Finnish club had a European tie televised in Finland this year, but the under-21 side were shown twice. Finns like to see their team winning, and if that team is playing football, then they will watch football. So, under-21 manager Markku Kanerva, how does it feel to be the first manager to lead a Finnish national team to a final tournament?

We made a little bit of history, and I hope that this event has some influence on our football culture,” Kanerva told me last week. “I hope it won’t be the first and last time we qualify for a finals. Personally it feels great, for the players and the coaches it’s amazing, and now we’re really looking forward to this final tournament.”

The presence or absence of football culture is an enduring theme in Finland, and Kanerva has obviously internalised his role in its development. Every Finnish success has to be set against the background of the future development of the sport, with the caveat that Finland is learning about football culture and will – one day – begin to have something it can call a Finnish way of playing, watching and supporting the game.

The under-21 success undeniably played a part in fostering that culture, and Kanerva knows that his team have generated a lot of enthusiasm among Finnish football fans..

It’s really nice to see, and we need the fans to support our players. It was very nice to see that huge support even in the Denmark game when we qualified for the playoffs. Then the Austria game was fantastic, the support was amazing then. I hope there will be thousands in Halmstad next June.”

“I also want to see that kind of support in our league games. That’s the big difference between Finnish league games and English games. We don’t have that kind of enthusiasm in our league games, maybe because of the lack of a football culture. Of course we have some small fan groups, for instance Forza HJK in Helsinki, but we need thousands of them, with everyone cheering. Maybe it will come, and maybe we can help that by doing well in the final tournament.”

The draw for the finals was not kind to Finland, landing them in a group with traditional powerhouses England, Spain and Germany. With a squad of players currently playing in the lesser leagues of Europe, including a majority still based in Finland, Kanerva knows the challenges and opportunities of playing against players from the three biggest leagues in Europe, but is keen to play down the significance of the draw.

“It’s a dream and a nightmare at the same time! There are quality teams and quality players, and it’s very tough. But it’s a great opportunity for us to show how good we are as a team and individually for the players to show how they can deal with those players.”

“I don’t think it’s so different to play against Serbia and Italy. Of course there are more famous players playing for England, Germany and Spain, you can watch them every week on cable TV, and some of them play Champions League too. But still, I think Serbia is underestimated in this competition, they have an excellent team.”

It’s a very challenging group, but like I said, if we keep on going we have a chance. One of our slogans is “the sky is the limit when your heart is in it”, and that has worked very well. These lads have wanted to win every game. It doesn’t matter if we are playing against Bundesliga players, or whatever, they really think we can achieve something in this final tournament.”

THERE HAS been some excitement this autumn about the form of Teemu Pukki, an 18 year old striker who is playing for Sevilla Atletico in Spain’s Segunda Division. He has impressed enough to be called up to the full Sevilla squad for their 4-3 win away at Real Madrid, although he didn’t make it onto the pitch that time.

His progress through the Finnish age group teams has been slower. Pukki is still playing for Finland under 19s, although he did train with the under-21s before the home match against Scotland in 2007. Speculation has been rife about his elevation to the under-21 or even the senior squad, but with Finland reasonably well-stocked for strikers, Kanerva is cautious about his future.

We have quite a lot of options up front – Jami Puustinen, Jarno Parikka, Berat Sadik, Timo Furuholm. Pukki was selected for the home match against Scotland, but didn’t play in that game, and now I have the chance to look a little bit closer at him when we go to Japan in January with the A national team. That will be a young squad, and we’ll take a look at a lot of possible players for the finals.”

At the moment he is a key player for the under-19 team, and they have a round of qualification games in May. Of course, he has to show that he is good enough to play at the next level which in this case is under-21, or maybe even the senior team. I don’t believe he’s good enough to make the step up to the senior team right away, and we have to be patient and give him time to develop.

I think he’s not physically ready yet to play so many games for the senior team. Maybe for the under-21s, but as I said there are many options up front for us. It doesn’t follow that he sits on the bench for Sevilla and he is then automatically selected for the under-21s. He has to show his skills with my team, or with the under-19 team, or with the senior team, but of course he’s a very talented player with a lot of potential.”

IT SEEMS quite timid to be talking in those terms about a player who is only 18 but is playing at a high level, has played a full season for his home-town club and is generally considered one of the brighter stars of Finnish football. The chemistry of the squad has been key to Finland’s success, with close games against Scotland, Austria and Denmark decided by Finland keeping their nerve at the death. Kanerva understandably wants to preserve the atmosphere in the squad, and adding players to the squad is something that must be done carefully.

As a coach I think that everything starts from the team spirit, from the atmosphere in the team, and you have to build that up with your staff. That’s the basic thing. Every player has to feel at home when they come to the national team, and they have to feel that they can show their best when they play for Finland, without too much pressure.”

Of course in every game they have some pressure, but it’s very important that they have that self-confidence in the Finnish team, that trust in the team, and that they know that they can win something with this Finnish team. With a positive atmosphere you can achieve those little miracles.”

Of the other possible additions to the squad, Roman Eremenko would add the most star quality. Playing regularly for Dinamo Kiev after a disjointed spell with Udinese, the former FF Jaro midfielder is a mainstay of the national team’s midfield and adds a vision and composure that could make the difference when Finland come up against difficult opponents.

“He is a senior national team player, and I have to discuss with him about whether he is willing to join us. It depends how well he plays for Dinamo Kiev and how well he plays for the national team. It’s not so simple that I just take him. I have to discuss with Stuart Baxter and with Roman Eremenko. It would have to be good for him and good for our team. Of course he is a quality player and with his qualities he can help our team.”

I have no doubt that he would fit into the team, but it depends what he thinks. He has to be 100% sure that he wants to join us, and that he can adjust to the squad. That should not be so difficult. There is not such a big difference in the way we play and the way the full national team plays. In any case I would like to see him with the team before I make my decision.”

THE IDEA that players should take their time, learn the game, and play with their contemporaries is deeply ingrained here, and Kanerva is reluctant to endorse the Welsh approach of rapid promotion through the age groups. John Toshak did away with the practice of separate age group coaches, making everyone except under-21 manager Bryan Flynn part time. Flynn then had the remit and authority to promote players as quickly as possible to test the young players at the highest level possible. The Finnish way is somewhat more hierarchical, but Kanerva is keen not to dismiss the Welsh model outright.

“It always depends on the players. If players are good enough they should go to the senior team. Our goal is to produce players for the senior national team, and when they are ready, of course they go to the senior team. We have done that during autumn too, we played in Dallas against Mexico with an Olympic team, and half of that team was composed of my players.”

“If you see a really good talent, who would be useful for the senior team, then why not? But of course it depends on the player. Is he mentally ready, is he physically ready, is he skilful enough to play in the senior team?”

“I’ve looked at the Wales team, and I was surprised that they had such young players in the senior team, but they are ready and they are playing. If they are playing in the English Premier League then of course it’s not such a big step to move into the Welsh national team, but if our players are in academy teams or even reserve teams, like Teemu Pukki, then there are a couple of steps before they are ready to play for the senior team, or to be involved in that squad.”

How do you see this year’s Veikkausliiga in terms of young players getting chances and responsibility with the top two clubs?

“HJK did it a couple of years ago, they had to do that because they had some economical cuts. In a way it’s a bit of a shame (that they are not picking so many youngsters), but I don’t want to criticise them. Of course I want those young players to get a chance to play in the league, and to test themselves, in many league games. Young players can play one good game, one bad game, one good game and so on. I want to see which players can play a lot of good games in a row, who have a stable level of their performances.

“That’s why I’m happy to see those Honka players and Inter players getting a lot of games. Of course Jukka Raitala and Jarno Parikka played a lot more than a year ago, and I can get some kind of feeling for how they are doing when they play five games in a row. Maybe some clubs have to use young players for financial reasons, but it is good to see them get a chance all the same.”

Do you think HJK will give more responsibility to players like Akseli Pelvas next year?

“Antti Muurinen is the head coach and he makes the decisions…….Of course, they have had some quality players this season, Mäkelä, Roiha, Parikka, and it’s tough for Akseli Pelvas, but at some stage they have to think about his future and give him some responsibility in the team. Okay, he’s not so young any more, he’s 20 next year, he’s not a junior any more. I’m not sure what they plan for him next year, but I hope that he will get some time to play.”

“It’s not my job to criticise or tell people how to do their jobs. I can hope for something, and I want all the young players to get some responsibility for their club teams. That helps our national team, that they have played some tough games. If they’ve only played some junior games then the step up to international football is quite huge. So that’s why I hope clubs trust their younger players.”

“Of course, it depends on the goals that the club has. If they want to play for medals then they are probably a little bit afraid to use younger players, they prefer to use older, more experienced players. But I think Honka and Inter have shown that you can be successful and win something using young players, just like HJK did a couple of years ago when they got silver with a lot of young players, and of course I like the good example.”

ANOTHER issue for Finnish coaches is the seemingly inexorable drain of players to academy teams in other countries. Lauri Dalla Valle is currently the flavour of the month among Liverpool fans who monitor their club’s academy, and among Finnish fans who keep tabs on prospects for their national team. He recently signed a contract that will last until 2011, and is now occasionally training with the Liverpool reserves, but that is a long way short of ‘making it’.

The list of Finnish players who have failed to make the grade in foreign academies is quite long, and the list of successes is short to non-existent. It’s common for those players to come back to Finland to rebuild their careers, a path followed by Tomi Petrescu with some success.

Would you prefer that a young player played for a Veikkausliiga club for a couple of years, or went abroad to an academy at a really big club?

“It depends on the player and the environment. If the environment is suitable for the player, then of course, it would be fine. If he’s ready, mentally and physically, why not. But if he’s a little bit doubtful, and if he has a good role in a Finnish league team, then why not stay here for a couple of years, go to the army and finish his schooling, and then leave when he is ready to concentrate solely on football?”

“There are many examples of players who have done things that way, like Teemu Tainio and Sami Hyypiä for instance, they played a couple of years in the Finnish league and were then ready to go abroad after military service and high school.”

“I’m still waiting for the first young talents to become a real star by taking that early way by going to the foreign academies. I haven’t seen that yet. Maybe Teemu Pukki will be the first one, or Lauri Dalla Valle. Okay, Tomi Petrescu has been in England with Leicester’s academy, but he didn’t quite break through and came back to Finland.”

“It’s always useful for players to go abroad and see the professional life and what is needed, how hard it is to be a real pro. Maybe it opens players’ eyes to see that. The best way depends on the player, but still I’m waiting for the first one to come through the academies. Playing in the Finnish league for a couple of years, in a big role, has been a good route for players.”

If you go to Manchester United, like Jami Puustinen did, it’s quite a challenge to succeed at a big club like that. Would it be better to stay here and play in the Finnish league with coaches who are really working hard on your development? It’s hard to say which is the best way, but if you think historically then playing in the Finnish league for a couple of years has made our guys readier as players. Maybe mentally as well, they’re a little bit older, and they have still developed as a player to the level where foreign clubs are interested in them.”