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.”

Finland v Austria: the penalty shoot out

And William Moore’s report in HSIntEd is excellent as usual.

Finland 2 Austria 1: Under 21 European Championship Qualifing play off second leg, Finland v Austria LIVE BLOG

Finland win the shoot-out 4-2, what a game! Better go celebrate.


Finland go first, the end where SMJK are situated.

FIN: Sparv GOAL, 1-0
AUS: Stankovic, Maanoja saves! 1-0

FIN: Aho GOAL, 2-0
AUS: Beichler, GOAL, 2-1

FIN: Kokko GOAL, 3-1
AUS: Kavlak GOAL, 3-2

FIN: Hakola GOAL 4-3
AUS: Madl, must score, MISS! FINLAND ARE THROUGH!!!

120 mins: The match goes to penalties! Finland was slightly better in the second half of extra time, but it does not matter now.

118 mins: Furuholm gets a perfect chance to score, but is unable to convert. Might be an expensive miss! Hopefully not.

114 mins: Austria are now more patient and build decent attacks. However, as I type, Finland are close to scoring. Aho set off Kokko, but the flag went up.

113 mins: Beichler gets in a header from close range, but Maanoja saves.

112 mins: Austria get a free kick from some 40 metres, but Finland clear it easily.

109 mins: Austria are seemingly nervous. Finland keep attacking, but the Austrian defenders can hold the Finns back.

106 mins: Finland get a good start to the second half, with Hakola and Vasara both getting a chance. Austria brought on their last sub, Andreas Shicker replaced Harun Erbek.

104 mins: Clash of heads between Raitala and Madl, but they both seem to be okay. Madl came off worse, at any rate.

102 mins: A bad couple of minutes for Daniel Beichler. First he goes down in the box but gets no penalty, then he is rather dubiously called offside and booked for rolling the ball on after the whistle.

98 mins: Hakola falls down for no reason in particular, but gets a free kick. He delivers it himself but an Austrian heads it out for a throw. The attack ends when, of course, Mr Kelly gives a free kick to the defending team. as he does again as austria cross the halfway line….

96 mins: I’m acutely aware of being a bit too involved here. I celebrated both goals with an embarrassing little fist pump, as the desk prevents a proper stand-up celebration, but most of the journos were a little bit annoyed that their deadlines will be tough to meet now. Vasara wins a corner for Finland to be delivered by Hakola, but it’s claimed by Olejnik.

93 mins: An Austrian is writhing around on the floor. Raitala and then Hakola are unsure whether to kick the ball out, but Hakola eventually does. Florian Klein is now being ‘treated’ on the touchline, but runs back onto the pitch almost immediately.

92 mins: corner for Austria after Raitala fails to clear. The ref helpfully gives a free kick to Finland for pushing in the box.

91 mins: Vasara is feeling confident: he has a crack from fully 40 yards out, but hits it well wide.

90 mins: End of normal time. I did not expect Finland to pull that one out of the bag, to say the least. lets see what they can manage now. Tomi Maanoja just legged it down the tunnel, presumably for a toilet break – I wonder what happens if he doesn’t make it back in time? Oh, he’s back out again now. 30 minutes of extra time to come. both teams are in huddles on the pitch, the Austrians noticeably less vocal at the end of theirs than they were at the start of the game. They’ve made a substitution too, captain Dober coming off for Daniel Beichler.

89 mins: Vasara scores again! Great flick from Sparv to set Hakola free down the left, he crosses for Vasara to pivot and slam it into the bottom left hand corner. This is the first time at Veritas Stadium I’ve seen the whole crowd stand up to celebrate a goal. Three minutes off added time to come, Finlandcould still mess this up, as Juha helpfully points out….

88 mins: Awful miss from Furuholm when he elects to shoot from the right with kokko open and screaming for the ball in a central position.

86 mins: Sparv heads a poor goal kick back towards goal, Kokko runs onto it but volleys wide. Furuholm is booked for a late tackle near the centre circle. Finland are playing at a high tempo, they just need a bit more composure.

83 mins: Hakola crosses from the left but Kokko, peeling off to the penalty spot, pings it well wide. In the run up to the goal Stankovic had dived on the halfway line, expecting the usual soft free kick, but the referee didn’t give it. Stankovic was furious, hahahahahaha.

80 mins: GOAL for Finland! Furuholm fed Vasara, who took the ball on and slotted home from a tight angle.

77 mins: The referee is giving freekicks in central midfield all the time. It’s incredibly annoying. Turunen has done quite well for Finland, as has Hakola in the second half, but apart from that it’s difficult to pick out a good performance. Still only two goals needed though, all is not lost…

76 mins: Belarus are leading Turkey 2-0 in Borisov. That’s the way to overturn a one goal deficit at home….

73 mins: Jarno Parikka off for Kokko, Saurer off for Austria to be replaced by Michael Madl. Finland have another free kick they’re about to fire into the box…. and Austria clear. Furuholm has to juggle the ball when it comes back in, but Olejnik claims easily above his head.

72 mins: Substitutions on the way for both teams, it looks like Kokko is coming on for Finland. At last. Free kick for Finland in a dangerous area, easily cleared by Austria. They’re totally comfortable now, not troubled at all by Finland.

68 mins: Hakola takes a tumble in the area but the ref gives nothing. It could have been a penalty, but it was just strong defending really. Now the referee gives a free kick to Austria, that really was dubious, and it seems like the game is getting more disjointed. Hopefully the perceived injustice will wake the crowd up a bit.

66 mins: Parikka crosses for Furuholm, who just fails to make contact, and Finland win a corner from Hakola’s cross after he collects.

63 mins: Raitala breaks after Hakola beats two men, but the HJK left back cannot get past his and gives away a free kick for fouling Dober. The game’s slipping away from Finland.

59 mins: Sparv harshly booked by the Irish referee, whose name I notice now is Alan Kelly. Stankovic just missed from just 8 yards out.

56 mins: Some technical difficulties here, sorry for the break. Finland made another substitution while we were offline, Hetemaj being replaced by Vasara. I would really, really like to see Kokko introduced soon, but I wonder who would come off. Possibly Parikka. Portin was booked for bringing someone down, i think Stankovic, and Finland need to retain the urgency they’ve shown in the last ten minutes.

48 mins: I was waylaid by SPL’s magnificent marble cake, but I’m back now. Ojala off, Furuholm on. Finland seem to have dropped Parikka back, with Furuholm playi

45 mins: Half time. Changes are desperately needed, and Finland have a strong bench. It could be Otaru, Furuholm, Kokko or Vasara, but I think Ojala needs to be withdrawn as his confidence is getting a battering against a very strong left back. If AEK Athens are here looking for a left-back, they might well switch to the Austrian one now.

42 mins: Belarus are leading Turkey 1-0 in Borisov, leaving the tie level on aggregate. Hakola just beat the full back and put over a cross, the first time I can remember in this game, but Erbek flicked the ball off Ojala’s feet at the far stick.

39 mins: Juha says Finland have lost their patience, and I agree. Austria are stroking the ball around without impediment apart from the occasional foul, and when Finland get the ball it is almost always punted long to Parikka. And lets face it, Jarno parikka is not a target man striker. I’d like to see Kokko come on at half time, possibly for Ojala with parikka dropping back into midfield. Finland desperately need a change, as things are Austria look very, very comfortable.

34 mins: Hetemaj loses the ball to Stankovic in the middle, Portin falls over on the edge of the box, but Stankovic can’t really be bothered to shoot properly and wellies it at the giant Pepsi bottle behind the goal.

31 mins: Finland are playing like children. Only Turunen seems to have any composure, everyone else is panicking a little bit and the Austrians are taking full advantage. Their best players are Erbek, Kavlak and Stankovic.

25 mins: Poor communication betweek Maanoja and Aho lets in Marco Stankovic, who finishes from a very tight angle. Just what Finland did not need.

21 mins: Kavlak curls in a dangerous free kick, but nobody is on the end of it and Maanoja claims. SMJK are having some high pitched call-and-respond with the kids, who have no begun to chant ‘Suomi’ on their own. Their are a good few people watching from outside the fence at the Jäähalli end, but there’s room for them inside the ground if they want to pay….

19 mins: What was I saying about long balls? Turunen releases Raitala down the left and from Parikka’s ball in Ojala has a fantastic chance. He fluffs it, and looks a little nervous.

17 mins: Baumtlinger is booked for wretsling with Tim Sparv.

13 mins: Veli Kavlak wellies the ball into touch. i wouldn’t call it a shot. Ojala goes down on the edge of the area, but it was nowhere close to a foul. Harun Erbek has played very well so far, and Ojala has had some difficulty against the Kayserispor left back.

10 mins: Finland are playing too many long balls in the air. As i type, Turunen feeds Parikka in to his feet, he is brought down and Finland have a dangerous free kick. It’s headed clear but Finland retain posession. this is a bit more like it.

7 mins: Hakola and Ojala are wearing red boots, with their classic blue and white kit. It looks awful, and is for some reason irritating me greatly.

5 mins: Parikka given offside in a marginal decision. Finland are playing some decent stuff till they get to the final third, but they are well martialled at present.

1minute: The referee gives a free kick against Sparv for pushing down on Austrian shoulders at a long throw. The Austrian bench has a lot of people on it, for some reason, and they’re all squashed up tight.

19:00: National anthem behaviour is different for the two teams. The Austrians grip each others shoulders and do some shouting when theirs finishes, while the Finns don’t bother with that rubbish. Finland kick off, kicking left to right, as a ‘Suomi’ chant goes up.

18:58: The Veikkaus inflatables are out in force tonight, but not blocking anyone’s view (assuming they deflate the one that’s actually on the pitch. They could of course leave it there, that would be an interesting rule adjustment, and maybe an idea for FIFA to work on). The teams are entering the field!

18:55: SMJK have arrived, and started singing. They have competition from excited schoolkids just to their left, and the not-so-massed ranks of Austrians a bit further along. The ground is filling up, but it doesn’t quite look like a sell-out. The tannoy has gone strangely quiet.

18:35: The teams are in. We think Finland will line up in a 4-5-1 formation as follows: Tomi Maanoja; Jukka Raitala, Jonas Portin, Tuomo Turunen, Joni Aho; Tim Sparv, Kasper Hämäläinen, Mehmet Hetemaj, Juha Hakola, Mika Ojala; Jarno Parikka.

Austria’s team is: Robert Olejnik; Andreas Dober, Mario Sonnleitner, Mario Reiter, Julian Baumgartlinger, Florian Klein, Niklas Hoheneder, Marco Stankovic, Christoph Saurer, Veli Kavlak, Harun Erbek.

There is a big Austrian flag on the far side in the Olympic stand, and no sign of SMJK’s Finland fan section yet. Hopefully they’re in the pub, maximising drinking opportunities because this is a UEFA game and all the bars are closed. The floodlights are on and rumour has it the game is nearly sold out – this does feel like a big match.

That’s the longest title I think I’ve ever written on this blog. I’m on my way to Turku now, and unfortunately there isn’t much in the way of coverage in Ilta Sanomat or Veikkaaja. I’ll update this at regular intervals, so refresh it to get the latest. Team news will be up as soon as I get it.

Finland v Austria Under 21 European Championship play-off second leg LIVE BLOG


I’m heading to Turku tomorrow and will do a live blog of the game. They’ve sold 4,700 tickets, the Greek press is reporting that AEK are there to watch Finnish players, and the game is actually going to be shown on Finnish TV, on channel Viisi/The Voice. All very exciting, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Perparim Hetemaj and Tomi Petrescu are suspended for Finland, with Jussi Vasara and Nicholas Otaru rcoming in to reinforce the squad. Franz Schiemer and Rubin Okotie are suspended for Austria.

Markku Kanerva’s Under 21 side to face Austria in the Euro play-offs

The full draw, made by Henrik Larsson this morning:

Germany v France
Denmark v Serbia
Turkey v Belarus
Austria v Finland
Wales v England
Italy v Israel
Switzerland v Spain

Finland play in Pasching on the 10th of October, with the return leg in Finland to take place on the 14th. The venue has not been announced yet, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t Finnair Stadium. I hesitate to celebrate too much, as Austria were unbeaten in their group and pretty much the same squad finished fourth in the 2007 Under 20 World Cup, but it could have been tougher.