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.”

Russia 3 Finland 0: old-school Finnish football is back!

Just last night I thought Finnish football had changed considerably as the U-21 team overturned a deficit to come out as victors against Austria, but little did I know. Tonight, Finland went down 3-0 against Russia and to make it Finnish enough, the first two goals were Finland’s own goals and Arshavin’s strike that settled the final score took a deflection of Markus Heikkinen.

It was men against boys really. The Finns had problems in all areas, starting from ball control. I still can’t find the words to explain how easily Roman Eremenko gave the ball to the Russians so that they could start the attack that resulted in the first goal. A bit later, Petri Pasanen had a great chance of clearing the ball in front of the empty net, but he managed to kick the ball into his own net. If Pasanen would have kicked the ball anywhere else the goal could have been avoided, but no can do. Veli Lampi’s own goal was very similar in principle.

The third goal was a job well done by Andrei Arshavin, but also silly defending on the part of the Finns. Arshavin strolled past both Hyypiä and Tihinen – and not passing Hyypiä first and then Tihinen, but he actually went through the space of about one metre that the full-backs had left between themselves. Just to make sure that the last player touching the ball would wear a blue shirt, Markus Heikkinen sprinted in to finish off Arshavin’s effort.

It was a deserved victory for Russia, as Finland’s performance was a miserable failure. They had no chances at all (well, aside the ones they used in their own end), the passing was dreadful with too many long balls and no-one had the decency to calm down the team when it was needed. Litmanen helped to some extent in holding on to the ball and trying to create chances, but he was only brought on ten minutes before the final whistle, when the score was already 2-0.

Over at Pelintekijä, Janne Oivio writes that the game was a “total disaster” and “even historical”, because “it is hard to come up with a Finland game played after the turn of the century that could be compared to this game”. That sounds harsh, but coming to think of it, I can’t remember too many fixtures like this one either. It looked like the Finns had already wet themselves before they ever came on the pitch.

I’ll edit this post later, treating you to Baxter’s thoughts and a highlight clip if one is available.

Finland 1 Azerbaijan 0

William’s report is here

The game kicked off with a bit of an embarrassing anthem disruption from the North Curve. They kept singing while the Helsinki Police band were giving a decent rendition of Azərbaycan Respublikasının Dövlət Himni, the Azeri national anthem. They’re done great stuff recently, and there was a gushing article in yesterday’s Ilta-Sanomat, educational in tone about what a fan section should be about.

It’d be rubbish if that goodwill was wasted by people taking the worst parts of other countries’ football cultures. I counted 44 police around the Pohjoiskaarre fans at the start of the game, but they were mostly there to watch the game rather than in anticipation of any serious trouble.

Teemu Tainio started the match, surprisingly for me, and Finland lined up like this:


Pasanen, Tihinen, Hyypiä, Kallio

Eremenko, Tainio

Sjölund, Väyrynen, Roiha


The Azeri formation was something like this:


Malikov, Sasha XXX (as he was announced on the team sheet), Shukurov, Chertoganov, Sadigov, Abasov, Mammadov, Zeynalov



Berti Vogts likes to keep things tight, and his entire objective was a 0-0 draw in Helsinki. His players were disciplined and organised, as well as niggly and cynical. They grappled with Forsell and screamed blue murder at each other whenever a Finland cross came in, as that kind of dangerous excitement should be strictly rationed in the Vogts theory of football.

Quite a few crosses did come in during the first half hour or so, as Finland dominated proceedings. Eremenko was tricky and full of ideas, always able to beat his man before spotting and executing a telling pass, Väyrynen was bright and Roiha extremely fast. The best chance of this period came when Roiha chipped the ball into the box for Väyrynen, who could only blast straight at the keeper. Roiha fizzed a shot just wide, but more often than not the ball would reach Forsell who was being wretsled to the ground by Sadigov and whoever else was nearby.

After that things settled into a Hodgsonesque quagmire of condensed play, with Finland’s full-backs not breaking forward as much and Azerbaijan content to waste time. For a while it seemed like they would not be able to continue play after a free kick for either team without seeking treatment, and the crowd started booing their gamesmanship.

It felt a bit grim at half time. Finland have lost to Azerbaijan in Baku, and last time in Helsinki it came down to Sheki Kuqi’s nose to save the day in the last minute. After Väyrynen’s miss and Sjölund’s failure to get a penalty when blatantly hauled down with only the keeper to beat, the nagging fear was that Finland would just not find a way past the most cynical opponents seen in Helsinki for a long time. The Azeris were throwing themselves in the way of anything and everything in and around the box, aware that the ground was wet and slippery and Aghayev would need protection. They looked comfortable, especially as they clearly had no desire to score a goal themselves.

Thankfully the referee gave Finland a penalty for shirt tugging in the box on 60 minutes. It looked inexplicable from where I was sitting, and the kind of thing that always happens but virtually never gets given, but nobody was that bothered (except the small party of Azeri journalists in the press box). After that Finland hung on, and when things started getting a bit frayed Baxter sent on Litmanen. He didn’t do anything amazing, but he really lifted the crowd and didn’t lose the ball much, so I guess you could say he steadied the ship. Baxter did, anyway.

The funniest press conference was Berti Vogts’s. He came in, gave his opinions on the game, said he only had one player playing abroad whereas the Finns had only one player playing in Finland (not quite true, as both Roiha and Pohja played a role), and that he congratulated Stuart Baxter. Then a quick ‘any questions? no? okay, bye’ before the Azeri journalists hauled him back in to answer for his defensive strategy. Vogts was very dismissive, insulting even, saying ‘you only watch football in Azerbaijan, this is completely different’, without addressing the question. He then went on to say that Finland might finish third, but won’t do better than that.

Baxter said there were more positives than negatives, and that he was very pleased to have gotten this game out of the way. The Russia game will allow Finland to be the ‘hunter’ rather than the ‘hunted’, and that is an easier role, according to Baxter. There will be less pressure on them, and Jonas Von Wendt suggests in today’s HBL that Heikkinen will come in for Roiha to bolster the midfield. In short, it was mission accomplished and not much more. But Finland don’t have to play Azerbaijan again for nearly a year, and that’s something everyone can be happy about.

I went to Atlantis-JJK yesterday as well, had a great time, and will write it up later on.

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.

The UEFA Cup First Round match Racing Santander – FC Honka starts at 21:30 tonight Finnish time

That’s what it says at the bottom of the Helsingin Sanomat preview this morning. Normally it offers a way of following the game, on TV or radio, but those options are not available Finland tonight, because nobody has bought the rights. I contacted the Norwegian company that held the rights for the Viking Stavanger game – a big match that Honka had every chance of progressiong from – and asked how much it would have cost to get the Finnish rights.

They refused to put a figure on it, but laughed at my suggestion of €30,000 and said that kind of figure would only be possible if both teams wore skates and helmets. I got the impression they would have accepted any offer, given that the rights were not in demand from anyone at all.

So I didn’t fancy ringing up Localia Cantabria Television, who will be broadcasting the match in the Cantabria region.

Jonathan Pereira was so excited to play against his boyhood idols, he made a special scarf to commemorate the occasion
Jonathan Pereira was so excited to play against his boyhood idols, he made a special scarf to commemorate the occasion

HBL has an article sourced from Spanish websites, so please forgive the double translation and any errors that may result. Pedro Munitis is ever so excited about playing for his home town club in Europe, and apparently received the Big Book of Footballer’s Cliches last Christmas.

“For a Santander lad like me to represent them in Europe is like a dream,” said Munitis. “When I came home in 2006 I felt that I might well have played my last match in European competition, but thanks to our great season last year we have this chance now.”

“To finish sixth last year was an achievement, but that won’t help us tonight against Honka. I expect that we will meet a physically strong team that is very disciplined.”

Munitis ackonowledged Racing are the favourites, but awrned against complacency.

“But everyone who follows football knows that the favourite doesn’t always win. We can’t approach this with any kind of arrogance. Honka haven’t come this for for nothing. It would be good for us to be humble. That’s the best way to win the important matches. That’s something I’ve learnt over my whole career.”

His health in relation to a parrot was, tragically, not mentioned.

Mika Lehkosuo said that it was important to try and unsettle Racing early on, and ensure that his young team doesn’t show too much respect. Marca was apparently bigging up Honka’s striker yesterday, but according to Iltalehti there is little chance of it going to his head.

“Yeah, I’m a big man,” laughed Aleksandr Kokko. “My dream is to play for Barcelona one day. It could help if I score three goals against Racing.”

Note to any Spanish readers, unfamiliar with Pori humour: he is not serious.

Lastly, if we’re talking about Finns in Europe, Roman Eremenko played 90 minutes for Dinamo Kiev against Arsenal. He did alright, and has hopefully taken a step towards playing regularly for his club.

Baxter’s dress rehearsal: Finland 2 Israel 0

Stuart Baxter said that the Israel game would be a dress rehearsal for the Germany match in September, and he was pretty relieved that it went as well as it did. The high spot was Veli Lampi’s full debut, as the former TPS right back looked solid and put in some excellent crosses including the one from which Jonatan Johansson nodded in the first goal. Roman Eremenko also had a good game, playing some excellent through balls to Mikael Forsell and generally looking calm and assured. Jari Litmanen had a decent cameo, setting up the second goal from a free kick and linking up play well when Finland were beginning to tire.

Both coaches commented on set pieces after the game. Baxter said that he was pleased with the way they executed them offensively and defensively, and that 50% of all international goals come from set plays. That figure apparently goes up to 65% when you include set pieces that are cleared and then come straight back. The Israeli coach Dror Kashtan said that he was very disappointed with their defending at set pieces, they practice those situations and should know how to deal with them, but also that Finland deserved the win because they controlled the play in the first half and Israel didn’t take advantage when they had the edge in the second.

That period of play followed an incident that enraged the Finnish players. Maor Buzaglo, a livewire 20 year old winger who came on at half time, went down clutching his leg after a robust challenge from fellow substitute Tony Kallio. The ball was kicked out to allow Buzaglo to receive treatment, but instead of waiting for the physio’s magic sponge the Maccabi Tel Aviv man jumped up, sprinted down the wing to receive the throw in, and put in a cross for Ben Sahar (who, showing he’d learnt a lot from his time on loan at Sheffield Wednesday, promptly sliced it wide).

Baxter reckoned this upset the Finns’ concentration, and I agree with him. Israel had a lot of chances after that and should really have scored at least one of them.

One other thing mentioned in the press conference was that Finland tried a few things that they thought might upset Germany, but they didn’t want to say what they were. Having seen the German central defenders’ pace and mobility, I reckon its possible that one of these things was playing lots of through balls for Forsell to run on to.

I should have a word for Tampere’s response to the game, and that word should probably be ‘terrible’. The crowd was less than 5,000 and most of those braved uncovered seating on a day that had been dominated by pissing rain. the whole crowd could have squeezed into Tammela and nobody would have risked getting wet (it didn’t actually rain during the match, but it did for 6 hours solid up until a few minutes before kick-off. I wouldn’t have bothered if I didn’t already have a ticket).

Tampere needs a proper football stadium with proper facilities for the fans, and Ratina is not it. Visitors from Helsinki described the toilets as ‘worse than a wall to piss against’, and the atmosphere as ‘appalling’. When the attendance was announced a chant of ‘Helsinki’ went up, and it’s difficult to disagree with ithe sentiment. This game should have been played in Vaasa, Kotka, Kuopio, hell, maybe even in Pori? They are attracting big crowds to Kakkonen games there, they would surely have sold out an international. It’s clear that Tampere does not have the facilities for international football, and the enthusiasm is not there to hide that definciency at the moment.

Owls, Romans and upsetting results for HJK and KooTeePee

Well Finland seems to have gone owl-crazy. Ilta Sanomat suggested a new kit for the national team, and some lovely owl related merchandise. I love it, being blue and white striped with the trappings of the greatest bird in football. We’ll see if the Finnish Football Association (SPL) follow it up.

I have to say I’m a bit gutted I missed the Belgium game, as my soccernet piece would have been a good deal less negative if I’d been there. Giving the young players their head brought it’s rewards, and the brothers Eremenko can be proud of their contributions. We’ll see if Hodgson is brave enough to stick with this team against Borat’s boys in August. I somehow doubt it, and fear we’ll be back waiting and worrying about the old fellas.

A quick well done to Armand One on being named player of the month for May, and to JJK for beating TPS 3-2 in the cup. They’re having a good season, third in Ykkönen 3 points behind the leaders. I’ve said before I’d like them to do well, so I may as well repeat myself.

An even bigger well done to the people down at GrIFK, who have progressed to the next round of the Cup after beating KTP 1-0. GrIFK represent Kauniainen, possibly the richest suburb in Finland and Grankulla IFK (they are of course a club founded by Swedish speakers) currently compete way down in Kakkonen.

Meanwhile Veikkausliiga got back underway after the international break, and HJK continued their woeful run with a 2-2 draw at home to Jaro. They still haven’t won a game at home this season.

TPS won away at Viikingit, only 1-0 but then the Vuosaari Vikings have troubled most clubs they’ve played, without threatening too much. They’re big, ugly and organised.

Highlights here

A very big match on Thursday with Haka playing Tampere United in Valkeakoski. A win for Haka opens things up again, whereas if they lose it’s very difficult to see anyone catching the leaders.

TamU 8 19
TPS 8 17
FC Haka 7 16
FC Lahti 8 13
MyPa 8 12
FC Honka 8 12
HJK 9 11
FF Jaro 8 9
AC Oulu 8 9
FC Viikingit 8 8
FC KooTeePee 7 7
IFK Mariehamn 7 7
FC Inter 8 5
VPS 8 3

Bring in the Owls

Eagle owl (Bubo bubo) is a beautiful bird, and very adaptable. It usually lives in forest and woods, but can obviusly get on in urban environment as well. There are said to be at least five eagle owl couples residing around the centre of Helsinki, and one of them has chosen the Olympic Stadium as its home.

It’s called Bubi – referring both to its Latin name and to the nickname of Bror-Erik Wallenius, YLE’s legendary sport commentator – and it made an impressive appearance in yesterday’s qualifier, entering the scene in the middle of the first half. First it landed on the pitch and then, after the referee had stopped the match, flew to Finland’s crossbar, and from there to Belgium’s. This clip shows how Bubi scares the crap out of a Belgium player, by making an awe-inspiring false attack.

The game was paused for almost ten minutes and when it continued, after the owl had elegantly taken a seat behind Finland’s goal, Jonathan Johansson soon scored. This may or may not have a direct link to the ornithological incident just witnessed, but now the Finnish national team – from now on, Huuhkajat, i.e. the Eagle Owls – has nevertheless a new mascot.

Johansson played well, as did the Eremenko brothers – Udinese’s young Roman had a great debut is surely a new regular middfielder, given that Finland has very few potential ‘anchors’ who are able to complete passes. Defence made a couple of minor gaffes, though were largely saved by the inescapable fact that contemporary Belgium are just the group’s sixth best team. Armenia are quite likely to overhaul them at the end of the qualification day; yesterday the sons of Ararat beat Poland in Yerevan, injecting some extra excitement into the autumn rounds.

As a concluding anectode, your contributor would like to point out that if it’s an urbanised city owl who had air superiority over the olympic stadium, then it is definitely Satu Kunnas, women’s national team’s goalkeeper, who controlled the ground. She’s a policewoman as her profession, and was assigned to look after the B20, positioning herself in front of the stadium’s owlest fan section. Your contributor is certainly not the master of hearing such opportunities knocking, let alone knocking them off, but if there ever was a moment for an intentionally failed pitch invasion, it was last night.