Football Features

Finland national team: Five things to know about the Euro 2020 debutants

By Harry Edwards

Published: 18:58, 15 November 2019

Finland secure their place in a major tournament for the first time with a 3-0 win over Liechtenstein.

Jasse Tuominen opened the scoring in the first half and Teemu Pukki completed the win with a brace after half-time.

But what do we know about the Euro 2020 debutants?

1. The wait is over

Finland made their first foray into qualifying for a major tournament in 1937, as they tried to reach the second ever World Cup the following year.

Since then, the Nordic nation have taken part in 30 qualification campaigns for both the World Cup and European Champions without success.

This is despite Finland having boasted several big name players across the years, with the likes of Antii Niemi, Sami Hyypia, Mikael Forrsell, Jussi Jaaskelainen and Jari Litmanen all turning out for the Eagle-owls over the years.

But at the 31st time of asking, Finland will finally be represented at a major tournament, with second spot secured in Group J after nine games. Six wins and three defeats have come so far, with only Italy better than them in the group.

Finland did have the back up of a play-off place secured via the Uefa Nations League, but they can now enjoy their final group game against Greece on Monday safe in the knowledge that they will be in Euro 2020.

2. Teemu Pukki leading the way

Key to Finland’s success in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign has been the goalscoring exploits of Teemu Pukki.

The 29-year-old has missed just 19 minutes of action in Group J, starting every game. After going goalless in the first two matches against Italy and Armenia, Pukki has managed nine goals in his following seven games – including five in four consecutive appearances.

Three of those have match winners, with the Norwich City striker bagging both in a 2-0 win over Bosnia and another the only goal of a 1-0 victory away to Greece. And even though the goals have dried up for Norwich, Pukki continues to be key for Finland scoring twice in a 3-0 win over Armenia in the last international break.

Against Liechtenstein, Pukki was always lurking and it was his position in the box which led to Tuominen opening the scoring, after the defence had focused on stopping the Norwich striker from shooting. He got the goal he deserved from the penalty spot, sending Benjamin Buchel the wrong way to ease Finland’s fears of a comeback, before adding another late on.

3. Markku Kanerva’s revolution

When Hans Backe was sacked in December 2016 having failed to win any of his 11 games in charge, Finland were already all-but out of contention to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. One point from four had Finland seven points behind second-placed Ukraine.

Markku Kanerva, Backe’s assistant at the time, stepped up to take the permanent managerial role and although Finland finished 11 points behind second-placed Croatia, improvements had begun.

Following the end of that qualifying campaign, systems using one striker gave way for two-man front lines with Pukki featuring heavily. Aside from minor tweaks for certain games, Finland have been committed to a 4-4-2 system and it has paid dividends.

Since the start of the Uefa Nations League campaign in September 2018, Finland have played 17 games, winning 11 – including 10 in competitive fixtures to win their Nations League group and qualify for Euro 2020.

Under Kanerva, Finland have been reliant of a mix of experience and younger stars, with their current squad featuring ages ranging from 22-year-old Frederik Jensen to captain Tim Sparv at 32.

While Finland will not be breaking any records for youngest XIs, they do have a solid national pool to call from.

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4. They won’t be bullied at the back

While the goalscorers may get all the credit, something must be said about Finland’s defence.

Friday’s 3-0 win over Liechtenstein was the six time Finland have kept a clean sheet in this qualifying campaign, letting in goals in only three of their nine matches so far.

Two of those games came against Italy, who have been perfect in their run to winning Group J but were only able to put two past Finland in each match – a commendable amount considering Roberto Mancini’s side have scored 25 goals.

The only other side to score against Finland were Bosnia in a freak 4-1 win that looked to threaten the Eagle-owls’ spot at Euro 2020 but will now be looked back on as just a minor blip.

And Finland’s excellent defending has not just been restricted to this qualifying campaign. Since the end of 2018 World Cup qualifying, Finland have played 23 games both competitive and friendly. In that time they have kept a seriously impressive 15 clean sheets, conceding 16.

Europe’s top attacks will need to be on form if they are to get through Finland’s defence next summer.

5. Tim Sparv will lead by example

Of this current batch of Finland players, not many have been as big a part of the nation’s recent history than captain Tim Sparv.

The 32-year-old, who spent time in England with Southampton at a young age, Sparv was part of the Finland U21 team that qualified for the 2009 European Championship though they would bow out without a win.

Before taking part in the final tournament, Sparv made his senior Finland debut and has since gone on to record 72 caps for the Eagle-owls. Named captain in 2015, Sparv has led his country out on 25 occasions so far, leading from the middle of the pitch with professionalism and class.

Against Liechtenstein he was taking off with 20 minutes to go as Finland led 2-0, and received a well-deserved ovation from the home fans who were just getting their party started.

Sparv should now be rewarded for his dedication to Finland by having the opportunity to lead his side out at a major tournament – something no other player has managed for the men’s senior team.

And, speaking before the game, Sparv admitted just qualifying would be the biggest moment of his life.

“It would definitely be the biggest thing to happen in my life in all categories,” he said.

“It has been a big part of my life for the past 17 years. I’ve captained every youth national team up to the full national team and it’s been a crazy experience but I love the responsibility.

“It was always a dream of mine of representing my country and I feel very proud and blessed to have this opportunity.”