Finland will be making their first appearance at a senior men’s international tournament at Euro 2020 this summer after proving to be one of the surprise packages during qualifying.
The team affectionately nicknamed the Eagle-Owls have spent a long time in the shadows of their Scandinavian neighbours when it comes to football, with Denmark, Sweden and to a lesser extent Norway all enjoying their moments in the sun on the international stage.
However, this summer could, at last, be Finland’s time to shine, as at the 32nd attempt they have managed to qualify for a major tournament and although expectations will be low from the outside, Markku Kanerva will have his side believing they can cause the kind of upsets we saw from Wales and Iceland at Euro 2016.
Finn’s Have Been Improving Under the Radar
Not many people would have tipped Finland to qualify for Euro 2020 after they won just two of their 10 qualifying games for the 2018 World Cup and finished second-bottom of their group.
However, there were signs that Kanerva, who has been in charge since 2016 having previously spent five years as an assistant, was starting to put a competitive team together, as Finland finished top of their subsequent UEFA Nations League group ahead of both Hungary and Greece.
That guaranteed the Finns a play-off place for the Euros, but they ended up not needing it, as they finished runners up to Italy in their qualifying group, again coming above Greece, to secure their place at their first major finals.
Since securing qualification for the finals back in November 2019, Finland have maintained their form, with home and away Nations League victories over Bulgaria and the Republic of Ireland proving they are not a flash in the pan, even if they are ranked as
300/1 outsiders to win the Euros.
Tough Battle to Reach Knockout Stages
Finland have been handed a tough draw at the finals, having been pitted in Group B against world number one ranked side Belgium and tournament regulars Denmark and Russia.
All three of those sides reached the knockout stages of the last World Cup, so it is no surprise to see Finland are
18/1 outsiders to top the group.
To make things even tougher for the tournament newcomers, their opening two group games will be away matches, as they will face Denmark in Copenhagen on June 12 before travelling to St Petersburg to take on Russia four days later.
The match with Russia is likely to spell Finland’s best chance of registering a victory, as the 2018 World Cup hosts are on a poor run of form, having failed to win any of their last six.
Winning in Russia might well prove enough to take Finland through. It will certainly be a tough ask for Kanerva and his side if they still need something from their final game against Belgium – their best chance likely to be if Roberto Martinez’s side are already through themselves by that point.
Old Guard Serving Finland Well
Continuity has been key to Finland’s success, with Kanerva having been part of the senior set-up for a decade now after previously spending six years working with the Under-21s.
Indeed, the 56-year-old played a major role in bringing through some of the key members of Finland’s current squad, which is packed full of international experience even if none of that has come at major international tournaments.
The core of the team is made up of players in their 30s, with captain Tim Sparv, goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky and defender Joona Toivio having amassed well over 200 caps between them.
Striker Teemu Pukki also falls into that category and the Norwich City star is likely to be a key figure for Finland at the finals, particularly after he played such an integral role during qualifying.
Pukki netted 10 of Finland’s 16 goals en route to the finals, including winning strikes in crucial home matches against Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The 30-year-old is the only member of Kanerva’s current squad to have reached double figures in terms of goals for his country and his total of 27 is just five short of the all-time record held by Jari Litmanen.
That record could be broken by Pukki at the finals and, if it is, then Finland will have every chance of advancing through to the knockout stages.
*All odds correct at time of writing