Euro 2020: After years of near-misses and frustration, Finland find themselves on cusp of new dawn

·7-min read

After over eight decades of heartbreaks, frustration, and desperation, Finland finally find themselves at one of football's big stages: the Euro 2020.

It was on 15 November, 2019 when the Nordic side trounced minnows Liechtenstein 3-0 at a jam-packed Sonera Stadium in Helsinki to end their quest to qualify for a major tournament for the first time. The 'Pukki Party' kept rolling, with Finnish striker Teemu Pukki netting a brace against Liechtenstein, which took his overall goals tally to nine in Finland's UEFA Euro 2020 qualification campaign.

While Pukki continues to be one of Finland's prominent strikers, Jari Litmanen was the one who actually started the trend of attacking talents emerging from Finland. Big names like Sami Hyypia, Mikael Forssell, Teemu Tainio among others would kickstart a generation of Finnish strikers, with Pukki joining the party in 2009.

The resurgence of Pukki, however, would only begin in 2018-19 season, when he signed up for Norwich City, then playing in the EFL Championship.

He has had his ups and downs, just like any other athlete: guiding Norwich to promotion to the Premier League that season, only to get relegated back to the Championship the following season.

But, yet again, following yet another successful Championship season with Norwich in 2020-21, Pukki finds himself as a Premier League player before that.

However, well before the next domestic football season, Pukki has another job in his hands: leading the Finland attack at the big continental stage of Euro 2020.

Pukki is considered as a late bloomer, despite making his international debut as a 19-year-old in 2009. His breakthrough arrived in the second-half of his career, despite having played for Schalke 04, Danish club Brondby among others in the previous decade of years.

Barring Pukki, Finland are a relatively very new side with much less household names. Midfielder Glen Kamara, who plays for Scottish club Rangers, is another known figure in the Finnish set-up but is yet to deliver in attack for the national side, barring an assist and a goal.

What makes Finland a unique side is exactly that: they are a side with just one prominent veteran in Pukki, who is their X-factor, and will be expected to stun a few teams along the way.

Come the Euros later this month, Finland will usher in a new dawn for their country's football with fresh faces in the competition who will hope to emulate what their Nordic neighbours Iceland did at Euro 2016, where they reached the quarters.

Finland are known to deploy tight defence over the years, but up front in attack, the well-known and ever-reliable Pukki will be key to goal-scoring opportunities.

Finland from 1970s through to 1980s

The Finland Football Association have been a member of the FIFA since 1908, having been founded a year prior in 1907.

For any team in any sport, success does not come without struggle and setbacks.

For Finland, their maiden appearance in a World Cup qualification stage would be in 1938, but they had to endure more than two decades of winless run at that stage€"with their first World Cup qualification win coming in a 2-0 win over Poland in September 1965.

It was, however, only from the 1970s that a sense of optimism hit Finland, its players and the country's footballing fraternity.

In the late 1970s, Finland then made a mark in the UEFA Euro 1980 qualification stage, beating Greece and Hungary. Those two victories remained the only ones in that campaign, and the Finnish side would go onto narrowly miss out on qualification with just six points, with the first spot eventually going to Greece (seven points).

The Finnish men had begun the campaign in fine form, beating Greece 3-0 in their qualification opener in May 1978 followed by a 2-1 win over Hungary in September later that year. However, that would be followed by a nightmare, a heavy 8-1 defeat over the Greeks in October, this time at the return leg in Athens, where Thomas Mavros would score a hat-trick. This was their second-heaviest defeat in football following a 12-0 loss over Germany in 1940.

For an up-and-coming Finland, this was just the beginning of close misses and inevitable surrenders from qualification to the big stage.

Their next story of coming 'so close, yet so far', was in the 1986 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign, where they would narrowly miss out on an automatic spot by just two points. Needless to say, they were placed in a very tricky group at the time, consisting of England, Northern Ireland, Romania and Turkey.

Also, with the likes of an England side that boasted legends like Gary Lineker and Glen Hoddle, their qualification campaign was never going to be easy.

Former Finnish and Finland Hall of Famer Martti Kuusela was their manager from 1982-87, and he was in fact responsible for getting the team on the brink of World Cup qualification.

While Finland started off their qualifying campaign with a 1-0 win over Northern Ireland, their heaviest defeat of the campaign in fact came up against a formidable England- 5-0, they were just no match against the likes of Kenneth Sansom and Mark Hately.

Their campaign was much better than the 1980 Euro qualifying, winning three, drawing three and losing just two across the eight matches they played. And yet, due to those certain blips during their run, they narrowly missed out on the second spot by just two points-Northern Ireland qualified with 10 points behind leaders England. Finland finished their campaign at fourth place, with eight points.

Even in the qualifiers for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, it was yet another story of merely missing out on history, when Finland, coached by the legendary Danish Euro-winning manager Richard Moller Nielsen only needed a win in their final home game against Hungary to seal a playoff qualification berth for the tournament.

But, once again, it was not meant to be. With Finnish striker Antti Sumiala having given themselves a 1-0 lead in the 63rd minute, hopes were high, only to concede another in the dying minutes via a Moilanen own goal.

>Resurgence of Finland with Roy Hodgson at the helm

One of the world's greatest ever football managers, Roy Hodgson, who recently announced retirement from management following his stint at Crystal Palace, was at the helm of affairs at Finland from 2006-07, which was in fact a silver lining period for the Finnish footballing community.

Just a season after leading Norwegian club Vikings to a fifth place finish in 2005, Hodgson was appointed Finland coach in June 2006 in a contract of more than a year., and his appointment was bound to bring major fortunes in the country's bid for a major tournament appearance.

This is when the next major peak arrived at Finnish football. This was a time when Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypia were almost at the end of their careers, while Teemu Tainio was at his peak. And Pukki was not even a big name yet.

Finland were placed in Group A, with the group having as many as eight teams. Top two teams automatically qualified for the tournament, and needless to say, this was another near-miss for Finland. Their campaign was impressive in defensive terms, so much so that, they had just conceded seven goals in all of 14 games, the least within the group. And what's more, they had lost just two games. This even went on to show how they had matured as a footballing nation over the years.

Once again, Finland's fate was to be decided on the final matchday. A win over hosts Portugal in Porto would have taken Finland to the Euro 2008 finals, but what followed was that they endured a disappointing draw. Once again. Another opportunity for a major tournament, lost.

It was a campaign that contrasted with mixed results. Finland rose to their highest-ever ranking of 33 under Hodgson, and the manager himself was knighted by the country for his heroics which almost led them to a milestone glory.

Thirteen years later, a Finland side coached by an elementary school teacher in Markku Kannerva and captained by 34-year-old Tim Sparv look set to make the country's mark at the big continental stage. The road ahead will be tough, with Finland set to compete against the likes of the De Bruynes and Eriksens within the group, but Finland's aim, much like Iceland's five years back, will be to give it their best and make this opportunity count.

Also See: Euro 2020: In-form striker Teemu Pukki's fitness a concern as Finland build up for Championship

Euro 2020: British teams exempted from quarantine rules in Germany ahead of tournament

Euro 2020: From 11 host cities to debutants Finland and North Macedonia, what's new in this edition

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