Rarely does a qualification match against Lichtenstein warrant attention from Finnish football fans, but on November 18th, 2019, Finland had the chance to qualify for its first ever major international tournament, and the country was watching. Their ninth qualification match out of ten, Finland was poised to finish second in the group behind runaway leaders Italy, and above Greece, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Lichtenstein. Earning a spot in Euro 2020 was a chance to both erase the pain of previous unsuccessful qualification campaigns, and further develop football as a part of Finland’s national identity.
To appreciate the significance of this qualification requires an understanding of the extreme disappointment surrounding Finland’s two most heartbreaking campaigns, the 1998 World Cup and the 2008 Euro. In 1998, securement of second place (and a shot at qualification via play-offs) came down to the last group game, and Finland was set to play Hungary at home. Needing a win, Finland led 1-0 through regulation, only to concede a 91st minute own goal that ended their World Cup dreams and gave Hungary second place in the group. The country mourned their chance at history, comforted only by Hungary’s subsequent obliteration by Yugoslavia in the playoffs. Again in 2008, Finland found themselves on the brink of qualification, needing a win against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal to make the tournament. Although honest Finnish fans will concede that the 0-0 tie was a miraculous result largely due to an outstanding performance from Finnish goalie Jussi Jääskeläinen, the all too familiar feelings of heartbreak came creeping back as fans wondered if they’d live to see their team qualify for a major tournament. Not only were the missed opportunities disappointing, but they also inhibited development of football in Finland, as casual fans struggled to maintain enthusiasm for the team without exciting tournaments to get invested in. Considering this painful history, as Finland’s Euro 2020 campaign progressed with decent success, a collective nervous energy was brewing amongst players, fans, and coaches alike. Italy was well ahead of the rest of the group, but second place was fair game. Following a 2-1 victory by Greece over Bosnia, described by former player Antti Sumiala as “The greatest result we could have wished for … You could compare this to England winning the World Cup for the second time,” Finland just had to beat Lichtenstein to qualify. They were uniquely in control of their destiny, and the pressure of not fumbling this opportunity was building on the team.
The day of the game brought thousands of marching fans to the stadium, and nervousness dissolved into a feeling of positivity and expectation, as Finnish fans let themselves hope that today would be history. To many, the march to the stadium transformed Finland into the football country fans had been dreaming of. Among those packed into the stadium was Paavo Arhinmäki, former chair of the Left Alliance and former Finnish Minister for Culture and Sports. He was supposed to be attending a political conference, and when informed that it conflicted with the Lichtenstein game, frankly remarked, “So, I will miss it,” referring to the conference. Euro 2020 qualification had taken the national stage, and along with 10,000 fans in the stadium was a country watching eagerly. Seemingly unfazed by the stakes, Markku Kanerva’s stable and consistent squad produced a comfortable 3-0 win against Lichtenstein, with star striker Teemu Pukki netting the second and third goals to seal the victory. To some Finnish fans, it was finally “proof that Finland plays good football and we have quality players and coaches.” The team demonstrated a remarkable consistency throughout their qualification campaign, losing expectedly to Italy home and away but beyond that only registering a bad loss against Bosnia in their seventh game, and a loss to Greece in their tenth game, which was a meaningless contest due to their prior qualification. Kanerva supplemented their solid defense and talisman Pukki with team chemistry that carried them through the arduous ten game stretch, and ultimately helped Finland make history.
Looking ahead towards the summer, Finland has cause for optimism heading into the tournament, having been placed in a group with Belgium, Denmark, and Russia. Using Iceland’s memorable 2016 run as inspiration, Finland has no reason to believe that a similar fairytale can’t unfold in Europe this summer, as they aim to take the tournament by storm and provide the sporting world with another feel good story. However, the effect of Euro 2020 will be felt in Finland long past the summer tournament’s conclusion. For everyone invested in Finnish football, this tournament is an opportunity to cultivate football culture, and invest more resources in one of the country’s most popular sports. Competing for attention with winter sports, football struggles to take prominence in Finland, but this historic qualification and a positive display this summer could change the narrative to bring football to the forefront of Finnish athletics. As the tournament begins this summer, Finnish fans everywhere will unite behind their team and their motto, “Suomi: aika meidän tullut on.” Finland, our time has come.