After a successful tournament on the Mediterranean Island of Cyprus which included 2-1 victories over Latvia and the hosts, Finland opened a tour of the Middle East in early March with a 1-0 win over Kuwait to rise from 38th to 36th place in the February FIFA/Coca-Cola World Rankings - level with Ecuador on 628 points, their best-ever position.
"Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were very challenging and a good test for our team. I chose to pick players who I believe could achieve regular status for the national team in the next few years," coach Antti Muurinen explained. The crop of young hopefuls was complemented by established stars including Jari Litmanen of Hansa Rostock, Liverpool's Sami Hyypia and Mikael Forssell of Chelsea, the latter pair poised to cross swords with their clubs in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals. Since September 2004, the Finns have inched their way upwards from 53rd in the rankings, winning eight of their last 12 games. Their worst-ever position of 79th in December 1996 is now but a fading memory.
Evergreen Jari Litmanen claimed Champions League honours with Ajax in 1995 and is currently battling to stave off relegation from the Bundesliga with Rostock. The talismanic midfielder continues to occupy a exalted role in the national side, as Muurinen explains: "Everything revolved around him in the Nineties, but these days he no longer has to shoulder the responsibility alone. He's surrounded by a number of decent players these days. His instinct is unbelievable and he has a vast repertoire of passing skills. He was and remains a vital figure for us."
The nine-time Finnish Player of the Year, idol of a string of personal fan clubs across Europe, showed he still has plenty to offer in a desperately unlucky 4-3 FIFA World Cup qualifying defeat in the Czech Republic recently, sparking a stirring second-half revival when he crashed a stunning volley past Czech keeper Peter Cech to rock the EURO 2004 semi-finalists.
Agonisingly close to glory
That seminal match offered ample evidence of Finland's current depth of talent. They were 3-1 in arrears but struck twice to level and were poised for a shock victory when Kosovo-born Shefki Kuqi looked odds-on to bury a bullet header three minutes from time, only for Cech to pull out an astounding reflex save. Play switched to the other end where Vratislav Lokvenc drilled home a flattering winner as the home side escaped by the skin of their teeth.
The match neatly highlighted the Finns' current strengths and weaknesses: their build-up and attacking play rates as excellent, but the defence is prone to carelessness. "We're without a few players again today, but I'm still sending out a good team," Muurinen observed beforehand.
Finnish hopes of a berth at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ were hardly improved by the defeat, but the dream is far from over as four of their remaining six qualifiers are at home with only trips to Andorra and Macedonia left to negotiate. However, if Finland are to make a first appearance at a major tournament, they will need results at home against group favourites the Netherlands and the Czechs.
Though hardly rated as a giant of the world's game, the gritty Baltic Sea nation has nonetheless battled its way to prominence. In a tale of steady improvement, one particular game in recent Finnish football history has assumed pivotal importance. It came on 2 June 2001 when they came within a whisker of defeating three-time World Cup winners Germany in Helsinki. A Forssell brace handed the home side a 2-0 half-time lead, only for the Germans to peg them back to 2-2 by the end. Nevertheless, the abiding memory is of a team capable of mixing it with the big boys.
"We caused them plenty of problems," Muurinen recalls. Carried on a wave of belief, they saw off the Belgians 4-1 at the same stadium six weeks later before thrashing Greece 5-1 in Otto Rehhagel's first game as coach. The Finns even came away from the trip to Germany with a creditable goalless draw, a result which forced the Germans into a play-off with Ukraine for a place at the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals.
Game's popularity soars at home
A couple of setbacks in the meantime notwithstanding, a long-term upward trend had been established. "The crowd used to turn up so they could watch stars from Brazil, England or the Netherlands, but nowadays they come to cheer on their own heroes," Muurinen notes.
The game's increasing popularity has been underpinned by a dramatic improvement in training facilities, featuring generous provision of sports halls and artificial turf pitches allowing year-round play in a country blighted by a short summer. The robust, physical style of yesteryear is now complemented by improved technical ability as young players benefit from a thorough early development programme. Alongside the biggest names such as Litmanen, Hyypia and Forssell, more and more players including Antti Niemi, Petri Pasanen, Aki Riihilahti and Pekka Lagerblom now earn their wages abroad.
The home association has recorded a 25 percent increase in the number of registered players over the last few years, while the average crowd at internationals has more than doubled. The Veikkausliiga, the domestic top flight, has also come on in leaps and bounds, although the breakthrough at the highest European level remains a long-term goal.
Football has successfully firmed up its place alongside traditional winter sports and now proudly boasts a position as the nation's number one sporting pastime. The game is set to continue its rapid development in the years to come, prompted by the emergence of talented youngsters such as Aleksei Eremenko Jr., currently starring for US Lecce in Italy's Serie A, and rated Finnish football's brightest future prospect. Many believe Eremenko is poised to inherit the rich legacy one day to be handed on by Litmanen.