The end of an era is often a time for anxious reflection, but although a superb generation spearheaded by world-class performers such as Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypia has now taken its leave from the international scene, the Finnish national set-up is far from downhearted.
The next chapter in the nation’s footballing history will be based on a new approach, a clutch of raw diamonds, and high-paced attacking football. "As I keep saying: instead of being afraid, we must understand that this is an opportunity,” Mixu Paatelainen exclusively told FIFA.com. The national coach has a plan, and is determined to see it through.
The Nordic nation of 5.4 million has never sent its national team to a FIFA World Cup™ finals, and with the retirement of so many of the country’s best players, certain gloomy voices are predicting a hard time ahead. However, the latest edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking provides compelling evidence that Paatelainen’s young charges could make a mockery of their critics in the near future.
The Finns climbed six places in February and now lie 79th, thanks to a 3-2 victory in a friendly away to Trinidad and Tobago. Finland are slowly but surely recovering from their all-time low in the ranking, after falling to 88th in November 2011. The current leadership is bent on ensuring it remains a blip in the nation’s footballing fortunes.
Plan calls for courageous attacking play
Paatelainen is robustly optimistic about his chances of success: "Finnish football has definitely developed. We are much better than we used to be ten years ago. But we are not the only ones. I keep saying again and again: in two or three years, we have a chance to be a very competitive side." For the 45-year-old, who earned 70 caps as a striker in national colours, the key elements are a well thought-out plan, tactical discipline and an appropriate degree of patience. "My job is to give the young players confidence, and confidence comes with experience. I believe that confidence comes from the fact you know what you are doing."
Hopes for a rosy future are based on the emergence of a crop of highly promising youngsters, including Lukas Hradecky (22, Esbjerg), left-back Jukka Raitala (23, Osasuna), midfield schemer Alexander Ring (20, Borussia Monchengladbach) and striker Teemu Pukki (21, Schalke). "They all play for fantastic clubs, but they are not regulars yet,” Paatelainen said. “However, once they’ve reached that stage, they will be capable of challenging at the top level. As long as each player has his role, it gives him the option to make good decisions on the pitch. And I believe we have good enough players to do so. Nothing stops Finnish players doing great things and taking great decisions out on the pitch."
According to the coach, the key to success for the new generation of top Finnish players will be a brand of attacking football based on fast passing interchanges, with the emphasis on seizing the initiative and not simply reacting to an opponents’ gambits. Paatelainen, highly regarded in coaching circles for the breezy attacking style he instilled at Scottish top flight outfit Kilmarnock, values one attribute above all others: "One thing is for sure: I believe in positivity. And all the great teams in the world these days play positive football. Not only Spain, but also Germany and the Netherlands."
Finland’s next major hurdle is qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, although the Scandinavians have landed in an exceptionally challenging preliminary group along with France, Georgia and Belarus – not to mention reigning world champions Spain, whose play Paatelainen regards as the template for the modern game.
"It is absolutely wonderful how Spain play football,” said the coach. He is well aware that the Spaniards’ remorseless passing and sublime technical skills are beyond the reach of his Finnish squad: "But I don’t like copying anyone. You always have to make the best out of the resources available to you." He is also refreshingly realistic about his team’s prospects. "I would say that our chances are quite slim. This is a very difficult group. Some might even say it is impossible to go through. But as we all know, nothing is impossible in football. We will definitely approach it with open minds. One day, we’ll hopefully have the quality to make it to the finals."
The most successful spell in the nation’s footballing history culminated in 33rd place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking back in March 2007, but those days are gone now, and the time is right for a realistic medium to long-term vision. "We have very difficult matches ahead of us, but they are also a wonderful chance for us to see where we stand,” Paatelainen concluded. The crucible of qualifying could yet prove the foundation for a new and potentially glorious era.