Back in July 2011, Finland may have sighed slightly when they were drawn as the bottom seeds of Group I for the Brazil 2014 qualifiers. They were placed in the only five team group which included world champions Spain, European heavyweights France as well as Georgia and Belarus respectively.
Yet the Finns were undeterred by the challenge and eventually finished third in the group ahead of the Eastern European opposition. Along the way they won two and drew three of their eight games, rising from 75th spot in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to their current placing of 66th.
Perhaps the football-loving members of the press and the public should not have been too surprised by Finland’s showing in the preliminary stage. In the qualifiers for South Africa 2010, the Nordic country won half of their games in a tough section in which they finished behind Germany and Russia.
They repeated the feat this time around, despite only scoring five goals in their eight matches. But in every game that the Huuhkajay (The Eagle Owls) scored, they got a result. Kasper Hamalainen’s goal earned them a point against Georgia, despite having Alexei Eremenko sent off.
Then came their crowning glory: a 1-1 draw with Spain in Gijon. Sergio Ramos put La Roja ahead four minutes after the break, but Celtic forward Teemu Pukki’s goal 30 minutes later ensured that Finland earned a share of the spoils.
We’ve always dreamed about making it to a finals and we’ve been close before, so hopefully the day when we finally make it isn’t too far in the future.
A 1-0 home win and a 1-1 draw against Belarus in June 2013 not only provided four points, but gave Finland a 19 point lead in the Ranking table, their best-ever move in the chart’s 20 year history. Their good run on the road continued in September when an Eremenko penalty handed them all three points in Georgia.
The third-place Finnish finish was masterminded by former Dundee United, Bolton Wanderers and Hibernian forward Mixu Paatelainen who assumed the position in April 2011.
In a recent interview with FIFA.com he said: “Finnish football has definitely developed. We are much better than we used to be ten years ago. In two or three years, we have the chance to be a very competitive side.
“We had some great world stars represent Finland, but these guys have all now retired. We need to focus on the young players we have coming through, and we do have some excellent youngsters. The only thing they’re lacking is the experience needed to be successful on the international stage and, as I say, that’s exactly what we plan on giving them.
“We love our football in Finland, we’ve always dreamed about making it to a finals and we’ve been close before, so hopefully the day when we finally make it isn’t too far in the future.”
Now ranked 33rd out of Europe's 53 teams, ahead of the likes of Republic of Ireland, Bulgaria and Poland, Paatelainen is now approaching the qualifying draw for UEFA EURO 2016 which takes place in Nice on Sunday 23 February with confidence.
Twenty four teams will qualify for the finals, giving Finland more than a fighting chance to realise their dream of qualifying for a major footballing tournament.