After every team secured qualification to UEFA EURO 2016 this past week, FIFA.com’s Twitter account sent out a congratulatory tweet to the respective nations. It was a historic week for countries such as Albania and Iceland, who progressed to a major tournament for the first time. There was one country, however, that did not get any congratulatory tweets or much recognition, and that was Finland.
The Finns did not qualify for what would have been their first ever appearance at the EURO, but their players had smiles on their faces and a megaphone out to thank their loyal supporters, who watched them close out a successful ending to their qualification campaign on a frigid evening in Helsinki. Finland’s 64th spot and 28-point rise on the October edition of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking is not their highest-ever position, but it does represent significant progress.
Finland narrowly missed out on qualifying for France 2016, finishing fourth in a group containing Northern Ireland (group winners), Romania, Hungary, Faroe Islands and Greece. But it was their results against Greece and the Faroe Islands that particularly caught the eye.
It was a night to remember in Piraeus for the Eagle-Owls on 4 September and one that Joel Pohjanpalo will not soon forget. The second-half substitute scored the game’s only goal just eight minutes after entering the pitch, netting in decisive fashion to secure an important three points for his county.
Finland supporters will surely be excited about the potential of Pohjanpalo. The Fortuna Dusseldorf forward is already scoring important goals for his country and he finished the qualifying phase as their leading marksman. When he headed home the lone goal at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium against Faroe Islands after Alexander Ring had his shot ricochet off the crossbar, Pohjanpalo demonstrated his predatory instinct. The 21-year-old already has three goals in ten appearances for his country, so the Finnish frontline holds a bright future for incoming coach Hans Backe.
Backe will also be looking to captain Tim Sparv for leadership on and off the pitch. The 28-year-old Midtjylland midfielder provides the necessary balance the team needs both in attack and in defence. In their most recent UEFA EURO 2016 qualifier at home to already-qualified Northern Ireland, Finland defender Paulus Arajuuri scored in the 87th minute to equalise, but more than getting his country a crucial point, it showed a resilience of a team playing with belief.
“All the guys showed great morale and we managed to press until the end,” Arajuuri told Palloliitto.fi, Finland’s official national team site, after their final UEFA EURO 2016 qualifier against Northern Ireland. “I’m really proud of the way the team played in these last four games. These last four games give us a lot of faith in the future. We’ve worked humbly and I’m proud of this team.”
After a rocky start to their qualifying campaign, interim coach Markku Kanerva steadied the ship and went unbeaten, accruing eight points from four matches while in charge. Finland’s form will give them plenty of confidence as they head into 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying.
Tough Preliminary Draw for Eagle-Owls
There is no doubt that Finland’s path to Russia will be an arduous one. They have been placed in Group I along with Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine and Turkey. Finland will have to finish first or second in the group in order to have a chance at qualifying for Russia 2018.
The journey begins a year from now, concluding in October 2017. Finland finished in third place in their World Cup qualifying group for a second consecutive time prior to Brazil 2014. In the build-up to South Africa 2010, Germany and Russia took the top two spots, while Spain and France did likewise ahead of last year’s tournament.
There will also be some unknowns for Finland as they have never faced Ukraine or Croatia in an official fixture before, so in many ways they will be able to approach the campaign with a nothing-to-lose mindset.
— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) October 11, 2015
If they are to build on their recent success and continue on a positive trajectory, it is possible that after the Russia 2018 qualification cycle or the next UEFA EURO qualification cycle, Finland’s national team (@Huuhkajat) will be receiving a congratulatory tweet like the one above, after they qualify for their first ever World Cup or EURO, which will only see their place in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking rise.