Women's youth football has developed at an astonishing rate in Finland in recent years. As the host nation, the Finns were given the chance to take part in their first-ever UEFA European Women's U-19 Championship in 2004 and have not looked back since.
Despite failing to win any of their three games on home soil, coach Jarmo Matikainen's side's performances hinted at a very promising future ahead. Having taken charge of the team prior to the 2004 tournament, Matikainen guided the U-19s to the semi-finals of the same competition the following year. Their reward was a place at the forthcoming FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006.
"We've never competed at a world championship at this level before," Matikainen told FIFA.com. "Our men's U-20 side played in Argentina in 2001 and we hosted the U-17 World Championship in 2003. Now, for us to have qualified for this event in Russia is an excellent achievement for the women's game in Finland. As far as I'm concerned, it is yet another sign of the progress this sport is making in our country at every level, both on the coaching and the playing side."
What is the secret of their success? "You need to put in a great deal of high-quality work," Matikainen revealed. "We've made significant improvements to the way the sport is structured, we've got a good system of teams in place, and we are always looking to improve the planning and the quality of everything involving the national team.
"Besides which, our club football is very well-organised, and we are fortunate to be able to call upon a host of top-class coaches. The national team has an ideal blend of promising youngsters and talented players with experience of playing abroad. While success can depend on a whole range of factors, I believe that the quality of the work put in and the high level of commitment of everybody involved in the project are absolutely crucial."
Ready to face the world
In a daunting start to their campaign on Russian soil, Matikainen's enthusiastic young charges face China PR in their opening game on 17 August in Moscow. At Thailand 2004 , the Chinese went all the way to the Final, only to lose out to a very strong German side.
Although clearly proud of his team's achievements thus far, the Finnish tactician remains fully aware of the difficulty of the task facing his side in Group B. "It's a very tough group," he said. "Canada are a genuine force in women's football and reached the Final of this tournament in 2002 .
I also saw them play in Veracruz (in the Final of the CONCACAF Championship against the USA) and I was incredibly impressed. What can I say about the Chinese team? They reached the Final last time around and obviously they'll be dangerous opponents. As far as Nigeria are concerned, I'm well aware of just how physically strong the African sides are. I've seen a number of the Nigerian women play and they have a lot of quality. It's going to be very hard work against them.
"We're going to treat this group like an adventure which will give our players the chance to improve and take another step forward in their development. Of course, we'll be going all out to beat every one of our opponents."
In Finland's favour is the aforementioned blend of precocious young talents and a number of players with previous international experience. "We have several players who took part in the European U-19 Championship we hosted in 2004. They then went on to help the team qualify for the finals the following year, where we reached the semis. These girls have accumulated a wealth of international experience over the last two years. They've been able to take their play up to the next level and have emerged unscathed from some very difficult qualifying groups. The team spirit within the group is nothing short of phenomenal."
Lethal forward Linda Sallstrom is perhaps the best-known figure in the Finnish ranks, but the coach prefers to focus on the team as a whole. He said: "We have loads of talented individuals but what really matters to me is that we have a group of 21 players, all of whom are utterly indispensable. They are all incredibly important. At this kind of tournament you need keepers with a safe pair of hands, a solid backline, excellent midfielders and players with an eye for goal. I hope that my team has all of those!" The fact we came through the European qualifying phase, which is extremely difficult, gives us a great deal of confidence."
"The players are desperate for the tournament to get underway. They realise that it's not going to be easy but they already know what it's like to play in tough games. They're really looking forward to arriving in Russia. They really must enjoy this opportunity to the full because these things only come around once in a lifetime." Should Matikainen's gifted young charges heed their coach's wise words, Finland could well spring a surprise at Russia 2006…