It’s a question that few coaches answer, and fewer still answer honestly.
Who would you like in the draw?
For most, diplomatic platitudes are the public front for a private desire: the weakest opponents possible, please. Marianne Miettinen, though, represents the exception to that particular rule.
Having led her team past Germany, Norway, Spain and Sweden during qualifying for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, the Finland coach would have been forgiven for craving less formidable opposition when the final draw takes place on 1 March. Instead, she wants the bar raised yet higher.
“USA are the team I’d like in our group,” she told FIFA.com, expressing a surprise preference for the U-20 showpiece’s most successful team, with three previous titles. “Best of all would be to play them in our first game. It would be a great opportunity to play against maybe the best team in the world at this level, and experience the toughest possible challenge right at the start. I would love that, and I know my players would love it too.”
The reason for this wish is not because Finland, the surprise package of the Canada 2014 qualifiers, have discounted the possibility of advancing to the latter stages. Far from it. Indeed, experience has instead taught Miettinen and her players that the old adage is true: the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Finland has always been known for our teamwork – we’re seen as fighters – but there is more to us than that these days.
Finland, after all, were expected to be satisfied merely with qualifying for the European finals – a feat they had managed only once before – when they were drawn against the Germans, Swedes and Norwegians. But it was a refusal to settle for this accomplishment, and a belief that they could go toe-to-toe with the continent’s heavyweights, that resulted in their unlikely triumph.
“Our mentality has undergone a real change,” said Miettinen, whose side qualified for the European semi-finals at the expense of regional rivals Sweden and Norway. “We had beaten Spain even before we even played at the European Championship, so we knew that we had a team with real potential. The players saw that too. Previously, I think Finnish players, if not exactly afraid of these bigger teams, would show them too much respect. It ended up being only about protecting our own goal.
“But now the players see these big games as exciting; as a challenge they can rise to. They have real courage in the way they play. They know they have real strengths as a team and, as our results showed, we can give anyone a game. I remember being at the [European Championship] draw in Wales and everyone saying to me, ‘Oh, that is such a tough group. If you get one point or don’t lose heavily, that would be success.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about? This is a great challenge, and we know we can beat anyone.’ It will be the same at the World Cup. We know the level will be even higher again, but we’re not afraid of that. We see it as a great opportunity to show how good we are.”
Such confidence is rooted in firm foundations. After all, the success of the U-20 side capped a hugely encouraging, landmark year for Finnish women’s football, during which the senior team competed with distinction at the UEFA Women’s EURO. According to Miettinen, this progress represents the fruit of several years’ labour, and of a process that began when ‘A’ team coach Andree Jeglertz arrived and began implementing an individual player development plan.
As she said: “Finland has always been known for our teamwork – we’re seen as fighters – but there is more to us than that these days. At the U-19 EURO, we ended up with four players in the all-star team, so that tells you something about the level of the individuals we have. A few of my players are already playing for the women’s A team, and the U-20 World Cup will be another excellent experience for them. It’s a big tournament, and the fact it is in Canada is great, because we hope many of them will be back in the same country for the Women’s World Cup next year.”
France, Finland’s rivals in the Canada 2015 preliminaries, will hope to have something to say about that. But given the Finns’ rapid rise, not to mention their propensity for causing upsets, who would bet against them completing a remarkable Canadian double?