“What we saw was exactly what we expected.” That was Finland coach Marianne Miettinen’s reaction to her side’s 2-1 defeat to Korea DPR in their opening match at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Canada 2014.
While it was no shock to see the 2006 champions, spearheaded by the core of the U-17 side that finished runners-up at Azerbaijan 2012, beat the inexperienced Scandinavians, the real surprise of the game was the piece of magic Sini Laaksonen produced in scoring the Finns’ only goal.
Picking up possession a few yards outside the opposition box, the 18-year-old midfield skipped past three defenders and fired a long-range shot into the top corner.
As the goalscorer explained afterwards to FIFA.com, it was no speculative strike: “I’m really very happy but not that surprised because I work hard every day on shooting from distance. I knew I was capable of it and today that work paid off.”
Acknowledging that she is one of the better strikers of the ball in the Finland team, the smiling Laaksonen added: “For me it was a case of now or never. I felt my time had come, and I said to myself that if I had a chance, then I was going to give it a go. I was very happy to see it happen, but there was more to it than just luck.”
The midfielder was surprised to learn that her wonder strike was the first goal ever scored by a Finnish player in the U-20 women’s world finals. The Nordic side’s only previous one, which came at Russia 2006, was an own goal by a Chinese player.
“Oh really?” she said on hearing she had made the tournament history books. “That’s great. I had absolutely no idea. That makes me feel very proud, though to be honest I’d have preferred not to have scored or not to have made history and for the goal to have counted for something and helped get us a win or at least a point.”
Praise for Pirlo
After coming away empty-handed from their first game, the Finns must take something from their matches against Canada and then Ghana if they are to reach the next round.
“The team is very strong mentally and we’re ready to meet every challenge we face,” said the TPS Turku player, invoking the spirit and determination that helped the Finns advance from a group containing Germany, Norway and Sweden and reach the semi-finals at last year’s UEFA European Women’s Under-19 Championships.
“We have to regroup after this defeat because we’ve still got a chance of qualifying,” continued Laaksonen. “We also need to score more goals. Apart from that, I think everything else was pretty good against Korea DPR.”
The Finnish strikers now know what they have to do, and they have Laaksonen to help them. Though a capable finisher herself, she is more at home fulfilling a creative role just in front of the defence, the very position in which her role model plays: “I love Andrea Pirlo. He’s the god of the midfield. He can do anything and he does it well.”
A precise and elegant passer and an effective ball-winner, like her Italian idol Laaksonen has a range of skills that allow her to get moves going and to serve her strikers.
Her sights are now set on emulating Pirlo by having a memorable career and winning a world title. While that might seem a big ask for the unfancied Finns, as Laaksonen has already proved at Canada 2014, she has a surprising ability to catch the eye.