Mixu Paatelainen needs no reminding that Finland have never reached a major tournament. As a player, he dedicated the best part of a decade-and-a-half to rewriting that statistic, earning 70 caps without ever ending his country’s long wait.
Now, as coach, his first challenge is a qualifying campaign that, by Paatelainen’s own admission, already represents a lost cause. Four defeats in six games have left the Finns 12 points behind the Netherlands and nine adrift of second-placed Sweden, and their gaffer planning for the future.
“This campaign obviously hasn’t gone according to plan at all,” said Paatelainen, whose side return to preliminary action on Friday against Moldova. “That’s why there’s been a change in manager and I’m standing where I am. So we’re building for the future now, which means the World Cup in 2014, the 2016 European Championships and beyond.
“We have a very young and inexperienced squad at the moment, but the only way you gain experience in football is by playing matches and we’re going to give these boys the chance to do that. The idea is to develop the team now, so that in future tournaments we have the chance to take that next step and qualify. That would mean everything to us. 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.”
Paatelainen’s commitment to youth is admirable, but he is well aware that his young team are not without their doubters. Many, in fact, believe that the challenge of leading Finland to a major tournament has rarely been tougher, with the current side having been been weakened and demoralised by the retirement of several iconic figures. Nevertheless, while Paatelainen – as a former team-mate of Jari Litmanen, Sami Hyypia and Co – knows only too well how influential these players were, he remains enthusiastic about his side’s prospects.
“It’s a long-term project but I knew that when I took charge, and I’m excited by the challenge,” the Finland coach, who has installed Hyypia as one of his assistants, told FIFA.com. “What’s important is that we don’t dwell too much on the past. We had some great world stars represent Finland, but these guys have all now retired and we have to move on too. 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. It’s a new era for Finland and I’m excited about making sure we become a force to be reckoned with.”
For the Finnish authorities, convincing Paatelainen to take charge represented the first, vital step in their rebuilding process. A burly, physical target man in his playing days, the 44-year-old has made a commitment to slick, attractive football the hallmark of his managerial career, earning him and his teams scores of admirers. Indeed, despite leaving his post with Scottish side Kilmarnock in March to take the national reins, Paatelainen’s work in transforming the team from relegation favourites to stylish European hopefuls was later rewarded with two separate manager of the year awards. And while some have queried whether he will be able to remain faithful to his purist principles in Finland, given the limited personnel at his disposal, he is adamant that this philosophy will be at the core of his new-look side.
“That’s a definite,” he insisted. “Ask any player and they will tell you that they enjoy playing good football, keeping the ball on the ground, passing it, being offensive and positive. I believe it’s the only way to play football and, in the long term, the only way to be successful.”
Style and substance will both be required in abundance if the Finns are to reach the next FIFA World Cup™, all the more so after a Preliminary Draw that left them facing up to France and reigning champions Spain. “It was an interesting draw but a positive one too, although it wasn’t really what I was looking for,” conceded Paatelainen, whose side will also meet Georgia and the ever-improving Belarus. “I would have preferred a group with six teams to play more games and get more experience.”
With such imposing odds stacked against his team, it would be no great surprise to find the Finland coach craving a return to club football, where his burgeoning reputation had already prompted offers from England. However, he dismisses the suggestion, insisting that his current job – which has fulfilled a personal dream – offers a challenge both exciting and fulfilling.
As he explained: “My FA have not only put me in charge of the national team but have also asked me to look after coach education and take care of bringing everyone together from the clubs and our other national teams. It’s all about improving the set-up as a whole, doing something that will benefit us for decades, and that’s something I’m enjoying. I do miss the day-to-day involvement with players on the training ground a little bit, but not too much. I’ve certainly no regrets. There is a lot of work to be done here and I’m proud to be the man doing it.”