Finland's national team might be facing up to a challenging future, but national coach Mixu Paatelainen is full of hope and enthusiasm about the task of building a team capable of mixing it with the best. His most pressing task is overseeing generational change, the key to which will be replacing Finnish icons such as Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypia. But Paatelainen isn't fazed. As he explained to FIFA.com: "Instead of being afraid, we must understand that this is an opportunity."
The 45-year-old knows from experience what is required at this level. Between 1989 and 2003, he was a regular in the Finnish ranks as a bustling striker, earning 70 caps and grabbing 18 international goals. He has since gone on to make a name for himself as an adventurous and forward-thinking coach, earning the Manager of the Season award in Scotland last year following an impressive stint with top flight outfit Kilmarnock. That spell came to a close last March when Paatelainen realised a long-held dream by becoming taking the reins of the national team.
Now a year in the job, Paatelainen took some time to speak exclusively to FIFA.com about his belief in patience and hard work, his attacking philosophy, his hopes for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifiers, and his view on the future for Finnish football.
FIFA.com: Mixu, with former stars such as Litmanen and Hyypia having retired from international football, are Finland a team in transition?
Mixu Paatelainen: Yes, we are. I would say we are actually beyond that already. We have managed to introduce some young players and this has been a conscious effort as we lost a few fantastic footballers like (Sami) Hyypia, (Jari) Litmanen and others. Right now, we are in the middle of a transitional period and we have players without much experience. But we are looking to the future with a lot of optimism and enthusiasm. I am very confident that we will have a very competitive team in a few years if we give them the chance to gain experience now.
Who are the new players you are introducing to the game?
We have some very young and promising players such as full-back Alexander Ring from Borussia Monchengladbach, forward Teemu Pukki from Schalke, goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky from Esbjerg and left-back Jukka Raitala from Osasuna. They all play for fantastic clubs, but they are not regulars yet. However, once they have reached that stage they will be capable of competing at the top level.
Can they handle the pressure of following in the footsteps of the likes of Litmanen and Hyypia?
Obviously it is very important not to put too much pressure on our young players. That's my job - I need to give them confidence. And confidence comes with experience. I believe that confidence comes from the fact that you know what you are doing. Training is very important. I do not want to waste a single training day without tactical input. The bottom line is hard work, and on top of that there is tactics and finesse. I experienced a similar situation with Kilmarnock. I kept saying: 'Instead of being afraid, we must understand that this is an opportunity!'
At Kilmarnock, you became Manager of the Season by playing a very offensive, open and successful style of football. Is that your plan with Finland as well?
Definitely! As long as each player knows his role, it gives them the option to make good decisions on the pitch. And I believe that we have good enough players to do that. Nothing stops Finnish players from doing great things and making great decisions out at the pitch. We want to have a clear idea of how we attack and have a clear structure in our defending.
How do you evaluate Finland's chances of qualifying for a first FIFA World Cup at Brazil 2014?
I would say that our chances are quite slim. We have been drawn a very difficult group. Some might even say it is impossible for us to go through. But as we all know, nothing is impossible in football. We will definitely approach the task with open mind and, one day, we will hopefully have the quality to make it to the finals.
What do you think about your Group I opponents: Spain, France, Belarus and Georgia?
It is absolutely wonderful to see how Spain play football. France have improved again, and they still belong to the top nations in the world. Belarus took four points from France in the UEFA EURO 2012 qualifiers. And Georgia have got a great coach (Timuri Ketsbaia) with a energetic, demanding character. We have very difficult matches ahead of us, but they also present a fantastic chance for us to see where we stand.
Is Spain's style a model you would like to follow?
Of course, their football is very nice on the eyes. But I don't like to copy anyone. You always have to make the best out of the 'tools' you have. But one thing is for sure: I believe in positivity. And all the great teams in the world these days play positive football. Not only Spain, but also Germany and the Netherlands.
Final question: Would you say it has become easier or harder for teams like Finland to qualify for a major tournament since your own playing days?
From Finland's perspective I would say it has become harder. But Finnish football has definitely developed. We are much better than we used to be ten years ago. But we are not the only ones. I keep saying again and again though: in two or three years, we can be a very competitive side!