When Finland face Iceland on Thursday, they will be going up against not only opponents, but role models. That, certainly, is how Hans Backe wants his players to see it.
The Finns’ vastly experienced Swedish coach has, like the rest of the football world, marvelled at the Icelanders' recent rapid rise. He also knows that, while their ascent culminated in spectacular style at UEFA EURO 2016, it is not so long since they had the same low profile and dismal qualifying record as his own team. As such, he wants Finland's players to see their regional rivals' recent achievements and feel not envy, but a renewed optimism that they too can scale such heights.
“Iceland were an inspiration not only for Finland but throughout Scandinavia - even for the bigger nations like Denmark, Sweden and Norway," he told FIFA.com. "They showed that it is possible to do something special if you do things the right way, and do them as a team. We can only learn from and be inspired by that.”
A group with no favourites
In attempting to emulate Heimir Hallgrimsson's high-flying side, Finland will first need to frustrate them. And that, Backe knows, will be easier said than done, particularly in Reykjavik, where Iceland's last defeat in a competitive international came over three years ago.
"They have a good generation of players at the moment, a set way of playing, and they also have a lot of confidence after what they did at the EURO," he said. "They will be extremely tough to beat, especially at home, where they’ve been so strong. Without doubt they're one of the favourites for this group.”
Finland, for their part, are already under pressure. Backe had forecast "a very tough and unpredictable game” in their Russia 2018 qualifying opener against Kosovo, and that proved to be painfully accurate. But while the debutants emerged from Turku with a point, that early blow need not, according to the Swede, prove fatal in one of the most evenly matched European sections.
“There is no Germany or Spain in this group, so it’s not a case of knowing how it will end before the games even start," he said, reflecting on a section that also includes Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine. "Instead, we have a group with no clear favourites, and one where all the teams can pick up points against each other. The key for us is to make sure we’re as prepared as possible for every single match and also to keep our main players free of injuries and suspensions. If we can do that, I feel we can cause a surprise.”
One last challenge
Finland could certainly not wish for a more experienced coach, with Backe having trod the training grounds of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, England, Greece, Mexico and USA over the past 34 years. However, his only previous foray into international football came as assistant to Sven-Goran Eriksson, when he spent a short-lived spell with Mexico between 2008 and '09. And while victories proved to be in short supply, and the Swedish duo were sacked after just nine months, he does not look back on that ill-fated adventure with any bitterness or regret.
“It’s hard to compare that experience to others in my career because being an assistant is so much less challenging than being a head coach," he said. "In many ways I enjoyed it, and I look back on those times with Eriksson at Mexico and Man City as phenomenal experiences. But before working with him, I had always been a head coach, so it felt natural to go back to that role.
"I must say, though, that I felt my career was over after I left New York Red Bulls [in 2012]. I really expected that to be my last job. But when Finland approached me about leading them through these qualifiers, I felt I couldn’t turn it down. I just thought: ‘I have to go back’.
“I’m pretty sure that this will be my last job though. You should never say never, I know, and I wouldn't completely rule out doing something else. But the way I see it now, once I finish here I’ll almost definitely retire.”
Finland, then, seems all but certain to provide the finale to a career that has spanned over three decades. And while Backe has enjoyed plenty of success during that period, one entry missing from his list of achievements is a FIFA World Cup™ appearance. So, can he address that omission and upset the odds in the process?
"Taking Finland to the World Cup? That would be magic," he said. "It would be the best ever – certainly the biggest achievement of my career. It won't be easy, but it's something to aim for!”