Finland look to the next generation

With thousands of lakes, hundreds of tiny islands and vast forests which seem to go on forever, Finland is famed for its fascinating scenery. It is one of the least densely populated areas in Europe and has a population of only 5.3 million, but with world-class players such as Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypia, it has shown in recent years that it can hold its own in footballing terms.

However, given the fact that the country’s 39-year-old all-time top scorer Litmanen and defensive lynchpin Hyypia, two years his junior, are very much in the twilight of their international careers, it is clearly time to tackle the weighty challenge of a changing of the guard.

There is uncertainty at the top too, after Finland coach Stuart Baxter announced his departure last November. It was former international goalkeeper Olli Huttunen who oversaw the 8-0 win over San Marino in a recent UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier and, though ex-U-21 boss Markku Kanerva is now at the helm, it is only on a caretaker basis until a permanent successor to Baxter can be found.

It does not take an expert to see that Finland is entering a critical phase in its footballing development. The weight of expectation has been firmly placed on the shoulders of the next generation, even though no real stars are as yet emerging. And despite the fact the Finns have never qualified for the finals of a FIFA World Cup™ or a EURO, they lack nothing when it comes to ambition. However, lofty aims alone are not enough, with Finland already defeated by Moldova, Hungary and the Netherlands in Group E of EURO 2012 qualifying, with their only three points to date coming from said thrashing of San Marino.

Finland were therefore in desperate need of pick-me-up, and one came along at just the right time. When the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking was updated in January, the Finns found themselves four spots higher, despite not having played or registered any points the previous month. With Zambia, FYR Macedonia, Uganda and Estonia all losing points, Finland climbed from 83rd to 79th

This will provide a glimmer of hope for the Finns who last year suffered their biggest drop in the history of the Ranking, those aforementioned qualifying reverses sending them plummeting no fewer than 22 places. Yet they are still a long way off their highest position to date, which was 33rd spot back in March 2007.

The challenge now is to find a crop of youngsters who can follow in the footsteps of Litmanen, currently plying his trade for his local club FC Lahti after starring for Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool in his heyday, and Hyypia, who also played for Liverpool and is currently a rock at the heart of the Bayer Leverkusen defence.

With Hyypia recently named as Finland's footballer of the year for the ninth time, equalling Litmanen's record in the process, it is clear that these two players have sizeable boots to fill. Much hope now rests on the shoulders of Mikael Forssell, the well-travelled 29-year-old striker who is currently riding high in the Bundesliga with surprise packages Hannover 96. Though the evidence of his hat-trick against San Marino is encouraging, is the former Chelsea and Birmingham City front-man ready to grasp the nettle and spearhead Finland’s next generation?