- Finland face Scotland in a crucial UEFA Women's EURO qualifier on 1 December
- Finland coach Anna Signeul led Scotland for over a decade
- She discusses the fixture and Finland's progress
‘Why Scotland of all teams?’
It was this exact thought that went through Anna Signeul’s mind when she found out her Finland side would meet Scotland in UEFA Women’s EURO qualifying. After all, she had coached Scotland for 12-and-a-half years and masterminded qualification to their first major tournament: the EURO in 2017. A fixture, then, carrying special significance.
“I had a fantastic time in Scotland, I had 12-and-a-half great years there,” Signeul told FIFA.com. “We all achieved a lot together. I’ve known a lot of the players that are in the national team now since they were 12 years old.
"Of course, you feel for them, you want success for them individually and as a team. That was my goal when I was there, that Scotland should be successful and that the players should be successful.
“When we were drawn in the same group as Scotland it wasn’t good for me personally. I don't think it affects Scotland or Finland. It was just for me personally, that I would find it difficult to play against them.
"But I’m a professional coach and I need to take emotions out of the situation. Now my heart and my passion are absolutely with Finland. I love my job, I really enjoy working with the players that I have. I think they're a fantastic group and I’ve seen a development and growth in game maturity in the players, which is really positive.”
Finland’s results in qualification so far have also been positive. One draw and four wins, including a 1-0 victory over Scotland in the reverse fixture, have propelled the Finns to the Group E summit. That is a source of pride for Signeul, as the conditions were far from easy.
“Before the pandemic we played four qualifying matches,” said the Sweden native. “I’m really satisfied with the team’s performances, and the way we managed to dominate the games and score a lot of goals. We had to cancel the games in April and June, like everyone else.
"When most of the teams played again in September, our group didn’t. We’ve only had one match in 2020 and that was against Scotland in November. We were great against them, our players were incredible. They worked so hard throughout the game and absolutely deserved their win.”
Signeul also highlighted the sacrifices every individual in her team has made in order to be successful.
“Every little girl dreams about being a professional football player,” she said. “It’s fantastic to live your dream and to do that, but at times it's not easy. Many of these women are living on their own, going to places where they don’t know the language, the social codes or the culture. It’s difficult for them sometimes and it's not so easy to come to a new place and fit in.
"That’s why it means a lot to the players to come back to the national team, to come back to their friends, their own language, their culture, and something that they know. Not having that between March and October was also quite difficult for them. They were very disappointed when we didn't meet up in September. The national team isn’t just important for the federation and the country, it’s a place where the players come to an environment that is motivating and inspiring.”
Just how important this safe haven is for the players and the coach, and the impact it would have if it were no longer available, was clearly shown during lockdown.
“The global COVID-19 pandemic has seen millions of people around the world lose their lives, families have been grieving the loss of their loved ones and many have been unable to see their families,” the 59-year-old said. “This has been such a tough year for everyone. Everyday living became a real challenge for all of us.
"I’ve missed being with the squad and the energy and buzz that gives. Also, of course, being able to continue our development as a team in training and games, and showcasing our progress in these matches.”
Many of Signeul’s players are contracted to foreign clubs, meaning they were unable to see their family and friends and could not leave a country that was not their home. “I’m really proud of how they’ve coped with the challenges the pandemic has thrown at them,” she added, before underlining the huge importance of sport: “I think it’s so important in our society.
"It’s something that can unite the country. It’s something that you're proud of and it’s something that is beneficial, that has a positive impact on people’s well-being and mental health. You only really appreciate that when it’s not there.
"There’s no doubt that sport, and specifically football, is such an integral part of my life and my identity. I’ve always said that I have the best job in the world and that I’m very fortunate. This pandemic has made me realise that even more.”
The challenge now is to carry the motivating and inspiring national team environment out on to the pitch and consolidate first place in the standings with another victory over Scotland. Given the team’s fierce ambition, it is sure to be a hard-fought game.
“It’s this ambition that can take the Finnish team to the top and that’s what makes them so good, that they are never satisfied,” Signeul said with a smile. “Maybe that's not a good thing that they're never satisfied but they always want more, they always want to be better and they always strive to be better every day. It's a great way to make progress.”
The status of Women’s Football in Sweden is increasing all the time and female sport has a high status now in Sweden, it’s great to see. I am proud of Sweden and the Swedish people for that. I do think that these competitions are so important to help drive the development forward. These competitions drive development forward and I just don't mean the senior competitions but also youth competitions too.