The appointment of Stuart Baxter as Finland coach has certainly caused a few ripples in the footballing world. Following victories over Poland, Belgium and two credible draws with Portugal in their ultimately unsuccessful qualification campaign for UEFA EURO 2008, the Finns have been touted as a team on the up. Baxter too comes with a sizeable amount of experience. A coach for club sides in Japan, Norway and Sweden, followed by a stint with England U-19s and the South Africa national side makes his CV lengthy and impressive.
"It's very difficult to rank this job against the other challenges I've had," Baxter told FIFA.com. "This one is a great opportunity. Roy [Hodgson] had a great campaign last time around, there is a good group of players, people are feeling positive, there's a lot of optimism here. There is a challenge to keep it going and the 2010 World Cup is in sight, so all of those things make it extremely exciting. I believe it can have a positive outcome."
Baxter admitted that the first he learned of Finland's interest was through Hodgson and believes that the example set by his countryman had a lot to do with him securing the position.
"Obviously Finland had a very good experience with Roy and I suppose that has endeared coaches from the UK to their FA a little bit more than if they'd encountered problems with him," he continued. "However, the great job that Roy did here has also raised expectations and everyone here, including myself, is hoping that we can continue to build upon the good work he did."
Despite spending the majority of the past three decades outside his native UK, the 54-year-old feels at home in Scandinavia and, as a result, has a good grasp of Finnish football and its mentality. However, Baxter is looking to make his own mark on football in the country, although he admits that his coaching philosophy will be determined by the players available.
"At club level you can choose what path you go down," he said. "You can choose to nurture players or you can bring players in. You have to evaluate what you have - and work to their strengths. Looking at the Finland squad, there are a few young players coming through. I won't be slow to give them their chance, but we also need the experience and influence of the likes of Sami Hyypia and Jari Litmanen. We have a training camp in Cyprus coming up and while I'm there, I think I'll stand back and get a really good feel for the group."
'A special match'
It was Hodgson, now manager of Premier League side Fulham, who was in charge when the Preliminary Draw for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ was made in Durban, where Finland were drawn against Germany, Russia, Wales, Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein. Now Baxter has inherited those fixtures and admitted that his team could have been given an easier ride.
"The group that we've been drawn in is a difficult one," he mused. "Germany and Russia are top class teams, but Wales are also more than capable of causing an upset, particularly against the top teams. Russia will be a tough prospect as well. Guus Hiddink is a great coach, people have been putting a lot of money into Russian football - and the team have been improving rapidly as a result. We have our work cut out, starting with the opening game against Germany. That will be a special match for me at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, particularly as it's my first."
The ultimate goal for the new coach and his players is a spot at South Africa 2010 and a trip back to the country where the Birmingham-born coach spent 18 months in charge of the national side. Although that spell ended in disappointment for Bafana Bafana and Baxter, he cannot wait to return with Finland an experience what he believes will be a unique FIFA World Cup.
"It would be a magnificent experience to coach at a World Cup in South Africa," he smiled. "It's a magnificent country and I loved my time there - the people were tremendous. It will be a World Cup like no other. We've had great World Cups on the pitch in terms of the football on display, great World Cups off the pitch in terms of super-efficient organisation, but this World Cup will be definitely be great on the terraces. The games will be played with an electric atmosphere of sheer happiness emanating from the people. The world is going to see a very, very positive side of Africa."