For the first time in the nation’s history, Finland’s national football team have qualified for a major tournament. The euphoria is limitless and the hopes of a bright future are huge.
It was the start of a historic night in the Finnish capital. The game had just ticked into the 84th minute when Teemu Pukki left the pitch to a chorus of raucous applause. "The fans are fantastic," the striker said on DW’s mic after the game. "We are so thankful to have supporters like this."
With two goals to his name, Pukki deserved his fair share of the credit for the Huuhkajat's 3-0 win over Liechtenstein. It was a victory for the history books, as it sealed Finland's first-ever qualifcation for one of football's major tournaments. "It was a dream for all the football people in Finland. Now we've achieved it."
Unsurprisingly, the atmosphere at Helsinki's humble Sonera Stadium was euphoric. Loud chants, song renditions and wild, bouncing fans turned the last few minutes of the game into a football party that spilled on the artificial surface come the final whistle. "It's indescribable," said Lukas Hradecky. "I've been hugged by so many people, almost all of them had tears in their eyes. I'm so thankful and hope that we've made the people of Finland proud."
No longer 'kicking the ball pointlessly'
An entire national was gripped. The euphoria generated by the national team is limitless. Irrespective of whether it was at a public viewing in the city, on the fan march to the stadium or the huge celebration after the final whistle — the enthusiasm was pouring through the capital.
"It feels strange," admitted Finnish journalist Matti Harkonen, who has travelled with the national team for several years. It was just a few months ago that football was virtually non-existent in public eye. The style of play was questionable, the losses were adding up and the odds of appearing at a first major tournament for the first time in the nation's history still seemed slim. "In other countries they play football and here in Finland we Potkupallo," explained Harkonen. "It means kicking the ball pointlessly."
Härkönen puts the turning point in Finland's football fate down to head coach Markku Kanerva. "He understands the players and is using simple football to produce successul results and it's working." Kanerva had previously guided the U-21s to the European championships and has been in charge of the senior side for the last three years.
Since then the Huuhkajat have climbed from 94th to 55th in the FIFA world rankings. "He's had a huge hand in our success," said Pukki. "He knows most of the players really well and has fostered a great spirit. The head coach is crucial for us."
Kanerva the key may
The 55-year-old is rightly receiving praise from all corners at present. In an interview with DW, he deflected the individual accolades. "I haven't done this all on my own," explained Kanerva. "I have a fantastic team around me and we want to help the players to become better. The honor does not belong to me, but the whole team."
Nevertheless, the former teacher has a vital role to play. "It doesn't matter if you're a teacher or a head coach, you've got to know how to work with several individuals in a group setting. I learned a lot from my time working as a teacher and use those lessons now as a head coach."
The players, fans and journalists barely have a bad word to say about Kanerva and, with him on the sidelines, Finland's football federation may have found the all-important building block for long-term success. "It's like a revolution," said Härkönen, who has high hopes for a bright future.