Centenarian Finnish FA nurtures eternal dream: qualification for a major tournament
Improved training facilities are largest leap forward in Finnish football since the 1980s
By Timo Järviö
Today [Saturday 19.5.] the Finnish Football Association celebrates its 100th anniversary, and at the same time the current year is the century jubilee year for competitive football in the country. The first signs of some form of organised interest in the sport actually emerged in Finland in the 1870s.
Over the decades there have been all manner of seminars and symposia organised on the question of how football is to be developed here in the north. Projects and strategies have been drafted, although it is quite another matter how many of them ever came to fruition.
When the Finnish FA, Palloliitto to the Finns, was celebrating its 80th birthday in 1987, a discussion forum was convened in a Helsinki hotel to examine the state of the game and how it might be developed. The gathering was attended by FA officials, club executives, coaches, and players. That event has some interesting parallels with the present day.
The FA, then under the stewardship of Pentti Seppälä, had three main areas it wanted to emphasise: topflight football, all aspects of coaching, and developing club football in the country.
Believe it or not, the Association's three main themes, now that it is under the management of Pekka Hämäläinen, bear a striking similarity those that first trio - albeit with different names attached: international success, coaching, and "the healthy football club".
At a glance, one might be forgiven for concluding that nothing much of anything has happened in Finnish football in the past 20 years, if the bullet-points remain exactly the same. But quite a lot has happened.
Pekka Hämäläinen digs up some statistics from the Finnish national team to prove the point. He lists the team's results in European Championships qualifiers from 1966 to 1986. The figures do not make very edifying reading: played 36, won 3, drawn 8, lost 25 - goal difference 30-80.
When one takes the next twenty-year period, from 1987 to the present, the numbers are a whole lot easier to swallow: played 42, won 15, drawn 8, lost 19 - goal difference 55-57.
So, quite palpable development. Then again before we get too carried away, it is necessary to remember that in the past couple of decades the European footballing family has welcomed in a few instant-lottery winning tickets in the shape of places like San Marino, who have done their bit to improve the Finnish statistics whenever they have been drawn in the same qualifying groups.
In any event, better numbers or no, the BIG ticket - qualification for the World Cup Finals or the finals of the European Championships - still remains an eternal dream for the men's national squad.
Gender-wise, the men have a lot of catching up to do: Finland's women made it to the European Championships in England a couple of years ago, and even went through from their group to the semi-finals stage.
Now the blue-and-white dream lives once again. In the space of a few days at the beginning of June Finland will meet Serbia and then Belgium in Helsinki, in two matches that could have a defining impact on the outcome of Group A and on Finland's chances of qualifying for the Euro 2008 finals next year in Austria and Switzerland.
The speeches at that meeting twenty years ago mentioned such things as improving training facilities (in other words building halls and all-weather pitches), and getting players to hone their skills in foreign leagues. These were keys to developing the game in the somewhat hostile climate of Finland.
"At that time Finland only had two full-sized football halls. There was the one in Tali in Helsinki, and the big hall in Lahti. Now we have 23 of them up and down the country, and there are 30 full-sized all-weather astroturf pitches with undersurface heating, together with another 50 or 60 all-weather pitches without heating, and assorted other year-round surfaces", says Hämäläinen.
In this way the previous obstacle of how to train through the winter has been largely overcome, nearly everywhere.
In the 1980s, you could just about count the number of Finnish players plying their trade in professional leagues abroad on the fingers of one hand, but now there are seventy or so.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Much the same sort of discussion has gone to and fro over the main lines of development of Finnish football. Should we first get the mass of players from whom to sift out the quality individuals, or will investing heavily in the top echelons and in securing international success bring the masses into the game in its wake?
The Finnish FA's line thus far has been that international success is the factor that reflects across all levels of the game. And the truth is that the masses have grown in the last 20 years: the number of licensed players has doubled from slightly more than 55,000 to the current figure claimed by Palloliitto of 112,572. The most sensational development has been among the girls: from 2,600 to 20,698 registered players.
"Now there is no friction or aggravation between the ideas of pursuing the top level and the extent of grass-roots participation in the sport. People have understood that the two go hand in hand", explains Hämäläinen.
At present the national sides take up 40 per cent of the Association's annual EUR 12 million budget.
International fixtures at the various youth levels, Under-21s, and the A Team add up to more than a hundred each year.
"Yes, but only the A-Team's matches bring in any revenue", notes Hämäläinen.
The FA's own "Futuro" programme has trained club managers and executives.
"The way the clubs are run has become more professional, when they have started to employ people, both as office staff and on the coaching side". Says Hämäläinen. Previously much of both these functions was carried out by volunteers.
Hämäläinen is also pleased at the fact that clubs have taken specific profiles. Some, for instance, have adopted a clear role of bringing players up and onwards, which has led to opportunities for "farm club" activities.
The other side of the coin, against all the positive development, is the size of attendances at league matches. This is something that troubles not just Hämäläinen, but a good many club executives besides.
Even if aggregate attendances have gone up in recent years, the increase has been nothing like that of the number of people actually playing football on a regular basis.
When the average gate in the top Finnish league in 1987 was just over 2,100, last year in the Veikkaus League it was a few shy of 3,000, despite the doubling of licensed players in the country.
Finns seem to have adopted an intriguing and original ideology with regard to the game: it's fun to play, but not to watch.
Hence Hämäläinen has tried to din into his audiences in this jubilee year that they should go out and support local sides as well as playing the game themselves.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 19.5.2007
Translator's Note: Finland play Serbia on Saturday June 2nd in the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, kick-off 17.15 local time. On Wednesday June 6th at 18:15, they play Belgium in the same arena. With six of their fourteen matches behind them in Group A, Finland are in fourth spot in the group table on 11 points, level with with Portugal and Serbia on points but behind both on goal difference and goals scored. Belgium are 5th on seven points. The current group leaders are Poland, who have played a game more, and have 16 points from seven matches. After heading the table into the winter recess, Finland's hopes of qualification were dented somewhat in March by a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Azerbaijan in Baku.
The Finns really need to take six points from the two home fixtures in June to sustain their momentum, and must also hope on Saturday 2nd that Azerbaijan (at home to Poland) and Belgium (home to Portugal) do them a few favours along the way. The Finns have already played Poland away, grabbing a very welcome 3-1 victory. Since that disastrous start for their fans, the Poles have followed up with a home draw against Serbia and then five straight wins, including a deserved 2-1 victory over fancied Portugal, and they are arguably the team in form in this group. On the plus side, the Finns have so far played only two of their seven home fixtures, and four matches away. However, three of those away games have been against Armenia, Kakakhstan, and Azerbaijan. The much more difficult trips - albeit much shorter in air-miles - to Serbia, Portugal, and even Belgium are still ahead. The campaign ends with a visit to Lisbon in November, by which time coach Roy Hodgson will naturally be hoping that qualification does not hinge on upsetting the Portuguese - semi-finalists in the last World Cup and beaten finalists at EURO 2004 - on their own turf.
More on this subject:
Finland to play Spain in 100th Anniversary fixture in October
Finnish national football team (Wikipedia)
TIMO JÄRVIÖ / Helsingin Sanomat