What’s wrong with Finnish football?
As Iceland qualify for Euro 2016, Finland is asking, “Why not us?”
By the time the last cork had popped in Reykjavik, the inquest was well under way in Helsinki. Intrepid, tiny Iceland, with a population of just 329,000, blazed a trail for a string of minnow nations to follow by beating the odds and qualifying for Euro 2016. While this was rightly cause for celebration on a small island on the edge of the Arctic, it was also a source of embarrassment not far away in the coffee shops and saunas of one of its neighbours.
Finland, with a population of more than five million and a history of producing world class players like Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypiä, will be looking on with envy as Lars Lagerbäck’s men take on the best teams in Europe next summer. Because while Iceland has finally erupted on to the European stage like one of its many volcanoes, sleepy Finland, a land of deep forests, icy lakes and Father Christmas, remains in a deep freeze when it comes to football.
It is now the only Nordic country never to have qualified for a World Cup or European Championship.
The Finns are attempting to change that by taking a leaf out of Iceland’s book and employing a Swede as coach. But while Lagerbäck has worked wonders in his adopted country, what are the chances that Hans Backe, Sven Göran Eriksson’s former assistant at Manchester City, can do likewise with his?
He doesn’t have a lot to work with. The generation of Litmanen and Hyypiä is long gone and none of the current Finland team are household names. But even in their heyday the Finns never quite made it over the line. They last came close under Roy Hodgson in 2007, missing out in their final qualifier, a 0-0 draw with Portugal in Porto when a win would have taken them through.
So why the failure?
By another quirk of history, Finland is one of the only remaining European countries whose citizens are still required by law to do military service. This often takes young players away from their clubs at a crucial stage of their early development, sometimes for up to a year. Could it be holding back the nation’s footballers?
In Finland, which shares a 1,000km border with a newly belligerent Russia, all men above the age of 18 are required by law to serve up to 347 days in the army. Refuse and you risk a prison sentence. This is not ideal if you are a promising young footballer. After all, you are unlikely to break into your first team or earn a move to a big European club if you’re busy taking a year out learning how to fire a rifle in a forest.
And while the Finnish Defence Forces run a special programme for young athletes to combine their military service with sports training, this too can lead to problems. In the past, sportsmen have complained of exhaustion brought on by trying to combine army training with the demands of club football. Coaches have said they fear the system risks burning out players. In one case it even led to tragedy.
But the Finns are a proud people. They fought long and hard for their independence and military service is still regarded as an important act of patriotism which teaches you important life skills like leadership, teamwork and discipline. Could it really be holding them back on the football pitch?
Aki Riihilahti is 39. He is CEO of the biggest and most successful club in Finland, HJK, and has just been elected to the board of the European Clubs Association. In a 17-year career as a holding midfielder he played in five different countries, winning 69 caps for his country and scoring 11 goals, including one against England at Anfield.
Riihilahti, whose grandfather Yrjo fought in the snow against the invading Russian army in the Winter War of 1939-40, did his military service early on in his career, while he was injured. “I had a bad knee injury so I was going to miss the whole football season anyway,” he says. “I think you have to remember why we do it. Our grandparents fought for our independence and now to be a sovereign nation is still considered important.
“It gives you an understanding and respect for your own country and encourages teamwork and physical education. On the other hand, at an age when you should be concentrating on breaking through into the professional game, the amount of time spent in the service limits your time for training and recovery. Doing the service definitely helped me grow as a person, but if I had been fully fit I guess it would have been pretty difficult for me to get in the first team while I was doing it.”
It didn’t stop Hyypiä, although if anything he encountered the problem of training too much rather than too little. Now 41 and the manager of FC Zurich, Hyypiä was one of the most talented defenders of his generation. He played over 300 times for Liverpool and won 105 caps for Finland, succeeding Litmanen as captain.
He went into the army on his 19th birthday in 1992. At the time he was planning to look for a job in physical education and only decided on a career as a professional footballer while he was doing his term. Within the first month, he was allowed time out to train with the Dutch giants Ajax, who had just bought a rising star named Litmanen. Hyypiä also played his first full international while he was in the army.
But while his Finnish club MyPa thought they had arranged clearance for him and his teammate Toni Huttunen to be allowed leave from the garrison to train, things weren’t quite that simple. In Sami Hyypiä: From Voikkaa to the Premiership, Hyypiä explains what happened on their first day, saying, “We went into the sergeant-major’s office and asked if we could leave for training. Instead of the, ‘Yes, everything is clear,’ we expected, a raging sea of yelling was the only reply we got, as the sergeant-major let us know that you don’t go anywhere on your first day in the army. Toni and I were in quite a panic.” Eventually both players were allowed to train alongside their army duties, but Hyypiä admits the mental and physical strain of 11 months of constant travelling between garrison and club was tough.
Riihilahti, who is best known for his time in the Premier League with Crystal Palace, has seen just how tough first-hand. “Unfortunately ,” he said, “we had one time in my regiment when an equestrian athlete was so tired he fell asleep while driving his car from camp to a horse-riding club where he was training. He survived. But there was a promising basketball player who died in similar circumstances.”
In a bid to prevent such tragedies occurring again, the rules were changed to reduce the strain on athletes combining army life with training. “As far as I know it works pretty well now,” Riihilahti went on. “From what I have heard athletes feel it is not preventing them doing their sport too much these days.”
Army training can involve 6am runs around your barracks with a 66lb pack on your back, and live-firing and combat exercises “in terrain”. But it’s also about learning. “It’s not really all about guns and bullets like you’d see in military movies. It’s more about education in a class room,” Riihilahti said.
Sportsmen have also traditionally been afforded special treatment in Finland and allowed to serve a shorter term than the rest of the population. But a recent equality ruling by the Chancellor of Justice means this could change.
Martti Kuusela is 70. He is the most successful Finnish coach ever to have worked abroad, in a total of six different countries, winning championships in both his home nation and Hungary. As national team manager he missed out on qualification for the Mexico World Cup in 1986 by just two points.
At the time he also spent two days a week coaching an army team which contained many of the same players representing their country in qualifying, and was always aware of the physical and mental demands placed on them by combining army life with football. Looking back, Kuusela said, “When I was head coach in the 1980s I was also coaching the sport forces. When a player was in military service, we agreed to the load with the player and the army coaches.
“Too many young players have been spoiled by training too hard. But I always got information about what the player had done in the military. The military service time is strict time, but it is a good system for a player who wants to develop. I think in my coaching time the system was helping players – especially in other areas of life. They were able to improve individual properties, develop leadership skills and receive a good grounding for life in the future. Every nation needs its own armed forces and athletes and footballers want to meet their obligations.”
Sportsmen are allowed to postpone their service. The tennis player Jarkko Nieminen took eight years to get around to it. In rare cases, some end up not doing it at all.
Shefki Kuqi, a barrel-chested bear of a man with huge hands and a laugh to shake a sauna, first came to Finland as an asylum-seeker from Kosovo before going on to play for the nation which took him in. A big, strapping striker, Kuqi went on to play for a host of English clubs, including Blackburn Rovers, Palace and Newcastle United, earning the nickname “Flying Finn” for his love of headed goals.
Although on paper he was perfect army material, he wasn’t expecting his call-up papers until a change in the law meant naturalised citizens like him too were expected to take part. But after months of wrangling, he was allowed to swerve his tour of duty. “I got away with it because I’ve been living abroad,” he said shortly after completing a switch to Blackburn in 2005.
Some expat Finns have taken other routes. Former Chelsea and Birmingham City striker Mikael Forssell did his military service in two stints well after he turned professional. Both times he did so during the close-season to limit the disruption to his career. Only Litmanen has scored more goals for Finland.
But national service cost Teemu Tainio a potential move to Manchester United in 1997. The former Tottenham and Sunderland midfielder went for a trial at Old Trafford as a 16 year old and was invited back by Sir Alex Ferguson. “I played a few games, scored a few goals, and they wanted me to come back but I said: ‘I have to do my army service’,” Tainio revealed years later. He ended up moving to Auxerre instead and went on to become a mainstay of the Finland team.
Tainio said, “I spoke with Sir Alex and he said that he would love me to come back after my army service. But things change. I went to France and the rest is history. It was not a hardship for me because I actually enjoyed my time in the army.
“We also had an army football championship and I was voted Player of the Tournament! They knew I was an up-and-coming player and even allowed me to go out training before I returned to camp. The army also helped me become more disciplined and mature. It helped me grow up, and that helped me when I moved abroad.”
Riihilahti agrees. “It has its good parts,” he said. “It gives you a lesson in life. I grew from being a spoiled boy to a man. For many it’s a question of honour and national identity to do it.”
Sport and the military have long gone hand in hand in Finland. But football, though popular, has always been regarded as a secondary pastime. More than 150 promising athletes graduate every year from the Finnish Defence Forces Sports School, where half their service hours are dedicated to sports and related training.
But while its stated aims include producing two-to-four athletes capable of competing at the Olympics, the sports it focuses most on include rifle and pistol shooting, parachuting, track and field, orienteering and combat sports.
It could have been different. When the FDF first evolved out of the old White Guards who won the Finnish Civil War in 1918 after the country gained independence from Russia, football was one of the chief sports being pushed by the army to promote national pride and self-esteem.
But it lost out to pesäpallo, a Finnish version of baseball invented by Lauri “Tahko” Pihkala, an Olympic high jumper and discus thrower who was responsible for propaganda in one section of the White Guards. Pesäpallo went on to become Finland’s national sport. Football never caught on in quite the same way and is still less popular than ice hockey and Formula One, despite more people playing it.
Finland has produced plenty of world champions in those sports, as well as others like rally driving, long-distance running, javelin and skiing. But it remains unable to break through in football. At the time of writing Finland are 64th in the world rankings, well below their peak position of 33, and there is little sign of that changing.
In a Euro 2016 group containing the Faroe Islands, Hungary, Greece, Romania and Northern Ireland, Finland managed to win just three matches out of ten and ended up fourth. Their last chance of qualifying disappeared in their penultimate game when the defensive midfielder Ovidiu Hoban scored an added-time equaliser for Romania against them, ending a goal drought that had stretched for so long it was a national record. It’s difficult to think of a worse way to fail.
Reading the Mission Statement of the Finnish Defence Forces you see phrases like “troops must be able to endure combat with its various physical and mental challenges”. Maybe Finns are just better fighters than they are footballers.
Kuusela is convinced military service helps the national team rather than hinders it. “In my opinion it’s a good thing for the national team,” he said. “We have been disappointed many times trying to qualify for major tournaments. We find many good explanations. But we’re not good enough – yet.”
Riihilahti is less certain about the army issue. But he sees more important factors at play. “We are too short-sighted in our approach,” he said. “Firstly, the structure does not help as too many resources are lost in a conservative system which does not have a clear direction and lacks an understanding of the modern requirements of the game.
“We should first invest in facilities and youth development at clubs. Coaching and long-term plans for player development are a long road but it has to be started at all levels. At the moment it’s too much about short-term survival and hoping that hiring the right national team coach changes everything
“I wouldn’t like to say categorically that military service is a good or bad thing for the national team. But the best argument for doing it is that the best Finnish players like Litmanen and Hyypiä have all done it and it didn’t stop them from becoming world class stars.”
Where the next one will come from is the big question Finland’s new coach must answer. Until he can, there is another phrase in that military handbook he should be mindful of. It reads, “Troops must be able to handle physical and psychological strain. Their leaders must prepare them for possible heavy losses”