Club football is having an enforced pause due to the start of the World Cup 2018 Qualifying campaign, and so I am allowed to catch up on my backlog of matches that have accumulated over the summer for different reasons (currently at a little under 30, but I’m getting there). I’ve always followed the national team, even though I’ve mostly been interested in the club game, and like most Finnish football fans, I’ve been thoroughly unimpressed with their achievements over the past couple of years. The convenient excuse is that the days of Litmanen and Hyypiä, of almost qualifying, were an outlier, and that we’ve been suffering from a hangover ever since.
I don’t buy it. There are too many examples of much smaller nations doing well with limited resources. I don’t think the Finnish team is the best in the world, but I certainly don’t think it’s among the worst, and I think that a team with players like ours should be able to beat minnows easily, compete against similarly talented teams, and make life difficult for better opponents. Since the old guard hung up their boots, Finland have struggled against minnows, struggled against their peers and performed pretty well against their superiors – a flukey draw against Spain being the highlight of the decade.
It’s not pretty, and I’m not sure I have enough faith in the federation that I would expect anything different from the future – which is very sad because I think we have a promising generation of players coming through.
So it begs the question: what’s the point of the national team? If it’s not competitive, why bother?
I ask, because I think that the national team can have multiple purposes, and although the most obvious failure is the actual lack of results on the pitch, I think there are more glaring examples of mismanagement hiding behind the surface.
For a small footballing nation like Finland, one of the principal purposes of the national team is to serve as a platform for players. If you’re plucking away in the Veikkausliiga or one of the other Nordic divisions, an international can be one of the best ways to get recognised abroad. Getting a move to a bigger league leads to a better standard of training, more experience in high leverage games and a better chance of reaching your inherent potential. Moving abroad as a young player means that you have more time to realise your potential. But being away from home as a young player is a recipe for disaster – just ask Jami Puustinen – so the national team needs to also serve as a support structure for young Finns on the continent, allowing them a chance to show what they can do if they’re not getting a chance to do so for their club.
Too many a time it feels like Finland are too conservative when it comes to promoting talent. When Joel Pohjanpalo or Teemu Pukki or Tim Väyrynen were tearing up trees in the Veikkausliiga in their late teens and early twenties the national team persisted with experience over youthful exuberance. It, inexplicably, took Pohjanpalo two loan spells from his parent club in Germany, Bayer Leverkusen, to become a regular in the first team squad. Väyrynen’s club decisions have worked out a lot worse, but he was the top scorer in the league aged 21 so he has pedigree. Where has the support from the Palloliitto been when he needed it? Even someone like Petteri Forsell who got himself a really big move a couple of years back never managed to catch a break in the national team when it might have made a difference for him. A Finn abroad will always need something extra to break through, and I believe it is the responsibility of the football federation to provide its footballers with that platform.
The troubling thing is that although this is mismanagement from a couple years ago, it’s easy to see it continue both now and in the future. The current U21 team consists of players breaking through in the Eredivisie – the Jensen brothers who are playing for Twente – and Simon Skrabb, among others of course, who’s played almost 50 games in the Allsvenskan and 62 games in Finland. If you’re starting games in the Eredivisie, you should be starting for the Finnish national team and if you’ve played 100 games of men’s football before your 22nd birthday, maybe U21 isn’t the level for you. In the past 12 months, three of Finlands most promising young players have moved abroad (Kaan Kairinen to FC Midtjylland, Sergei Eremenko to Basel and Serge Atakayi to Glasgow Rangers), and unfortunately, I’m afraid they’ll also get stuck in the youth teams until they aren’t eligible for them anymore. Finland should be aggressively promoting their promising young players, because there’s no reason not to, as long as the senior national teams is underperforming as heavily as they are. Giving young players games is a way to advertise them for the world, but also a way to give them experience against tougher opponents than can be found in the domestic league.
Contrast this with Martin Ödegaard and the Norwegian team. (I’m going to caveat this by saying that I know and understand that Ödegaard is a far bigger prospect than anything that Finland have at their disposal at this point in time, but that the point stands nonetheless.) He made his debut in the underwhelming Norwegian men’s side at the age of 15, having one season of Tippeligaen games under his belt. Now, Kairinen, Eremenko and Atakayi were both a little older than Ödegaard during their freshman years of adult football, and also had nothing approaching the same kind of production as the young Norse, but Pohjanpalo, when he broke through, was legitimately one of the best strikers in the Veikkausliiga at the age of 17. The national team should also work as an incentive structure for the domestic league – if you perform in the Veikkausliiga, you should be rewarded with call-ups – especially as long as the Huuhkajat are going through a transition period without a clear-cut first XI. At this point, right back seems to be the only position where a Veikkausliiga player fits in the squad with Albin Granlund and Janne Saksela having provided backup for first-choices Kari Arkivuo and Jukka Raitala in the past couple of squads. Having more players involved in the national team setup would also allow whatever identity the federation wants to create to trickle down into the league.
Now all of this probably sounds like a whole lot of complaining about an ineffective federation when the players are more obviously at fault, but that’s one of the things I think that the federation does worst – identifying talent and creating a structure where the currently special Finnish players can thrive. And if you think that there aren’t any special players you’re fooling yourself. Roman Eremenko is a top 5 player in the Russian league, Tim Sparv is, for lack of a better word, weirdly good (but, yeah, also conventionally pretty good), Niklas Moisander is/was one of the best ball-carrying centre backs in football, Lukas Hradecky is a key player in a Bundesliga side, even Teemu Pukki is on a ridiculous hot streak at the moment and Sakari Mattila was flagged by Fulham’s controversial stats department (although he only ever played in 6 games for them). So there are some raw materials there, yet it feels like the Finland set-up doesn’t quite know what do with them, and it almost seems like the players break through regardless of the national team more than due to it. It doesn’t help that the federation doesn’t seem to be able to identify a competent head coach if their lives depended on it.
So I suppose my point is that if you’re gloomy because of the poor results of the national team, you shouldn’t be. There are so many other reasons to be gloomy about the Huuhkajat setup, starting from the very top, that results are but a minor inconvenience. So here’s a checklist of things I’d like to see the national team do starting as soon as possible, to at the very least, make watching Finland interesting again:
- Settle; on a way of playing that maximises the return on the players that we have, on a first XI, on a head coach, on an identity, ergo:
- Focus more on the process and less on the result.
- Develop a proactive approach when it comes to talent identification.
- Have a flexible squad apart from the first XI+, allowing to:
- Aggressively promote top prospects, even if they’re not playing much, or if they’re playing at a poor level – if you believe he’s special, put your money where your mouth is.
- Develop/advertise players in need of a break.
- Incentivise the domestic league by rewarding good performances with call-ups.
- Take naturalisation seriously: Carl Jenkinson, Lauri Dalla Valle etc. should have been persuaded to play for Finland, Hetemaj, Yaghoubi etc. shouldn’t have to consider whether they want to or not.