Credit: UEFA Euro 2020 / Twitter
I don’t think I am alone when I say that Scandinavia and the Nordic countries are some of the most beautiful in the World. A majesty and awe that is completely unique to this sparsely populated area of the globe. And yet not much is known about Scandanavia by many, outside of the capital city’s the lives and lifestyles of the people and cultures are known about very little, and yet they hold some of the most interesting stories around.
The same goes for Football, with little European success the Beautiful fjords, villages and town football teams from the Artic Circle are barely known about. Occasionally a picture of the amazing pitches of the Faroe Islands or the success of an ex-British manager goes viral, but the truth is, we know very little. In this series I hope to uncover some of those stories, the tales of the teams in the picturesque mountain ranges, the stories of the players playing their trade in frozen tundra’s and the fans who so passionately support their teams whilst isolated away from big cities. Scandinavia truly is a magical place and hopefully I can teach you something new about it through Football.
In this first piece we go to one of my favourite places on Earth. Finland. In the last few years Finland has been going through a Footballing revolution. We all know the likes of Jari Litmanen who is undoubtably the best Finish player to have ever played but even with him in the side Finland failed to ever make it into a major tournament. But during the 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign, where Finland once again missed out, their future was being shaped in a Primary School.
Markku Kanerva, born in Helsinki in 1964 has been obsessed with Football all his life. At 19 he joined HJK Helsinki as a centre half, a club where he would go onto make over 260 appearances. He played football for 16 years beginning and ending in Helsinki and including a short stay in Sweeden. Unfortunately, at the time Football in Finland didn’t pay well and so part-time jobs were common. For Markku he decided to take up teaching, specialising in Maths and PE, during the week Markku would spend his time at a local Primary School. After his playing career finished, Markku did not want his involvement in Football to end. For 3 years he trained for his UEFA badges and in 2001 he quit teaching to become the Assistant coach at his old club HJK Helsinki. There he stayed for only a year until he was offered his first opportunity to take up the main role at, wait for it, FC Vikingit. A small neighbourhood club based in east Helsinki.
Since the start of his coaching career, Markku has been known as a traditionalist. He does not believe in fancy formations and instead approaches Football in the same way as he would approach teaching. He is well known for his team building and emphasis on maintaining a positive atmosphere. He very literally brings what he learnt in the classroom to the Football pitch, he is a firm believer that if all the admin is done to the best of its ability, if fitness is maintained and a nutritional diet is kept, it does not matter what players or resources you have and you will compete with the best.
This showed at his one and only season at Vikingit, Markku led the team to their highest ever place finish, at the time. Finishing 3rd in the Finish second division the Ykkonen missing out on a promotion play-off place by a single point. FC Vikingit now play in the 3rd division where they have spent most of their history.
His relative success and techniques at the team was noticed and earned Markku a role in the National Team setup as the u21’s coach. There he remained for 6 years and once again showed his coaching prowess. In 2009 he had his best year as a coach, he took the u21’s to their first ever European Championships and was named the Finish Coach of the year. Unfortunately, at the tournament itself Finland were rewarded with one of the hardest groups possible alongside England, Germany and Spain, and did not get a single point.
In 2011 Markku’s rise continued when he was promoted to the National first team as Assistant Manager. In the five years of being the assistant, Markku took the reigns as interim manager 7 times winning 3, drawing 3 and losing only 1. Eventually in 2016 the inevitable happened, Markku was made the permanent manager of the National Team and was given a very clear goal. Qualify for the Euros.
Since his arrival Markku has made Finland a force to be reckoned with. Markku with his traditionalist style has taken Finland back to playing 4-4-2 and with Teemu Pukki leading the line The Eagle-Owls (Yes that is their nickname) have finally done it.
Finland have been turned into a bulldog team, Markku picks his teams based on their individual strengths and what suits his playing style, rather than just the bigger names. And on their day, Finland is an incredibly hard team to beat, and this was shown in their Euro 2020 qualifying performances.
2nd in group J behind only Italy and in 10 games, despite only scoring 16 they conceded only 10. They won all their home games without conceding a goal with the exception of Italy who beat them 2-1 in a very tight game in which Italy needed a 79th minute penalty to win. But this new look Finland haven’t stopped there. In 2020 the UEFA Nations League has shown that Markku and his men mean business. Having only just been promoted to the Nations League B division Finland narrowly missed out on a second successive promotion finishing second to Wales in a group which also included Bulgaria and Ireland. Finland beat Ireland and Bulgaria twice in the group and even more impressively on the 11th of November Finland went to the World Champions France and beat them in their own backyard 2-0! And it wasn’t like France played an easy team. Pogba, Giroud, Digne, Ben Yedder, Kante and Griezmann all featured whilst Finland were without talisman Pukki! It may have been a Friendly, but when you consider that this was the only game this year that France have lost and that France haven’t lost at home since March 2018, it is still a very impressive result.
A lot has been said recently about the coaches picked for the coach of the year award with Marcelo Bielsa making the final three despite arguably the achievements of other coaches who weren’t included being better. But if FIFA are looking at the coach themselves rather than the achievements or a combination of the two, then surely Markku Kanerva must be conceded. The man has single handily changed the perception of a Sport for an entire nation.
In a country of Snowsport and Rally Racing, heart break and near misses. Markku Kanerva has settled in a squad, got them playing the way he wants and now has a nation that are truly on the charge. He is a man of firsts, taking the u21’s to their first ever Euros and it is no coincidence that he has done the same in the first team. They have been put in a tough group for their first major tournament, Belgium, Denmark and Russia lie in wait for Finland but there is a feeling that they could very well break out of the group and follow the success of their Nordic brothers Iceland.
Markku’s record as a manager speaks for itself. 92 games managed and 51%-win ratio. He is a simple Man who sees that a revolutionary way of playing football is the simple way. With a team of Sports scientists and phycologists helping his cause, a media team that have rebranded the squad and a manager who is rebranding the entire Sport within the nation, there is the very real possibility that Finland might be surprising some people come June.
Watch this space!