Finland were defeated 3-0 by Russia at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium on Wednesday; a defeat that drained Group Four effectively out of any great interest: Germany and Russia will (like they always, in the end, were going to anyway) battle it out for the first position. The defeat was in itself noteworthy in many respects, but the night had a much greater significance – concrete as much as symbolic – than becomes evident from the three goals conceded, three points lots, or the fact that again a dream of qualification was shattered before a packed stadium, reduced to nothing in the moment of its initiation. The occasion marked an end of an era and the opening up of a new chapter in Finnish football.
At times one can sense the weight of an occasion when the proverbial cogs of destiny (in this case closer to inevitability) turn to shape the future; change after which things just won’t be the same ever again. Wednesday’s match was one of these. However, if you’re not really for all this kind of existential rubbish, of course these things can most often be explained with reason and might actually not have been caused by some deep metaphysical power. Simply to discharge your personal mental diary of Finnish national team related frustration or take a glimpse to the squad stats would have sufficed to grasp this knowledge.
The current squad have upgraded the quality of Finnish football not only in the international arena but have simultaneously raised the expectations of the football followers in this northern periphery. They have made Finnish football (however, in international terms only, the Finns still very much like to downplay the national league, The Veikkausliiga) something to be proud of rather than a thing to regard with a sense of ridicule (that effectively only shows the extent of the self-esteem deficit gnawing at the Finnish people). The nation has relied on the Finland’s backbone made by magnificent players such as Jari Litmanen, Sami Hyypiä, Jonatan Johansson and Hannu Tihinen for years (who all featured in the opening line-up on Wednesday as well). The first two are legends at Ajax and Liverpool respectively and world-class players in every sense of the word. The others are respected professionals who have paved the way for so many Finnish footballers to various leagues around Europe. It feels that the players have been around forever, carrying the white shirt with love and pride and for this the nation owes them an enormous amount of gratitude.
Nevertheless, forever is also a long time and, arguably, the end of their swansong’s finale was far overdue. But now, finally, they will deservedly go into good night. Before Wednesday’s match Litmanen, Hyypiä, Tihinen and Johansson had a staggering total of 388 national appearances between them, a total which was 52 games more than the combined appearances of the whole Russian opening line-up. And mind you, the Russians are not exactly spring chickens either. This statistic fact speaks volumes in two respects. On the one hand, the players have been key to the national team for years. They are players without whom Finland would not have emerged as a credible, respected opponent to any national squad in the world. But on the other hand, they have been there for too long and now is the time to deconstruct the old order and rebuild a new team, irregardless of whether the current players are better than the fresh ones replacing them. Experience should not be underestimated but it only takes you so far which became painfully evident as the faster, more skilled and more lethal Russians disintegrated the age-worn Finnish team. Finnish football must start its future here and now; not in the next campaign but in the next match. The future is for players like Roman Eremenko and Niklas Moisander to make.
It will be a fond farewell to the crop of players who have constituted the bedrock of the greatest national team in the history Finnish football. But as the curtain falls on these exceptional footballers, the future is dawning on a new generation of players. The Finnish under 21-year-olds start their European Championship tournament against England on Monday. No matter how they will fare in Sweden, the fact alone that they are there is the biggest achievement in Finnish football. The future looks bright.