So it went like the defeatist surrender monkeys had the better knowledge of knowing before Finland embarked on the nation’s first ever major under-21 tournament. However, for the rest of us, despite the poor results, Finland under-21s left a positive picture of the direction Finnish football is going. Of course, I’m under no illusion that Finland were ever going to win the thing, and I realise that we got zero points from three games in which we bagged only a single goal (a penalty). But in terms of the quality of our football, we have come a long way. As the senior squad is looking more and more like a tired, beaten down boxer with limbs creaking with old age so badly that you could swear they have learnt to speak their own language, the 21s provided a bagful of hope to Finnish football; perhaps even a premonition of things to come.
By qualifying for the tournament they lifted the expectations for subsequent campaigns. From now on an honourable victory is no longer good enough. And even if that is exactly what Finland achieved in Sweden, the defeats are beside the point. What is important is that they made the leap, both concrete and metaphorical (of which the latter is perhaps even more important), and showcased a kind of belief unseen in Finnish football: they had the winning mentality; they were not afraid of losing. In the end of the day, anyone can lose no matter how good they are (Italy showed as much against Germany in the semi-final) and as we all know we Finns have been particularly good at that. But what matters most is the way you approach the possibility of losing. This Finnish team realised early on that on the flipside of the coin looms victory. So when it came to the toss, they had the courage to call it. And this in itself is a sign that things are changing.
Even if Finland didn’t manage to get a single point, they did manage to take the initiative against the finalists, England and Germany. In both matches the Finns kept possession (only the Spaniards had a better possession percentage in the group; which is an interesting fact when contrasted with the results, but that’s a whole other discussion for some other time) and played with patience looking like an atypical Finnish team: they were confident, bold and unafraid of taking the game to the opposition. In all fairness, however, it must be said that Finland didn’t have that much of a chance against Germany or Spain but against England, points were up for grabs. And had they achieved that, who knows what might have happened. But when push came to shove, the Finns weren’t able to capitalise lacking the cutting edge around the box. As a result, England gave them a harsh dose of reality-treatment of modern top-level football. They had one and a half chances and they scored two goals. The first came from a harmless looking counter attack, followed by an awful error by Jonas Portin who failed to clear a harmless ball and instead let Gabriel Agbonlahor muscle past him. The second came from a corner as the Finns defence failed to mark Micah Richards. This set an unfortunate motif on motion as Finland conceded three goals from defensive set-pieces due to marking errors in the tournament (over all, from the six goals conceded only two came from open play and both were counter attacks).
The first shot at the big-time didn’t really go as Finland –for once– dared to dream. But it was a good start to a new era in Finnish football nevertheless.
A man to man assessment of the Finnish players:
(in brackets: appearances/ over-all rating in a scale from 1 to 10)
Anssi Jaakkola (2/ 6)
Jakkola was no.2 in the qualifiers but after Tomi Maanoja’s injury the Siena goalkeeper was thrown in the deep end. Had a difficult tournament as the oppositions capitalised ruthlessly from Finland’s errors. Nonetheless, made only two saves and conceded four in a tournament where Finland were always going to need heroic goalkeeping. Showed that he is a decent over-all goalkeeper and took a brave knock against Germany, falling victim to Marko Marin’s idiotic and potential career-ending tackle. Fortunately the gutsy Finn can resume making a career in the Serie A.
Jukka Lehtovaara (1/8)
The next first choice goalkeeper for the Finnish under-21s. Played the final match against Spain because Finland had no hopes of getting through the group. Spain, on the other hand, were firing on all cylinders as they still had a slim hope of getting to the semis. With fourteen shots on target, Spain forced Lehtovaara to some outrageous saves and he single-handedly saved the tired Finns from blushes. Both goals came from set pieces and, although, Pedro Leon’s direct free kick was perhaps in the realm of saving, Lehtovaara cannot be blamed for the goal. A potential future full international.
Jukka Raitala (3/ 9)
The best player in the team and undoubtedly one of the most promising full-backs in Europe. The opening match against England crystallised Raitala’s tournament as he was put to a test most established defenders have trouble passing. Raitala responded to the challenge of playing against Theo Walcott as if he had been playing against your usual Veikkausliiga attacker. He empathically back pocketed perhaps the biggest star of the tournament: the Arsenal man was substituted during half-time. Quick, skilful, precise tackler and accurate passer, Raitala will be on the shortlist of half the clubs in Europe. Quality left full-backs don’t grow on trees but in Raitala Finland will have one for years to come.
Joni Aho (2/ 7)
One of the most positive surprises in the team. Looked comfortable and controlled when defending but could have offered more going forward. Although Raitala on the left was the eye catcher, Aho proved that he is among the potential future internationals.
Ville Jalasto (1/ 6)
The powerful full-back got his chance to shine in the last match against Spain. Although Spanish forwards are exactly the sort that you’d expect Jalasto to be in trouble with, the former Honka man was solid. Full of grit and industry, Jalasto is of the type you’d want to have on your side if things go off in the player tunnel. Goes forward enthusiastically but too often his delivery lets him down. However, seems to have developed his crosses and over-all passing after transferring to the Aalesund in Norway.
Tuomo Turunen (3/ 7)
A ball-playing centre-back and showed as much in the tournament. At times does, however, play with too much confidence which caused a few dangers. Intelligent and calm in pressure but struggles a little because of his height. Provided a solid partnership with Raitala on the left side of the defensive line. Needs to transfer to a bigger league in order to fulfil his potential.
Jonas Portin (3/ 5)
Was regarded Finland’s weakest link before the tournament and proved as much after just 15 minutes in the opening game. His naive mistake resulted in England scoring just when Finland was in total control. Also, struggled to mark players in set pieces which is a worrying quality in a centre-back. His passing, however, is decent and he positions himself accurately. Made a four-year deal with Ascoli in Serie B before the tournament. Good for him since after his below-par shoving in Sweden, there wouldn’t be too many teams (outside Scandinavia perhaps) knocking on his door.
Tim Sparv (C) (3/ 7)
Scored Finland’s only goal and had a consistent tournament. Was able to stamp his authority against big name opponents but didn’t dominate. Showcased his excellent passing range and calmness with the ball. However, at times should’ve been more direct when in possession. The captain’s importance became evident when he was forced to be taken off in the first half of the Spain match due to injury. Mature and composed, expect Sparv to move to lusher pastures than the Allsvenskan soon.
Mehmet Hetemaj (3/ 7)
Has come a long way since his time at HJK. The holding midfielder was surprisingly good with the ball and he had a tremendous, uncompromising work rate throughout the tournament. Although having a more defensive role than Sparv covered for him at times going forward. Needs to find himself a new club in order to progress his career.
Kasper Hämäläinen (3/ 6)
Had a slightly disappointing tournament by his standards. Was decent throughout but with his talent Hämäläinen should have made a bigger impression (although, of course, he was played out of position on the right for most of the tournament). Only in the second half in the Spain match, after he was shifted to the centre and given more freedom to roam, he started showing what he can do: keeping the ball, turning opponents, getting into dangerous areas and getting shots in.
Perparim Hetemaj (3/ 7)
A livewire wide man with a never-say-die-attitude. ‘Perpa’ never stopped running, always wanted the ball and never surrendered. If the quality of his final product equalled the size of his heart, he would be a Finnish regular by now: he was excellent until the final delivery, lacking the cutting edge at crucial moments. Nevertheless, was a vital part of the team by creating chances, getting shots in (although, most had to be picked up from the car park), challenging opponents, getting interceptions and free-kicks (was probably the most fouled player in the tournament). Like his little brother, needs to find a club where he’ll get regular football.
Jussi Vasara (3/ 5)
The man who made the difference in the final qualifying match against Austria had already had his moment. The level of football in the tournament simply turned out to be too much for the Honka player. Nonetheless, tried to play to his strengths by maintaining his trademark direct approach. Apart from a couple of half goal scoring attempts, never really made a dent in the matches.
Nicholas Otaru (1/ 5)
Otaru’s tournament was restricted to a fifteen minute cameo against Germany. Failed to make any kind of an impact. It must be said to his defence that Finland had been well and beaten by then.
Juha Hakola (2/ 5)
It remains a mystery why Hakola didn’t play more. Exactly the kind of player who should be used as an impact substitute: quick, tricky and a decent crosser of the ball. Came on late in the opening match and provided one dangerous cross. Would have been useful in the first two matches in which Finland were able to keep the ball but never got going against Spain (a match he started) as Finland was forced to run without it.
Pyry Kärkkäinen (1/ 5)
For some curious reason played the last minutes in the last match. Finland was losing 2-0 and Kanerva decided to put on a centre-back/ defensive midfielder.
Berat Sadik (3/ 6)
The big target man was efficient against England, earning a penalty after a strong run inside the box. However, as the tournament progressed his deficiencies started to show. Good enough when playing with his back to goal but inefficient inside the box. Had a few chances, the clearest one against Germany, but failed to make them count. An important player for the team but lacking true quality as a finisher.
Teemu Pukki (3/ 6)
The youngest member of the team showed why he might (read: must!) become Finland’s number one striker sooner rather than later. Almost every time Pukki got the ball, he looked dangerous. With and an excellent first touch, good movement and sharp switch-blade shot he could create chances whenever the slightest opening (there weren’t many though) was offered to him. However, Pukki was also a victim of Kanerva’s substitution policy. When he came on as a substitute, he was used out of position behind Sadik. And when he played upfront (starting against Spain), he didn’t get any support or service from midfield and was substituted at half time.
Jarno Parikka (1/ 5)
Started the tournament in the opening line up but after a far from impressive showing against England was dropped to the bench. Despite the unsuccessful start, Parikka should not have been overlooked as his definite qualities were now left totally unexploited.
Aleksander Kokko (1/ 5)
His ten minute cameo against Germany didn’t leave much to comment on.
Markku Kanerva (5)
When the going got tough, Kanerva never really got going. Although deserves credit for his over-all tactics and organisation, his tournament performance didn’t convince. Seemed undecided which players to use, where and when and too often selected the ‘safe’ choice (resulting in using players out of position, even though other natural choices were available). He also waited too long to make substitutions in the first two matches even though it was evident that Finland were struggling. And that’s another thing; Finland were convincing in the first half, taking the game to the opposition, but somehow lost their mojo after the break. Of course, Kanerva cannot solely be blamed for this fact but it makes one wonder what was said and done in the dressing room during half time. Be that as it may, he should’ve at least made some changes.
Caution seemed to dominate Kanerva’s selection policy. The choices he made were at best justified, but by no means daring, and at worst strange and confusing (I cannot help drawing a parallel here with his choice of clothing: In the first two matches he sported a far from stylish Adidas jacket –the marriage between coaches and track suits is simply beyond me– and only when all hope was lost, he put on his suit and tie). He shifted Hämäläinen (who was a commanding player in the ‘hole’ behind the front man during the qualifiers) to the right where he is totally reliable but which is not his position. Instead it seemed that Parikka was Kanerva’s first choice in the position behind the striker. After his weak performance against England though, Kanerva dropped him altogether. In contrast, he constantly relied on Vasara (even started him against Germany on the left which is –and you can ask any Honka supporter– clearly not his strongest position), although it was evident that his skill and physique just aren’t enough at this level. If he wanted to reward Vasara for his Austria match heroics (which is of course highly unlikely, although he clearly wanted to do that with Kärkkäinen), why didn’t Kanerva use Hakola more (who at best was unstoppable in the qualifiers) or Otaru who is exactly the kind of player who can be (on a good day) an excellent impact substitute. If, however, Kanerva simply had illusions of Vasara being good enough, he was simply praying for a miracle: lightning already struck twice in the Austria match.
The Finnish playing system was successfully designed to maximise the squad’s overall strengths, but in the end Kanerva failed to maximise the strengths of his individual players.
Definite future internationals: Jukka Raitala, Perparim Hetemaj, Tim Sparv, Teemu Pukki.
Potential future internationals: Jukka Lehtovaara, Tuomo Turunen, Joni Aho, Mehmet Hetemaj, Juha Hakola, Kasper Hämäläinen, Jarno Parikka, Berat Sadik.