Monday 13 January 2020, 13:57

Kanerva: Finland's qualification a dream for generations

  • Finland qualified for UEFA EURO 2020 – their first major tournament

  • Markku Kanerva the coach responsible for their historic success

  • Kanerva spoke to about their achievements and future challenges

For Finland, it was 33rd time lucky.

On 15 November 2019, at long last - and after 32 failed qualifying campaigns spread across nine decades - the Huuhkajat (Eagle Owls) finally reached a major tournament.

It had been a very long time coming, and not everyone believed the day would arrive. “I’ve had so many people over the years, including lots here in Finland, telling me we would never qualify,” said Markku Kanerva, the team’s coach.

But despite the doubts and despair of the demoralising decades that came before, and the envious glances towards their Nordic neighbours, the Finns have finally made it. And the euphoria at reaching UEFA EURO 2020 proved worth the wait.

Kanerva is the architect of this breakthrough success, having led his team to a second-placed finish in their preliminary section – ahead of both Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The 55-year-old is a low-profile and, outside of Finland, little-known history-maker.

A former school teacher and international defender, he has been part of the national coaching staff for over a decade-and-a-half, during which time he has acted as No2 and coached the U-21s. In the latter role, he even gave a glimpse of his talents – and of the future – by guiding the Finns to the European finals.

But it is only since his ascension to the role of senior head coach in December 2016 that Kanerva has become a household name and, latterly, a hero in his homeland. With the dust having now settled on qualification and that first major tournament now glistening on the horizon, he spoke to us about the secrets to his success and the challenges that lie ahead. Mr Kanerva, can you please explain to the outside world what qualification has meant to Finland?

This has been a dream for generations of Finns. The football people here tried to keep believing through the tough times and the hope for us all was always, ‘I hope we can do it in my lifetime’. So to finally do it, well, you can imagine how much it has meant to us. For anyone in this country who has played, supported or coached in the game, it was just an amazing, fantastic moment. We’re all so proud and happy, and it has really brought the Finnish people closer together. We know what sporting success feels like here, of course – we have been world champions in the likes of ice hockey, for example. But in football, there has been a long wait to achieve something like this and, because of that, people went absolutely crazy when it happened.

Did you feel there was a mental barrier to overcome initially, given Finland’s record of never having qualified for a major tournament?

In the past we’d been close to qualifying a couple of times – in Roy Hodgson’s time, for example. That was during the so-called ‘golden generation’ era, with Jari Litmanen, Sami Hyypia and others playing. When we didn’t make it with that team, there was a feeling among some people, ‘Well, we’re never going to qualify’. That feeling actually increased after I took the job, because several key players retired from the national team around that time. But I saw in that an opportunity to bring through some young players and create a new team. And among those players, I never felt there was a mental barrier. They saw themselves as having everything to gain and were very eager to achieve something special.

Football hasn’t always been seen as the number one sport in Finland. Has this given its popularity a major boost?

Well, in terms of participation, football is already our number one sport. It’s true, though, that among the general public, media and spectators, the likes of ice hockey has always been more popular. My big hope is that this helps football become the number one sport in all respects. It won’t happen overnight. But this has given us a big boost and it has really inspired everyone working in football – especially children. We just need to make sure that we use this opportunity to help the game grow in Finland, and that doesn’t just mean the men’s senior team – it goes for women and kids’ football too.

What do you see as the key ingredients in your team’s success?

I think the big thing, beyond having good players, is team spirit. Whenever Finland has been successful in any sport – be that ice hockey, volleyball, basketball or football – spirit has been a key factor. We have also defended extremely well and have a great goalkeeper in Lukas Hradecky. Keeping a clean sheet in six of our ten games tells its own story in that respect. And we’ve been fortunate too that we’ve had some very effective attacking players, with Teemu Pukki obviously scoring ten goals. But that spirit is the thing I’d like to emphasise most of all. If we maintain that and keep the same mentality, I believe we can continue to be successful.

For those who don't know you, what kind of coach are you and how have you approached the job of leading the national team?

First of all, I try to surround myself with good staff members. It’s so important that you have the kind of people who can not only do their job, but be part of a wider team and help build the spirit that is so important to us. As for my style of coaching, I’d describe myself as quite old-school, but also very player-oriented. I work a lot on details and I like to study individual players closely and get feedback from them, hear their ideas and discuss how we can get the most out of them. Opinions in my squad are always welcome because, for me, coaches exist to support their players. A big part of my coaching philosophy is to create a positive atmosphere where every player feels a real sense of belonging to the team. For me, that’s the best way of getting the players to bring everything they have for the team.

You’ve been part of the national coaching set-up for many years and played for the national team previously. How important has all that experience been in preparing you for the job you have now?

Hugely important. I played 59 times for my country and I learned during that time the requirements of a national team player, and what works well in this environment. The coaching I’ve done in the association has been been vital too because I had an existing connection with the players, having coached almost all of them at U-21s or with the national team when I was assistant. Those relationships gave me a really good head-start and meant the players felt comfortable speaking to me – and vice-versa – from day one. I think it’s important in coaching generally to create that kind of strong connection. If you don’t have it and the players don’t fully trust you, it doesn’t matter what you say - the message won’t get through.

Markku Kanerva, Head Coach of Finland, Age Hareide, Head Coach of Denmark, Stanislav Cherchesov, Head Coach of Russia and Roberto Martinez, Head Coach of Belgium pose for a photo with the The Henri Delaunay Trophy after the UEFA Euro 2020 Final Draw ...

What did you make of the EURO draw? How do you feel your team matches up against the styles of Belgium, Denmark and Russia?

Well, you have the number one ranked team in the world and two other sides that made the latter stages of the last World Cup, so it’s a very tough group. But we have surprised many people already and I believe we can surprise these teams too. We just need to play at our top level and hope that all of our key players stay fit between now and the summer. We also have to look to control games, and that doesn’t always mean controlling possession. Russia are the perfect example of that, in fact. They rarely dominated the ball at the World Cup, but they were in control and always very effective on the counter-attack. That can be an example for us.

Finally, how important is it to Finland to sustain what you have achieved and follow up qualifying for a first EURO by reaching a first FIFA World Cup?

That’s the ultimate dream, of course. But it’s very, very tough. The EURO has 24 places, whereas the World Cup had just 13 for European teams, so you’re cutting the numbers almost in half. But if we enjoy a good EURO and come out of that well prepared for the World Cup qualifiers, who knows? As I say, this team keeps on surprising people.

Finland striker Teemu Pukki celebrates qualifying for UEFA EURO 2020.