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Finns ain't what they used to be

After years in the international wilderness a country more accustomed to the heroic defeat than the lucky, ground-out victory is waking up to the idea that qualification for a major tournament is a distinct possibility.

The same day that Finland beat Armenia last month to cement their position at the top of Group A in qualifying for Euro 2008, the national ice hockey team had changed their coach - something that would normally keep the Finnish media occupied until the ski-jumping season gets underway.

But it was football that grabbed the headlines rather than one of Finland's traditional major sports.

'If this match is the lead sports story in the papers, football has made a huge leap in this country,' said Pasi Koivuniemi, a journalist who has followed the national team home and away for nearly six years.

'Finland, the United States and Canada are the only places in the world where ice hockey is bigger than football.'

Even during a tense final month to the domestic league in October, football had to compete for media coverage with transfer rumours and reports from Finland's many professional ice hockey teams.

So to see the tabloids, broadsheets, radio and television lead with the football story was a significant victory against the ice hockey obsession.

And with the national team making giant strides en route to Euro 2008, football is finally beginning to find a place in the consciousness of the Finns.

It was only in August that Finland lost at home to Northern Ireland in a friendly and nobody expected such a change in fortunes. But under the management of Englishman Roy Hodgson the team has grown in confidence and produced some outstanding results.

The stunning win in Poland which kicked off the campaign was followed by a draw with Portugal, and that got the Finns excited.

Finnish fans will now expect to go to Azerbaijan in March and cement their lead at the top of the table. The next real test of Hodgson's new dawn will come in June with the home matches against Belgium and Serbia.

The increased interest in the national team has certainly been of help to the Veikkausliiga, the top flight of Finnish football, and a nail-biting finish to the season captured the imagination of the media.

As exciting as this year's Veikkausliiga was, the gulf between the overseas stars and the home based players was clear in the Armenia qualifier.

Finland's right flank was filled by Mika Nurmela, a veteran winding down his career after 10 years abroad; and Ari Nyman, making his debut at the age of 22 after playing 125 games for Inter Turku.

When appointed Hodgson said: 'I know that the national team consists mainly of players playing abroad, but it's vital that the league here is able to produce new prospects for the national side. I'll make myself available to take part in education and meetings with the Finnish coaches.'

A feature of Hodgson's reign has been to ensure the players know their roles and not to complicate things unnecessarily where other managers may have tinkered with the formation to keep the team full of familiar faces. Hodgson simply swapped like for like when Werder Bremen's Petri Pasanen was injured.

Hodgson backed up his thinking recently, saying: 'The best eleven doesn't necessarily mean the best individuals. I always go with a back four, but the other six players are positioned in order to win the game at hand.'

The home based players had contrasting seasons in the Veikkausliiga. Nyman's Inter Turku were in mid-table throughout, but the other three Finland-based players were involved in one of the closest title races for years.

Mikko Kavén and Jarkko Wiss were the leaders in a Tampere United team that has played sublime football at times but stuttered against the minnows, while Nurmela's HJK were at the top of the table as usual.

HJK have always been the dominant team in Finland, known simply as Klubi or 'the club'. They have won 21 Finnish championships and are the only Finnish club to have played in the Champions League group stage. A new challenger is desperately needed and with two titles in seven years Tampere United are best placed to add a new dimension to the Veikkausliiga.

Tampere United were formed in 1999 after a merger between two clubs, TPV and Ilves. The financial pressures of professional football in Finland often produces mergers like this.

United's attendances rarely reach the level of the two ice hockey teams in the city, Tappara and Ilves. It doesn't help that they play at the 20,000-capacity Ratina Athletics Stadium, in which 3-5,000 fans rattle around for most home games. Still, they are one of the biggest clubs in Finland and boast one of the more active supporter groups.

'Fan culture in Finland, as it is now, is a rather new phenomenon. The first organized groups appeared in the late 90s - groups that wanted to support their team by singing and chanting and so on, at every game,' says Antti Löytynoja, a Tampere fan.

'There's a new generation of supporters who are influenced by what is going on in Sweden and other countries.'

By the last day of the season Tampere's lead had been whittled down to three points so they needed a draw away at HJK to seal the title. Over 500 Tampere fans made the trip, a huge following in Finnish terms, 100 of them members of the Tampere ultra group 'Sinikarti' who sang non-stop as their team won 3-0 to lift the trophy.

The usual exodus of players from the Finnish champions is expected, but Tampere have a determined and committed board that wants to keep as many of their stars as possible.

It's probably too early to think about an improvement in Finnish clubs UEFA co-efficient and matching the other Nordic leagues in financial terms, but for now the Finnish football fraternity is happy to bask in the glow of a successful season and a resurgent national team.

The Finns are far too modest to say so, but it's more than possible that Finnish football could surprise a few people next season.

• Additional material supplied by Jussi Klemola


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