The Finnish defender selected for two friendly games
It’s been quite a while since 2009. It’s the year the Impact won its last playoff championship in USL, but it’s also the year defender Jukka Raitala made his senior debut with the Finland national team, in a friendly against Japan, long before he was associated with the Bleu-blanc-noir. Now, almost ten years later, the 29-year-old Finn is looking towards his 40th cap with the national team in the near future.
“It’s different when you’re new to the team and young,” said Raitala, recalling his first selection. “When you join for the first time and see all the big players in the locker room, especially for someone with my character, you just want to watch them and learn from how everyone goes about themselves. Now, I feel like I’m part of that older crowd in the locker room, and in that way, it’s very different from when I started.”
Raitala has 38 caps under his belt since that first friendly, including qualification games for the Euro and World Cup. Although Finland has never qualified for either of these major tournaments in the history of Finnish soccer, Raitala was an integral part of Finland’s U21 squad that qualified for the UEFA European U21 championship, the same year he was named U21 Player of the Year, in 2009.
“With the U21 team, we qualified for the European Championship, which was a great achievement,” added Raitala. “Of course, we still dream of a Euro or World Cup appearance. It’s always in our thoughts and remains a big dream, but we’re working hard to make it reality one day.”
Short trip back home
Jukka was born in Kerava but grew up in Finland’s capital, Helskinki, joining HJK Helsinki’s academy in 2005 at just 15 years old. Despite deciding to make the move to MLS last year to join the Columbus Crew SC, the defender still enjoys going back to his homeland whenever he can.
“My mom and my brother are still there, and I still have a lot of friends in Finland of course,” explained Raitala. “But it’s a short trip. I think I’ll only be there for four full days, so it’s mostly a few training sessions before the game, and that’s it.”
Raitala will make the trip for two friendly games, but will only be available for the second of the two, on June 9 at Ratinan Stadion in Tampere, Finland. With the Finns having failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup starting on June 14 in Russia, the focus has turned towards the 2020 Euro Cup, which will be held across 12 European cities.
“It’s high-level soccer,” added Raitala. “You’re facing the best players from every country. It’s not easy to reach that level but it’s certainly something we’ll keep working towards.”