The Finnish mission

Lassi Lappalainen and Jukka Raitala on the verge of history

There’s something going on with the Finland national team. Since the country’s soccer federation started taking part in qualifying for the European Championship in 1968, Finland has to this day never qualified for the famous continental tournament.

But this time around, with the Impact’s Jukka Raitala and Lassi Lappalainen in the squad, Finland is on the verge of making history. And another three points against Greece last week keep their goal intact heading into the final stretch of qualifying.

“It’s not easy to play against us right now,” said Impact defender Jukka Raitala. “We’re a very hard-working team, we have each other’s backs, and we work for each other. And now, we score goals too. We’ve won a lot of games 1-0 as well, which says a lot about our defense. It’s a huge part of our strategy.”

The Finns have had close calls before, missing out on qualifying for Euro 1980 by just a point. In 2008, the Huuhkajat needed a win in their last game against Portugal to qualify for the tournament, but a 0-0 scoreline meant the Finns would finish third, with 24 points, while Portugal qualified with 27.

“We’re taking things into our own hands,” added Raitala. “If I would’ve known our last two results before the games were played, I would’ve taken them. I think our game against Greece was extremely important, because it keeps them well below us in the table. Italy was a little more difficult; it’s a great team, with great individual players.”

Finland was minutes away from gaining a point against the Italians as well, tying the game at a goal apiece with less than 20 minutes to go, but the referee pointed to the spot seven minutes later, and the Azzurri were able to convert, keeping their record perfect after six qualifying games.

Still, the Eagle Owls remain in the driver’s seat, sitting alone in second position in Group J with 12 points after six games. Head coach Markku Kanerva’s men still have four games to go: against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Armenia during the October international break, followed by Liechtenstein and Greece to close out qualifying in November.

This next break will be particularly decisive: Armenia and Bosnia are right behind Finland in Group J, so positive results against both teams should put Finland in optimal position to finish second, and maybe even clinch their berth before the final break.

“What we’re trying to achieve is big, but I don’t want us to talk about it too much because it can be dangerous,” explained Raitala. “We can’t start playing a gear lower. There are only four games to go, so we need to maintain this level. Hopefully everyone strays fit and everything works out well. If it does, we’ll be very happy come end November.”