FA of Finland / Jussi Eskola

Finland on the verge of history

Raitala and Lappalainen on the verge of qualifying for Euro 2020

If you were to ask Jukka Raitala about Finland’s qualifying campaign for Euro 2020 in the past few months, chances are you wouldn’t have seen much emotion on the Finn’s face. Raitala prefers to not count his chickens before they hatch, and although his country was piling up wins in Group J, his focus remained always on the next game.

But after last weekend’s results, the Impact defender couldn’t resist showing some excitement.

“It’s massive,” said Raitala, speaking with Impact Media. “Unbelievable. We are so close that we can’t screw this up.”

It wasn’t the greatest start either for Raitala and his teammates, who kicked off the international window with a crucial game against Bosnia and Herzegovina, a game they lost heavily at the end, which brought the Bosnians, in third, just two points behind Finland in the standings, with three qualifying games left.

“The game against Bosnia was really tough,” explained Raitala. “They were very good. Saying that, I don’t think we played very well, but they were better than us in every facet of the game. But we put it behind us right away. It was a tough loss, but we had an extremely important game against Armenia just a few days away. We knew that winning that game would put us in a great situation, like it did.”

The Huuhkajat bounced back as expected against Armenia, beating them 3-0, with two goals from the leading goalscorer thus far in European qualifying, Teemu Pukki.

While this game was being played in Finland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, coming off a big win against Finland, was looking to keep the gap between themselves and the Finns at two points when they took on Greece in Athens. Against all odds, the Greeks won 2-1.

That means that Raitala’s Finland is now five points clear of Bosnia, in third, with just two qualifying games left. One win from either of these games would ensure Finland’s first ever qualification to a major tournament. Their next game will be against Liechtenstein, last in Group J with just two points, and still winless.

“We’re close, but one thing we’ve done really well during this qualification is not looking too far ahead,” said Raitala. “We needed to stay focused game by game, and the coach has done a tremendous job in not letting us overthink the situation. Everyone knows that we should beat Liechtenstein. It’s a very small country, and they haven’t won many games in their soccer history. We need to prepare like we would any other game, take the three points, and celebrate afterwards.”

A character side

Raitala, on his end, has been a part of the Finland national program since 2007, making his debut with the senior side two years later, in 2009. Although many of the players remain the same, the Finn has definitely noticed a shift in the group’s mentality in the past few years.

“The last two years have been very positive, and we’ve gotten very good results,” said Raitala. “More and more people are warming up to the national team, and it’s fantastic. We’ve come close to qualifying before, but now we’re closer than ever. In the media, there’s more talk about the team and the players, and there’s definitely a big hype around Finnish soccer right now.”

It’s true, Raitala and his teammates have come close before, and recently; in 2008, Finland needed to win its last qualifying game, away against Portugal, to qualify for its first major tournament, but the game ended in a scoreless draw, meaning the Portuguese qualified. Two years later, in World Cup qualifying, they finished third behind Russia and Germany, missing out yet again.

But in their most recent campaigns, for the 2016 Euro and the 2018 World Cup, they finished fourth and fifth respectively in their groups. For Raitala, all that is firmly behind him.

“We’re so connected, and we have a good plan,” said Raitala. “I don’t know what it is; we’re not afraid. We approach games with the mentality that we’re going to win. It wasn’t like that a few years ago. When you start winning games and getting good results, it gives you confidence. Right now, we all have each other’s backs and it’s fantastic to play for this team.”

Down to the wire

After months of qualification games, it all comes down to the game against Liechtenstein, which will take place on November 15, in Helsinki. It gives Raitala, Lappalainen, and their teammates, a chance to make history in front of their own supporters.

Needless to say, Jukka's pretty excited about what he can potentially achieve within a month’s time.

“When I think about what we can potentially achieve, I get goosebumps,” added Raitala. “Against Armenia, when the final whistle went and we knew the game was over, I got a little emotional. We’re so close, and we’ve been working so hard. There have been bad moments in the past 10 years, ups and downs, so we’re trying to enjoy it this time. The whole country is behind us and it feels fantastic.”