[Blog] Finnish Football Show’s Highlights of 2019

2019 will be remembered as something of a vintage year for Finnish football. It was a year that began with one of the many firsts, as Eero Markkanen nabbed his first goal in a Finland shirt against Sweden in Doha. On the home front, the Veikkausliiga title went right down to the wire with KuPS being crowned and there was a two horse title race that didn’t involve HJK.

In the lower leagues two teams close to the heart of FFS moved forward, JJK of Jyväskylä won their division in Kolmonen and were promoted to play next season in the northern region of Kakkonen something of a remarkable achievement after their recent financial troubles, while FC Haka return to the top flight under the stewardship of Finland legend Teemu Tainio after an eight year absence.

2019 was also the year that Huuhkajat returned to the Champions League, Luke Hradecky and Jere Uronen walking out to Handel’s Zodak (look it up 😉). It was also the year a Finn returned to the premier league scorers list, Teemu Pukki at time of writing is one shocking VAR decision away from double figures in the league. With all those in mind, the Finnish Football Show reflects on some of the best moments of the year, proving that it wasn’t all about pitch invasions and hoisting captain Tim Sparv above your head!

Year of the Eagle-Owl

Teemu Pukku. Huuhkaja of the year?

Mark, @FCSuomi – On September 5th in Tampere, Finland reached the halfway point of the group with a relatively static performance against an unfancied Greece side. On the pitch a 52nd minute Teemu Pukki penalty separated the teams, but what stood out was the atmosphere before during and after the match. For one of the first times in recent memory, the talk before the game was expectant, how much we’d win by rather than if we’d win. Discussions during the game were more of how well Finland were managing both the game and their opponents, making life difficult but protecting their lead.

After the game, the realization began to dawn that Armenia and Bosnia were taking points off each other and as long as we could manage home games against Armenia and Liechtenstein then we’d likely qualify. I think what stood out most was just how Finnish, this modest 1-0 win, with little drama or fanfare had come to define a style of play and way of winning that would ultimately deliver history. I think it was also after this game that the Italy, Armenia and Liechtenstein games sold out. My over-riding memory is sitting on a terrace at around midnight and listening to “Oi Suomi On” echoing around the city and the lakes… oli kyllä niin ihanaaaa.

The Growth of the Pikkuhuuhkajat

Goalscorer Teemu Pukki celebrating with Pyry Soiri

Mark @explorefinland – As a fan of SJK Seinäjoki, there was scant reward in 2019, so I had to look towards the Finnish national team for highlights. Writing this piece comes just after I’ve started setting up a new feed for the podcast, so I’ve been trawling back through old episodes and reminding myself of some of the topics we’ve discussed over the past four years.

Back in September 2016, Mark H said of Pyry Soiri ‘I like the look of him…scoring a lot of goals for VPS.’ Then half a year later, we noted his transfer from VPS to FK Šah’tsjor Salihorsk (Belarus). Now playing for Esbjerg fB in Denmark, 2019 felt like the year he really established himself in the Huuhkajat starting 11. He is exciting and dangerous marauding down the left wing, linking-up with Teemu Puuki and chipping-in with the odd goal. I’m really excited to see what he can achieve in 2020.

Similarly, the continued development of Glen Kamara at the heart of Finland’s midfield is a thrill. He is often everywhere all at once; winning tackles to break-up the opposition attacks, driving possession forwards His development in Scotland, after leaving Arsenal, shows no sign of slowing down. A successful 2019/20 season with Glasgow Rangers and I’d hope to see him transfer to a Premier League club and continue to improve, both for club and country.

On this theme, I should also give honourable mentions to the other young strikers that have shouldered some of the goalscoring duties with Teemu Pukki. Joel Pohjanpalo whose presence is craved and whose absences (due to injury) are felt by fans and teammates alike. Jasse Tuominen, whose speed and energy upfront excites the crowd and unsettles opponents, and Fredrik Jensen, who scored the opening goal in two of Finland’s Euro 2020 qualifiers in 2019.

KuPS end long wait for championship

KuPS Kuopio celebrate becoming Veikkausliiga champions for 2019.
Image: http://www.kups.fi/

Rich @EscapeToSuomi – A final day triumph that was 43 years in the making, Kuopion Palloseura secured the championship with a 2-0 win away to their only rivals Inter Turku. Despite blowing the chance to do it in front of their own fans (with a record attendance) in the previous round, this was perfectly timed with the game shown on free-to-air television. Earlier in the season, the title had looked like it was Ilves’ to lose after a fine run, and that’s how it ended up. HJK started poorly, limping to fifth, while Inter themselves led the main season but only won two of their five Championship group fixtures.

KuPS partied hard, taking over Kuopio town centre, also hosting local events for sponsors and fans. They had a long wait for glory, with one Suomen Cup win in 1989 and three consecutive final defeats in 2011, 12 and 13. It wasn’t a team based around an individual, the top scorer was Rangel with eight goals (albeit in sixteen matches), while the spine of the team was settled and key players staying fit and captain Petteri Pennanen playing in all 27 games.The challenge for 2020 will be tough. Coach Jani Honkavaara and Tuco have already moved to SJK, with Luis Murillo moving to HJK and the distraction of the Champions League.

Kuopio will long remember the celebrations, and no matter what the balance sheet says or which players come in the door, the trophy is draped in yellow and black.

Benoit’s blow

Keke Myllari on the pitch hoisting captain Tim Sparv in the air

Keke @kekemyllari -This year can only be remembered as the year that the National Team secured their place in their first ever major tournament.

I was lucky enough to attend a few of the qualifiers of this historic campaign and travelling through Switzerland to Liechtenstein is a particularly good memory.  I had travelled from my base in London to meet my friends in Zürich and after a night in the Swiss city we took a train through the amazing scenery of the Alps and lakes to Sargans and then a short bus ride to the Liechtenstein capital Vaduz. The game itself turned out to be a reasonably routine win for Finland against weaker opposition after breaking down the 10 man defence. I was also lucky enough to travel to Bosnia away this year. This was another memorable trip. Firstly I was fortunate to get a ticket in the first place such was the popularity of the fixture. Sarajevo was an amazing place to visit but unfortunately the team came out second best losing 4-1 to a revitalised Bosnia side who seemed to save their best moments of quality of the whole campaign for this single match. There was the highlight of Jolle Pojanpalo grabbing a consolation goal following his return from injury.

A few days after the Bosnia game when I was back in London my mates travelled to Turku to witness the 3-0 victory over Armenia. This result meant that all Finland had to do was to defeat minnows Liechtenstein at home in Helsinki to qualify. I had to be there. Flights were booked and the quest for a match ticket started. Thankfully due to the close friendships formed over the years, watching Finland with the SMJK, I was able to secure a ticket to the biggest game in the history of Finnish football.

The day started relaxed enough with a couple of beers and some food, but as darkness fell and the beer began to flow more steadily the atmosphere and tension were building. The march from Helsinki city centre to the Telia Areena was an amazing experience. Smoke and flares filled the air and the feeling was one of being on the brink of something truly great. It must have been a difficult situation for Rive to manage in the dressing room but for us out in the street the excitement was building and building. We made it to Telia and filed into the stadium taking up our positions behind the goal. Finland started the game with intensity and had a number of chances before finally breaking the deadlock around the 20-minute mark with Jasse Tuominen scoring in front of the SMJK. The mood was one of belief, disbelief, hope, amazement and pride all rolled into one. As I looked around at 1-0 up I could see grown men with tears in their eyes. Was it finally our time…?

A Teemu Pukki penalty on the hour and his second with 20 minutes left sent the crowd into delirium. The last twenty minutes seemed to take an age as we awaited the final whistle. When it finally came, fans from all four sides of the stadium spilled onto the pitch to celebrate with their heroes. I found myself running around bumping into various players and embracing them in jubilant celebration. The emotion on the faces and in the voices of everyone was clear. The sense of achievement was immediately evident. Friends and strangers alike were hugging and congratulating each other and I somehow found myself among the group that had hoisted captain Tim Sparv aloft in a gesture of thanks and hero worship. So there it is…. My moment of 2019…. Unquestionably is the second that French Referee Benoit Bastian put the whistle to his lips to signal the end of the match. Finland v Liechtenstein Friday 15thNovember.  A moment like no other.

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