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Finland has waited so long for this: at Euro 2020, it’s our turn at last | Tim Sparv

Supporting the Finland national team has rarely been a comfortable and enjoyable pastime. Last-minute fluked own goals and year-long winless droughts have all helped shape the image of an unlucky and unsuccessful country.

We have certainly had some brilliant individual players and the occasional high but they have often been overshadowed by the team’s inability to qualify for a major tournament. Every other summer we’ve watched in disbelief when our Nordic counterparts are having the time of their lives at a World Cup or a European Championship while we are forced to watch the whole thing on TV. Every other summer we’ve bitterly asked ourselves: “When is it going to be our turn?”

I was 13 years old when I attended my first Finland game. I had taken time off school to travel down to Helsinki, with my dad and his friends for the World Cup qualifier against England in 2000. Jari Litmanen, Sami Hyypiä, Paul Scholes, Teddy Sheringham and all the other players I had long-admired were now here. I was mesmerised by the Olympic Stadium with its floodlights and 35,000 football-crazy spectators. The game ended 0-0 in a tedious affair but that was completely irrelevant. The 13-year-old me was inspired and I told myself that one day I would be out there playing for my country.

I was a tall and lanky kid with growth spurt problems and therefore a serious lack of coordination. “Bambi on ice” my coaches called me. Despite the physical challenges I faced they could also see a self-aware boy with a burning desire to improve. Behind the fragile exterior they saw my potential when I had a difficult time seeing it myself.

My dream of becoming a professional, and representing my country, would come true. I played for my country in every age-group and I captained our under-21 side in the European Championships in Sweden in 2009. I made my full international debut the same year and became an integral part of the Finland team for the next decade.

I should have been happy and satisfied with what I had achieved but I wasn’t. I was 32 years old in the spring of 2019 and my beloved Finland was still one of the few countries who had not qualified for a major tournament. Other nations who shared our frustrations were, for example, Luxembourg, Faroe Island and San Marino. Time was ticking for me and my ageing teammates. If we wanted to do something extraordinary, if we wanted to write ourselves into the history books, then we would have to do it now.

Italy, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Greece, Armenia and Liechtenstein was our qualifying group for the Euro 2020. The two best teams would qualify directly for the tournament and because Italy are, frankly, really good, it was up to the rest of us to battle it out for the other spot.

We played well throughout the qualifying campaign. We were solid and robust defensively and deadly on transitions. We had a calm presence in Lukas Hradecky in goal, a dynamic Glen Kamara in midfield, Robin Lod creating chances and Teemu Pukki in exceptional goalscoring form. We were tough, aggressive and organised, like every Finland team should be, but we had added a touch of international flair. A modern team was taking shape.

On 15 November 2019, we were playing Liechtenstein at home in what was to become one of the most memorable days in Finnish football history. Thanks to a 3-0 win we secured our place in a major men’s tournament for the first time.

I still remember the pitch invasion after the final whistle and how me and my teammates were lifted up in the air by ecstatic fans. I still remember singing Finnish pop songs in the dressing room and pouring champagne down my throat. And I still remember us players sitting in the sauna, laughing and joking, when somebody suddenly said: “Boys, what the fuck have we just done?”

The history of Finnish football is not the rosiest one, but neither is the history of our country. Living with hardship is part of a Finn’s DNA. Despite wars, financial recessions and famines we are still standing tall. Despite last-minute defeats and years of underachievement, players and fans alike did not give in. We’re a resilient bunch of people, on and off the pitch.

That a pandemic would postpone our big day in the spotlight fits the narrative. It is not meant to be easy and smooth supporting Finland. Uncomfortable surprises are always behind the corner and perhaps that is a reason why we tend to celebrate the good days a little bit more.

It was the correct call to postpone the tournament but there is still that sense of disbelief and dark-humoured acceptance among those of us who have lived through so much adversity to get to this point. Of course there is a deadly pandemic that prompts Uefa to delay the start of the Euro 2020 when Finland is about to take part for the first time in their long history.

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Impatient Finns can now say “this is our turn”, the waiting is over. Finland is a participant at the Euro 2020 and that makes me extremely proud. I’m happy for my teammates and our staff, but I am even happier for our supporters who have waited so long for this day to come. They deserve a little bit of luck after decades of supporting a team who seemed destined to be unlucky. They deserve their moment in the sun. Let’s hope this is the start of a more promising future for Finland’s national team.

Tim Sparv is captain of Finland and plays for Larissa in the Greek Super League

This post was originally published on this site

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