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How high can the Huuhkajat fly?

Finland is on the verge of a footballing celebration, and this week's All Points North joined in the fun.

Audio: Yle News

Finland's male footballers are set to qualify for their first-ever major tournament, with only Liechtenstein standing in the way of a historic progression to the final stages of the European Championships.

It's almost a foregone conclusion. Teemu Pukki discarded the usual Finnish reserve on Monday and promised a victory, so APN skipped on to consider the implications of a market-square based national celebration that is, for once, focused on football.

"It’s going to give a little bit more popularity," said Elmo Lehti features editor Topias Kauhala on this week's podcast. "People will be more interested in football. We are one of only two European countries where football is not the number one sport--Lithuania and basketball being the obvious second country."

"It’s not only ice hockey, it can be basketball when they’re doing well or it can be volleyball when they’re in a major tournament with the national team and it could be about skiing and track and field," said Kauhala.

Why now?

There have been famous Finland teams before. In the early 2000s a team including Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypiä came close to getting to a major tournament but always failed at the final hurdle.

Kauhala says that’s probably down to the tactical and organisational level of the national team at the time.

"That was probably the main reason why they as a generation under-performed," said Kauhala. "They actually did really well towards the end of this golden generation period, the qualification for the 2008 euros under Roy Hodgson."

The current team can be viewed as building on the foundation laid by Hodgson in terms of professionalism and tactical sophistication around the national team.

"You could see what the potential could have been, they were left behind by Portugal which is not really a bad result. You can kind of see it in the tactics and the mentality, the continuity from what was then with Hodgson and what we have now with [current Finland coach] Markku Kanerva."

Fortune favours the Huuhkajat

Finland have been a little bit lucky along the way, according to Kauhala.

Their group includes Greece, Bosnia, Armenia and Liechtenstein, alongside table-toppers Italy. The other sides have under-performed while the tight-knit Finnish squad has outperformed expectations.

"At the national team level the level is not that high so they meet up every now and then and train a couple of days, so you don’t have the possibility to work on certain things, but Finland is actually maximizing that time," said Kauhala.

"So it helps that you’re playing against a team like Greece, they’ve changed their coaches every now and then and Bosnia have not gotten the most out of that group of players so definitely there was some luck that Finland ended up playing in a group that was quite good for them."

"In a different group it could have been a completely different story, even if the basic level had been the same but the results could have been different."

Internationalisation process

This team differs from its predecessors in that many of its key players moved abroad at a young age. Kauhala believes that's a crucial part of the squad's transition to one capable of mixing it with Europe's elite.

Historically Finnish players have stayed in Finland for longer, with the bad pitches, short season, low salaries and less professional set-up that has been common in Veikkausliiga.

That domestic league has improved in recent years, but players have also utilised their right to freedom of movement under the EU treaties--and that's helped them improve.

"There are about 6 or 7 players in this national team who left before the age of 18 and quite a lot more who left before the age of 20," noted Kauhala.

"So you can see that, if you look at them as footballers of course they are Finnish but if you look at their professionalism there is a kind of mix of their Finnish background and stuff that they’ve learnt playing all around Europe."

Join the conversation

If you have any questions or comments or would like to participate in the discussion, just contact us via WhatsApp on +358 44 421 0909, on our Facebook or Twitter accounts, or at yle.news@yle.fi.

The All Points North podcast is a weekly look at what's going on in Finland. Subscribe via iTunes (and leave a review!), listen on Spotify and Yle Areena or find it on your favourite podcatching app or via our RSS feed.

This week's show was presented by Egan Richardson and our reporter and producer was Denise Wall. Our audio engineer was Joonatan Kotila.

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