New football format could be Finland’s path to Euro glory

Finland has never qualified for a major football final. Could the new Nations League format be the Huuhkajat's ticket to the big time?

Finnish national team players celebrate their 1-0 victory over Hungary in Tampere on 08.09.2018 / Credit: @huukajat Twitter

As far as international football tournaments go, Finland can’t complain about their opening match of the new UEFA Nations League format, which got off to a dream start in Tampere this weekend with a 1-0 victory over Hungary.

Ten thousand fans in the Ratina stadium witnessed a fresh, hungry and renewed Eagle Owls team – known as Huuhkajat in Finnish – as Minnesota United‘s Rasmus Schüller assisted Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki to put the ball in the back of the net.

The victory means Finland is one step closer to its dream of going to Euro 2020. The Eagle Owls have never qualified for a major football championship final.

Explaining the new format

In the old European Championship format, countries were drawn in a seemingly random order. Which is why so often there were the mismatched games of England vs San Marino.

The new format divides the 55 European teams into four leagues alongside other countries of a similar standard. They’re then drawn into pools of three or four teams each.

So in this phase of the competition Finland face Hungary, Estonia and Greece. And after that there’s a series of play-offs with the chance to reach the main Euro 2020 competition which will be played in various cities across Europe.

“The Nations League isn’t one league but four. The name for the competition is what causes confusion. When within each of the four leagues there are four groups. And the group winners are all guaranteed a place in the Euro 2020 playoffs” explains Rob Harris, a sports journalist with The Associated Press who covers the politics of international football.

The idea behind this new format was approved back in 2014 as a way to give all the teams in Europe some international matches that actually count towards something, rather than just lots of friendly fixtures.

“Do friendlies in international football really matter? They annoy club coaches who have to release their players for international games with nothing at stake. UEFA’s solution was to create the Nations League. Replace some dates reserved for friendlies with games in a new competition” says Harris.

“It’s a way of reasserting the importance of international football as the club game gets wealthier in Europe. For now, the competition offers leading teams in Europe a shot at a trophy, ranking below the World Cup and European Championship”.

The complex format also gives smaller teams like Finland a clearer route to a major tournament for the first time. Until now, the lower-ranked sides had the impossible task of trying to qualify for the European Championship from groups featuring far stronger teams.

Now one team from the lowest-tier Nations League – countries like Latvia, Andorra, Gibraltar or Kazakhstan – is guaranteed a place at Euro 2020.

Finland national team player Joni Kauko at training ahead of the opening UEFA Nations League game against Hungary / Credit: Jussi Eskola

Finland’s next game coming up

After a weekend victory, there’s little time to rest for the Finnish team.

They’re playing the next game against Estonia in Turku on Tuesday. The Estonians lost their Nations League opening match 0-1 in Tallinn against Greece.

“We go game by game. This is the most important game if we can win Estonia, we are in a very strong situation” says Finnish left-back Jukka Raitala

Future at UEFA Nations League

Six points in two games might be a perfect way to start the UEFA Nations League but still, Finland needs to beat all three other countries in the group to reach the play-offs.

“I was talking with the media […] and I said that we have one goal. The goal is to win the group. So that’s what we gonna fight for” Raitala tells News Now Finland

National Team Head Coach Markku Kanerva also thinks his squad has been preparing well for the rest of the fixtures, including the upcoming Estonia game. He says the fans are a big part of that process.

I’m confident about the future. It was fantastic to see how the crowd was with us. They added a twelfth man. Hopefully, we will see the same in Turku next Tuesday” Kanerva told journalists after Saturday’s match. 

Kanerva also says he believes the Eagle Owls can go all the way to win their league.

“I believed it yesterday and I believe it now. Of course, this gives us more confidence and hope that we can succeed. As I said, this journey is at the beginning and we have five games left. We got an excellent result to the start”.