He calls himself the ‘Big Bad Wolf’ of his club side FC Midtjylland, but ahead of one of the biggest games of his life, Finnish men’s national team captain Tim Sparv looks relaxed, and not at all intimidating.
On Friday night Huuhkajat – Eagle Owls – take on Liechtenstein in Helsinki needing just two points from their last two games to qualify for the Euro2020 championships.
It would be a miracle on astroturf, the first time a Finnish men’s football team has made it into the finals of a major international tournament.
“I think the expectation is a part the team has handled really well, the mental part. In the beginning nobody expected us to be this good, to have this opportunity. But now everybody is expecting us to go to the European Championships” says Sparv.
“I’m very confident that we’ll see the kind of Finland that we’re used to seeing.” he adds.
The game at Telia 5G-Areena is sold out, with tickets reportedly changing hands for hundreds of euros.
In an ice-hockey mad country, the national football team has converted Finns, and found a new army of fans as they’ve progressed through this tournament with a string of victories, to lie in second place behind Italy in Group J.
“I play for my country. I’m very patriotic in that way, and I think that’s probably the best with the national team. You don’t see these players playing for the name on their back, you see them playing for the flag. And that’s very beautiful” Tim Sparv tells News Now Finland.
Developing the team
This national team’s success didn’t just spring out of nowhere, they’ve taken the time to develop over the past two years under the quiet leadership of head coach Markku Kanerva.
His methodical style and simple game plans have allowed Finland to notch up wins against traditionally strong footballing nations like Greece, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Armenia.
Although it’s fair to say that serendipity played its part as well, with other results in the group qualifying stages going in Finland’s favour.
“I think there’s a few things that have improved during my time in the national team, I don’t think it’s just something magic” says Sparv.
“The new coaching staff has helped, I think they have a very clear football philosophy where everybody understands their own role. I also think the new players coming in has given this team some extra energy, extra self confidence maybe” he explains.
Sports journalist Ari Virtanen agrees with that assessment, and says it’s a good solid team, that anticipates well how their opponents will play.
“They manage to take advantage of opponents’ weak points, but obviously if you want to succeed in this kind of qualification tournament you also need your bit of luck, and in this way this has been a lucky group for Finland” says Virtanen, the main football writer at Helsingin Sanomat newspaper.
“Obviously Finland should beat Leichtenstein 99 times out of 100. But in recent history Finland has also drawn two times with Lichtenstein, although we should also remember and stress the other match was fixed so that it favoured Liechtenstein” Virtanen says, referencing a 2009 encounter between the two countries where a convicted match fixer bribed a Bosnian referee to sway the game.
Resurgent football in Finland
The success of the men’s team – and the success of the women’s national team as well as they aim to qualify for Euro2021 – is having an impact on the status of the sport in Finland.
“It’s exciting, I think it’s an exciting time to be a Finnish football fan, even before when we won the Nations League Group. We did well in the Euro qualifiers, and it’s an exciting time to be here and hope we can get more and more people in Finland playing football.” says midfielder Glen Kamara.
The 24-year old plays for Rangers in Scotland, and grew up in Tampere.
“It’s a chance to make history for my country […] I’m always happy to come in, represent my country and it’s always an exciting time to be there” he says.
There’s credit too for the loyal fans who dared to dream of sporting success, even in the years when Huuhkajat wasn’t winning so many games.
“You’ve got to talk about the fans as well. They’ve been with us in the past years. They’ve been with us to away games. They’ve been to our home games” says Tim Sparv.
“Their support means a lot.”