The Finns are in Group I, with World and European champions Spain, recent World and European champions France, and Belarus and Georgia. A five team group has it's pros and cons, but for a team which has just dropped twenty-four places in the FIFA rankings, the lack of playing two extra competitive games could prove dangerous in the long run. Coach Mixu Paatelainen has stated his goal is to produce a team which can potentially qualify for the bloated Euro 2016, but they'll do well to rack up more than a handful of points this time around.
Paatelainen knows the size of the task
Finland's last match was an entertaining 3-3 draw with Northern Ireland in Belfast, and it wasn't fun for those fans of quality football, save for the third Finnish goal (a lovely free kick from Përparim Hetemaj). Their first qualifier is at home to a France side yet again dealing with the fall-out after a Euro 2012 which promised much, but ended up with the same in-fighting, strops and player bans.
The Finns celebrate the third goal in Belfast
With no minnow (or is it Finland?) in the group, points against rivals are crucial, and under new manager Didier Deschamps, now may be a good time to take on the French. France lost their first qualifier for Euro 2012 at home to Belarus, while in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup they lost to Austria, and only just beat the Faroe Islands.
There have been several suggestions in recent years in support of a pre-qualifying competition amongst the lower-ranked nations, where the winners get the chance to compete with the larger nations. Clearly this was aimed to reduce the games between, for example, Spain and San Marino, but how else for the lower ranked teams to meet these opponents?
The French visit Helsinki this evening (Spain visit in September 2013), and while the odds on an upset are slim, Finland need to play the big teams in competitive games to realistically improve their FIFA rankings, especially after the Baltic Cup debacle (the summer matches against Latvia and Estonia were deemed not to count towards rankings as the fourth official was not FIFA accredited).
Try telling Latvia that the Baltic Cup doesn't count...
The formula for working out ranking points is based as follows:
M (match result, W/L/D) x I (importance of match, eg friendly or qualifier) x T (ranking of opposing team, worked out as 200 minus their current position) x C (their confederation, eg UEFA).
A victory over France tonight would therefore be worth 3 x 2.5 x 185 x 1 = 1387.5, compared to the 99 points they earned for the draw with Northern Ireland. Results like this will be vital if they're to get decent seedings for future tournaments. Their 2012 point average is currently 125, yet the soon to disappear 2008 average is 228 so they're likely to drop much further if they get a bad start in this campaign.
The Finnish fans I speak to will be watching the France game with hope rather than expectation, and even a point will be a good start (worth 387.5 ranking points). But the group is a marathon not a sprint, and we'll see how a competitive Paatelainen side fares.