2018 World Cup qualifying is over for Finland. Well, it's been over for months. Monday night saw the final match in group I, in Turku against an also-eliminated Turkey. It turned out to be an entertaining 2-2, but ultimately counts for little other than FIFA ranking points and cementing Finland's place in division C in the upcoming Nations League.
Like the qualifying campaign for the 2016 European Championships, the best sequence of results was saved for the end, when the pressure was ultimately off. Finishing with two wins and two draws has echoes of that group, but the seeds of failure were sown much earlier.
The World Cup group was drawn in 2015, when Finland were at their lowest ebb after the sacking of Mixu Paatelainen. Placed in the fifth seeding pot due to a poor FIFA ranking, the Finns were drawn in a tough group with Iceland, Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine, before being joined later by Kosovo. Fifth place was expected, and achieved.
After Markku Kanerva steadied the ship post-Mixu, the Finnish FA (Palloliitto) held an open search for his successor. Applicants included Stuart Pearce and former Gibraltar boss Allen Bula; but the selection panel of the late FA chairman Pertti Alaja, secretary Marco Casagrande and advisor Jari Litmanen went for Swede Hans Backe - a manager who had mostly worked in Scandinavia, with diverse spells at Notts County and New York Red Bulls...Embed from Getty Images
Backe's reign was an unmitigated disaster. No wins, a complete lack of vision and an even lower FIFA ranking, which ended up outside the top 100. The fixture choices seemed baffling, taking prestige batterings by Germany, Poland and Italy over more productive games. Probably not Backe's fault, but still.
Hans Backe's record as Finland manager:— Escape To Suomi (@EscapeToSuomi) December 11, 2016
Goals for 4
Goals against 22#huuhkajat
Kanerva again took the reins, this time on a permanent basis. Despite a friendly win over Morocco, other results stayed poor. Injuries played their part, Moisander and Sparv were long-term absentees, while Joel Pohjanpalo and Eero Markkanen struggled to get minutes for their club sides. When he was able to field a virtually full-strength team against Iceland, they won 1-0 and followed that with a win over Kosovo and score draws against Croatia and Turkey.Embed from Getty Images
It's perhaps harsh to compare Kanerva with England's Gareth Southgate - promoted after a sacking, more experience of coaching or working with youngsters. Barring a catastrophe or a complete change of heart at the top of Palloliitto, Markku will be in charge when the Nations League kicks off in 2018 and probably the Euro 2020 qualifying in 2019. Are there any obvious Finnish contenders to replace him? Simo Valakari is now in Norway, Lehkosuo has won a double with HJK but was lucky to keep his job a year ago.
Individually, Finland have some very good players. There is a decent spine that, when all fit, should provide plenty of tough opposition. The youngsters on the fringes of the side have shown that they can add dynamism and pace. Players like Simon Skrabb, Fredrik Jensen, Pyry Soiri and Sauli Väisänen show promise and could become established internationals in the coming years. Alex Ring has come on leaps and bounds at New York City FC, Paulus Arajuuri looked good in the qualifiers and Lukas Hradecky has a fine record in the Bundesliga.
Embed from Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
Will Finland qualify for a major tournament any time soon? Well the 24 team Euros and the wildcard spots from the Nations League represent the best chance. It'll need a favourable draw and good luck with player fitness and form, but recent results should enable a better seeding.
It's easy to get carried away after such a long time of scraps and defeats. It's a time for reflection and building for 2020.
Oi Suomi on.