*Scroll down for highlights*
It wasn’t exactly a momentous occasion. In the run-up to the game someone had scrawled “PALLOLIITTO HAISTAKAA VITTU” (“Finnish FA get to fuck”) on the wall outside the Football Association’s offices, evidence of the hostility Finland’s football decision makers can face when their performance is deemed unsatisfactory. The hostility comes from small but active proportion of the Finnish football family, and was exacerbated by the national team’s awful performances in Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein last month, when their slim chances of qualifying for the World Cup all but disappeared after a jammy 2-1 win over Finland’s bogey team Azerbaijan and a terrible 1-1 draw with Liechtenstein in Vaduz.
This was evident in the first half when SMJK, Finland’s supporters group, were silent for the first ten minutes in protest at “recent disappointments and the sisuless (gutless) qualification campaign”. On ten minutes they unfurled banners reading “Kaikesta huolimatta me olla aina täällä”, or “we’re here no matter what”. In case anybody thought this was directed solely at Baxter and his players, they then began chanting Sauli Niinistö’s name.
The speaker of the Finnish parliament has been widely touted as the next chairman of the Finnish FA, and as a wildly popular, modern, well-respected and thoroughly professional candidate, he is seen in some quarters as a panacea for Finnish football’s ills. Pekka Hämäläinen, the man Niinistö is tipped to replace, has been expert at balancing the regions and factions within the FA, without quite providing the dynamic leadership many fans feel Finnish football needs.
He will retire in November, but Niinistö is more likely to be a figurehead than an activist if elected, with power concentrating in the hands of Kimmo J Lipponen, the FA’s General Secretary who joined the organisation from Nokia in January 2008, and Petri Jakonen, who left TPS to become the FA’s “head of elite football” earlier this year. Part of Jakonen’s job is to re-negotiate the ten year contract Veikkausliiga has to run top flight football in Finland, or indeed to take it back under the FA’s wing when the current contract runs out in 2010.
Why does this matter in a match report from a World Cup qualifier? Well, partly because the match itself was nothing to write home about. Finland won 2-1 in front of a crowd of 13,301, in what was possibly Hyypiä and Litmanen’s last competitive home match, but neither side looked particularly impressive. The positive signs for Finland were offered solely by the new boys.
Niklas Moisander made his first home start and scored the winning goal with a storming run and classy finish, Roni Porokara kept Chris Gunter occupied and scored the first goal after Johansson’s shot as saved, and Tim Sparv came into his own as the match wore on and his confidence grew. Kasper Hämäläinen thoroughly enjoyed himself when he came on, flitting around a tired Wales defence and having one shot turned round the post by Hennessey.
The press even asked Baxter whether the inexperienced players given playing time today should have played in Azerbaijan and Liechtenstein after their excellent performances against Wales
“Absolutely not,” replied the ‘Birmingham-born Scot’, as Baxter seems to be labelled these days. “I didn’t want to break their confidence by freshening things up too quickly.”
Fair enough. His near-obsession with alleviating the pressure on his younger players paid off against Wales, and it seems as though he regards home games as a special event for Finnish players. After the game against Belarus in Turku – his first in charge of Finland on home soil – he commented that he had not realised what a big thing it was for Finnish players to play at home, and that maybe they were a little bit too hyped up for that game. Allowing them to stew on the big event for too long would have been foolish, and if Hämäläinen’s introduction was planned, the information did not filter through to the player himself.
“No, I didn’t even know what position I’d be playing,” he said afterwards. “I’ve been playing as a midfielder for TPS this season, but I’ve played as a winger for five years before that so it wasn’t too difficult to adjust.”
Moisander has had a tougher time recently, and his joy at scoring the winner was evident to everyone.
“It’s been a difficult time,” the AZ Alkmaar defender said after the game. “I’ve been sitting on the bench with my club side and then my grandfather died a few weeks ago. He was really important for me. Now I feel quite relieved.”
“This is one of the nicest moments of my career. I finally got to start a game at the Olympic Stadium, and we got an important win. Otherwise our play was patchy, as in the qualification as whole. This was no brilliant performance, but great that we won.”
Finland’s next match is away to Germany, and they will be without Petri Pasanen and Hannu Tihinen. A much changed defence will probably include Veli Lampi as one full-back, Niklas Moisander in the middle, and a makeshift right back. Roman Eremenko has been playing there for Dinamo Kiev recently, but maybe a more creative option would be Perparim Hetemaj. Baxter said he would think about the problem over dinner, so maybe he’s already made his mind up. After securing third place his job seems to be safe, but success depends on how quickly the younger players grow into their roles. On yesterday’s evidence, there may be reason for optimism on that front.
The last word should, of course, go to Craig Bellamy. When he and his team finally emerged from their post-game debriefing and came to the mixed zone, a Welsh journalist had asked him what positives he could take from the current campaign. “I think I’ll leave that one,” replied a sombre Wales captain.
He was subjected to some fairly moronic but badly pronounced homophobic chanting after his criticisms of Jonatan Johansson and Finland when the two teams met in Cardiff in March, and was in no mood to go over old ground when asked if he’d changed his mind.
“Did you think it was a good game? Was it a good game to watch?” he responded when NFN asked what he thought of Finland.
“It wasn’t great,” came my feeble reply.
“Well you know then. You know the score.”
“But nobody’s interested in my opinions…..”
“After a performance like that, I’m not sure anyone should be interested in mine.”