Pukki leads Finns to their first-ever tournament
After a wait of 82 years and over 30 fruitless qualification campaigns, the Finns finally have a seat at the game’s top table, about to sink their teeth into their first-ever football main course.
Even when featuring world-class players like Liverpool centre-back Sami Hyypia and Ajax No.10 Jari Litmanen, past Finnish sides always fell short. So full marks to the present-day heroes, not least thoughtful coach Markku Kanerva and talismanic Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki.
Once thought of as Scandinavian soccer slackers – unworthy cousins to Denmark, Sweden and Norway – Pukki and co. suddenly have made football as popular as the nation’s other favourite sports: ice hockey, skiing, middle-distance running and the javelin.
The country is excited: “We are ready for the European Championships,” said a Finnish broadcaster on qualification. “The century of misery is over.”
While their default template is a no-frills 4-4-2, Kanerva often switches to a 5-4-1 when up against superior opposition. Their basic philosophy prioritises defensive resolve, with creativity from wide areas and Pukki’s opportunism providing the goals.
In the prime of his life as chance-converter, he netted ten of Finland’s 16 goals in qualification.
A former teacher and HJK Helsinki centre-back, who played for the club in the 1998-99 Champions League.
The 31-year-old Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper, a mainstay between the Finnish posts for a decade, is two characters in one: a rumbustious, happy-go-lucky joker off the pitch,
but deadly serious in his approach to his profession. Widely-considered one of the top five custodians in the Bundesliga, the towering Hradecky is an outstanding modern goalkeeper, combining the sharpest of reflexes, a commanding presence, comfort on the ball and a happy knack of coming out on top in one-on-one confrontations. With his long arms and legs, he forms quite a barrier.
Born in Slovakia, he was just a toddler when his family emigrated to the southern Finnish town of Turku. He clearly has inherited the ball-handling ability of his father Vlado, who played volleyball for a living. Back in 2009 while playing for Danish side Esbjerg, Hradecky had the chance to join Manchester United, only to turn down the offer: “I didn’t want to be the fifth or sixth-choice keeper there and be loaned out to a fourth division club,” he said.