Finland aim to turn back tide of history

England will see familiar faces tomorrow as they take on opponents who have never reached the finals of the World Cup or European Championship
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The Independent Football

Howard Wilkinson may think he has his work cut out, but try telling that to Antti Muurinen. The 46-year-old Finland coach has the small task of rewriting his country's football history as he attempts to win a place in the 2002 World Cup finals.

Howard Wilkinson may think he has his work cut out, but try telling that to Antti Muurinen. The 46-year-old Finland coach has the small task of rewriting his country's football history as he attempts to win a place in the 2002 World Cup finals.

Finland have never qualified for the World Cup or European Championship finals and go into tomorrow's match against England in Helsinki in the knowledge that in the previous nine encounters with the same opponents their best result was a 1-1 draw in the Finnish capital back in 1985 in another World Cup qualifier.

Like England, Finland suffered a 1-0 reversal on Saturday, losing to Greece in Athens courtesy of a well-taken goal by the Panathinaikos forward, Nikos Liberopoulos. Last month Finland had opened their Group Nine campaign with a 2-1 home win over Albania.

Finland's track record in world football, in comparison to the likes of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, is woeful. Muurinen blames both the Finnish football federation's lack of financial resources and the fact that ice hockey is the country's most popular sport.

"Finnish football doesn't have the same sort of financing that Norway does," he said. "The national league doesn't attract big crowds, usually not more than 3,000 people. Most of the players aren't full time professionals."

However Kari Raisanen, who played under Muurinen at club level and is now a journalist, blames the Finnish psyche rather than the lack of cash. "We excel at individual sports, like Mikka Hakkinen in motor racing, but we don't seem to have the ability, with the exception of ice hockey, to do well at team games," he said.

That fragile psyche was all too evident during Finland's campaign to qualify for Euro 2000, when they lost 4-2 at home to Turkey after conceding two goals in the last five minutes, having led 2-0 after 15 minutes. Three years earlier they just missed out on qualification for the 1998 World Cup after drawing with Hungary.

The most outstanding individual in Muurinen's squad is Jari Litmanen - providing he is fit. The 29-year old scored 91 goals in 159 league games for Ajax, but has been an irregular starter at Barcelona, partly because of his tendency to pick up niggling injuries and partly because of the Catalan club's huge squad. He is currently on the transfer list, thoughLitmanen would prefer to stay at the Nou Camp.

Litmanen is one of 40 Finnish players currently playing abroad. The majority of Muurinen's 18-man squad play overseas, in England, Scotland, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway. Seven play in Britain, including Liverpool's Sami Hyypia, Derby's Simo Valakari, Charlton's Jonatan Johansson and Antti Niemi of Rangers. Hyypia has been a revelation since he joined Liverpool at the beginning of last season, while Johansson has scored seven times in eight starts since he joined Charlton in a £3.75m move from Rangers in the summer. The Charlton striker will hope to play up front alongside Litmanen and PSV Eindhoven's Joonas Kolkka.

The squad also includes Bolton's Jussi Jaaskelainen, who is the reserve goalkeeper, Jarkko Wiss, of Stockport, and Mikael Forssell, who is on loan from Chelsea at Crystal Palace. Great things had been expected of Forssell, who is likely to be one of the substitutes tomorrow, having come on at the start of the second half in the defeat against Greece. The 19-year-old, who found himself near the back of a lengthy queue of strikers hoping for first-team football at Stamford Bridge, was voted Finland's best young player three times between 1996 and 1998.

Muurinen, the national coach, spent most of his own playing days - when he was not catching up on his duties as a works chief in the Helsinki health and safety department - with the Ponnistus club. "I was no Kevin Keegan as a player," joked Muurinen, who started in the Finnish fourth division with Kontula.

In seven years with Kontula Muurinen, while still working part-time, guided the club from the fourth to the first division. He then moved to Lahti and then to Pietarsaari. From there he went to HJK Helsinki, where he enjoyed his greatest success, guiding the club to the Champions' League in 1998.

HJK reached the group stage by knocking out Metz in the qualifiers. That achievement - it was the first time a Finnish side had gone past the qualifying rounds - persuaded the Finnish federation to appoint him as Richard Moeller-Nielsen's successor 10 months ago.

"I'm very happy in the job," says Muurinen, who admits he has found the lack of daily contact with the players difficult. "It's very different from working as a club coach, where you train the players twice a day. International coaches don't work every day."

Whatever Finland's shortcomings might be as a team, Muurinen remains quietly confident about tomorrow night's match. He says England impressed him during Euro 2000 - or at least they did for 25 minutes against Portugal. "England are a very good side, as are Germany and Greece," he adds, displaying the diplomacy for which he is well known. "They all think that Albania and Finland will be easy to beat. We'll see."