Finnish start to bridge the gulf

Phil Gordon in Helsinki reports on the progress made by minnows
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The Independent Football

The woods which overlook the Olympiastadion underline that autumn arrives early in Helsinki. The deep shades of gold and rust on the leaves contrast vividly with the clean white lines of one of world sport's most recognisable arenas.

The woods which overlook the Olympiastadion underline that autumn arrives early in Helsinki. The deep shades of gold and rust on the leaves contrast vividly with the clean white lines of one of world sport's most recognisable arenas.

Unlike the trees, the stadium does not look a day older than it did when Emile Zatopek was pounding around its track to earn three gold medals at the 1952 Olympics. Looks are deceptive, though, and if England turn up here on Wednesday thinking it will be just another stroll in the park, then a country better known for its long-distance runners than its footballers may just make them go all the way.

Even a World Cup qualifying tie will fail to change the fact that football trails in fifth in popularity behind ice hockey, motor sports, athletics and cross-country ski-ing in the hearts of the Finnish people.

When you've got Mika Hakkinen, you can afford to be blase about the success of Sammi Hyypia. The statues in the park to Paavo Nurmi and Lasse Viren are also testimony to how Finland remembers its Olympic heroes, yet sitting in the shadow of the 72-metre Olympic tower is a new monument which proves football is making up ground.

The Finnair Stadium may have only 11,000 seats but the new home of HJK Helsinki, which opened in June, is a state of the art ground which indicates how Nordic hearts have finally warmed to the beautiful game.

The appearance is as stylish as its neighbour ("a majestic ocean liner, one of the finest contributions to architecture the Olympic movement has made," declared stadium expert Simon Inglis), but did not forget to include the most important aspect. Atmosphere.

With a nod to England, the ubiquitous running track has been deposed by square ends. Beneath the sweeping roof hang giant heaters to ensure supporters never want to leave early. A large slice of the cost was underwritten by Finnair, highly appropriate since the airline is doing very well out of the new wave of footballers whom national coach Antti Murinen has to call home from every corner of Europe to play for Finland; Jari Litmanen from Barcelona, Joonas Kolkka from PSV Eindhoven, Hyypia, Jonatan Johansson, Mikael Forssell and others from the Premiership.

One Englishman who has watched the Finnish football evolution is Keith Armstrong. The former Sunderland and Newcastle United player arrived there 16 years ago and never came home. As coach of FC Haka, Finnish champions for the last two seasons, Armstrong feels that the Finnair Stadium is a symbol for change. "It's great finally to have a real football venue," he smiles. "The Finnish public, generally, notice football much more now. Ice hockey and motor racing are still the main attractions because Finland has world-class stars in those sports, but if more role models come along like Litmanen and Hyypia the game will take off.

"In the last two years football has made great leaps. One of the reasons was HJK making it to the Champions' League group stage in 1998-99 where they beat Benfica. Another is the national team, who have recorded some great results, such as beating Norway 3-1 in August.

"Finnish footballers are as good as Norwegians or Swedes but for some reason they don't always get the best out of themelves. However, there is a new breed of kid coming along, who has seen the success Litmanen has had and now Hyypia at Liverpool, and they can see the reward and are prepared to sacrifice a bit more to achieve something. In the past, they maybe had a job outside football, or studied, but now most do football full-time."

This is the schedule that Janne Saarinen follows. The HJK left-back may be the only domestic player to line up against England, after sitting out yesterday's match with Greece for the red card he incurred in last month's victory against Albania, and could be dealing with the threat of David Beckham. That, though, is a task he would like to have on a weekly basis.

"If any club wants to buy me, I would like to play in England," says the 23-year-old with frankness. "This is our chance to show what we can do as players." Saarinen has already played abroad. He spent two years at IFK Gothenburg, alongside Manchester United's Jesper Blomqvist, but opted to return to HJK when he saw the new philosophy adopted by his first club.

"We are professional now, football is all I do," he says. "When I was with HJK before, I was in the army but now we don't have anyone who works.

"I left Sweden because the football there is a similar standard to Finland. HJK have produced good players in the past, such as Antti Niemi [Hearts] and Mikael Forssell [Chelsea], but now we train twice a day, everyone concentrates on football and we've played in the Champions' League. The club and the players are improving together."

Ironically, Saarinen was a Liverpool fan as a boy. He's not alone. Thanks to television, there is a little bit of Anfield, Old Trafford or even St James' Park in every Nordic country.

"Everyone here has heroes who played in the English game," says Armstrong. "They were all brought up on the English game and have their favourite clubs, but that will only motivate them more against England." And the Geordie had a warning for Wor Kev. "I remember England came here in 1982 when Keegan was playing and won 4-1. That won't happen this time."