REUTERS: Finland are finally ready to make their bow at the finals of a major soccer tournament and will be basing their template for success on Iceland and Sweden as they take on Denmark, Russia and Belgium in Group B at Euro 2020.
For over a century their biggest achievement has been a fourth-place finish at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm when Finland was still part of the Russian Empire, but captain Tim Sparv and striker Teemu Pukki are ready to write a new chapter.
"Iceland and Sweden have served as inspiration. Sweden qualify for a major tournament almost every time and it became almost the new normal for them – for us in Finland it's definitely not normal," Sparv told Reuters with a smile.
"I hope that we'll get to that level in the coming decades. For me it's really important that this is not a one-off thing."
Sparv's team have made it one step further than Finland's "golden generation", which featured the likes of Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyppia but never reached a major tournament.
Defensive midfielder Sparv started his international career in 2009, just as that generation was coming to an end, and he sees a clear difference between them and their heirs.
"It's in some ways a modern Finnish football team. I think we still have the same values as before, we work really hard for each other, we're defensively really strong, and we have a group of players who are very humble," the 36-year-old explained.
"Offensively, we play a lot of atypical Finnish football. We have a lot of generational talent who are technically very gifted and who are comfortable with the ball in a way the older generation was not."
The Finns ensured qualification for the Euros with a 3-0 win over Liechtenstein, eventually finishing second in Group J on 18 points, 12 behind runaway winners Italy.
Top scorer was Teemu Pukki with 10 goals, making him an icon to Finland fans and a cult hero thanks to his exploits in the English Championship and Premier League with Norwich City.
Among the hidden gems are left-footed playmaker Robin Lod, midfield powerhouse Glen Kamara and young players like striker Marcus Forss and attacking midfielder Onni Valakari, who scored on their international debuts against France in November 2020.
The Finns open their Group B campaign against Denmark in Copenhagen on June 12 before two matches in St Petersburg, versus Russia on June 16 and Belgium on June 21.
"It is tough and our very ambitious goal is to qualify from the group, but we also have these smaller goals that will get us there – scoring the first goal, getting our first point, getting our first win," Sparv said.
"It's a very ambitious goal for a nation that's participating for the first time but... going to the European Championship I don't think you can have any other goal," he added.
(Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris)