Finland are a team of Marcus Rashfords aiming to prove that nice guys don’t always finish last.
So says Crystal Palace cult hero Aki Riihilahti, who won 69 caps for the land of lakes and saunas and will be at their opener with Denmark this Saturday.
Just like campaigning Manchester United star Rashford, Finland captain Tim Sparv has made it his mission to back good causes.
Sparv was quick to stand up for team-mate Glen Kamara when the Rangers midfielder was racially abused by Slavia Prague's Ondrej Kudela.
But Riihilahti, who learnt to play on a tiny pitch cut out of a strip of Finnish forest by his dad Pasi, says Sparv is far from alone.
He said: “It’s a team full of players who are not like your typical footballers. The captain is actively taking a stand to do what’s right.
“You have Teemu Pukki, the nicest and most humble guy in the world. The goalkeeper, Lukas Hradecky. You can’t find a lovelier guy.
“Every player in this team is a good person and wants to promote good values. It’s like having a full team of Marcus Rashfords!”
Nicknamed the Eagles Owls after one famously landed on the crossbar during a game against Belgium, Finland are already flying high.
Former school teacher Markku Kanerva’s men are the first Finnish team EVER to qualify for a major tournament.
Riihilahti was part of the last side to go close, under Roy Hodgson in 2008, with a team containing legends like Ajax great Jari Litmanen and former Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia.
And as the man who now runs Finland’s biggest club HJK Helsinki, he is uniquely placed to give his verdict on the current team.
Riihilahti said: “I know most of the players. They all played at HJK at some point. I was surprised and proud they qualified.
“When we did it, in our stadium, we had a pitch invasion of 10,000 people. We had never seen anything like it. It felt like all our demons being exorcised.
“I drove through Helsinki the next morning and they were still dancing in the fountains! This usually only happens for ice hockey in our country.
“In 2008 the squad I was in needed a win in Portugal in our final game but it finished 0-0. That team was full of players from Europe’s top five leagues.
Top trending sport stories right now
“That’s not the case now. But it’s a team that has become better than it’s individuals, with amazing team spirit.
“They are hard to beat. Composed and compact. Tactically aware. They have performed consistently for three years. It’s not an accident.”
Riihilahti remembers another near miss that has become legendary among Finns – and their arch rivals the Swedes too.
He said: “It was 1998. We had to beat Hungary at home in the last qualifier. We were 1-0 up in the 93rd minute and they got a corner.
“Five players touched it. None of them Hungarian. But the ball was in our own net. We drew 1-1. That’s a legendary Finnish football story.
“The stadium was in shock. And the funniest thing is the announcer didn’t know what to do.
“So he just said quietly on the megaphone: ‘If it helps anybody, Sweden also lost today and didn’t get there either…’”
Finland is currently rated the world’s happiest country. After years of footballing hurt, they deserve to enjoy their moment in the sun.
Source: Read Full Article