Football might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Finland.
Long winter nights, saunas, Lapland, reindeer. A quick Google search highlights the telecommunications company Nokia as its most famous exporter, and that it is reputed to be “the happiest country in the world” with the best education system and the cleanest air… oh, and the hotel this reporter stayed at boasts “the best tap water in the world,” too.
Small mention of football, though. After all, ice hockey is the dominant sport here.
Finland have qualified for Euro 2020 but their lone victory in the competition was overshadowed by the fact that they came on during a game in which Denmark’s Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch. Copenhagen, after suffering a cardiac arrest. It was the nation’s first appearance at a major international tournament.
Not that there haven’t been notable Finnish players over the years. Jari Litmanen has played for Ajax, Liverpool and Barcelona throughout his long career. Sami Hyypia spent a decade at Anfield from 1999-2009, while Jussi Jaaskelainen played in the Premier League for 18 years during spells with Bolton Wanderers and West Ham. Laura Osterberg-Kalmari was nominated for FIFA Women’s Player of the Year in 2005 and 2006.
More recently, Teemu Pukki has impressed Norwich and Lukas Hradecky has been one of the most consistent goalkeepers in the Bundesliga over recent seasons.
Hradecky, now at Bayer Leverkusen, made a name for himself at Eintracht Frankfurt, and it was the German side – winners of the Europa League last season – who crossed the Baltic Sea to take on powerhouse Real Madrid , holder of the Champions League, in the Super Cup.
Litmanen, Osterberg-Kalmari and Jaaskelainen were all guests at the UEFA Fan Park on Tuesday, a day before the match at the 36,000 capacity Olympic Stadium.
Champions League, Europa League and Super Cup trophies were on display, but outside the fan park it would have been easy to miss a major European fixture heading to town. Indeed, on the other side of Helsinki’s large central station from the UEFA festivities, a music and arts festival drew a much larger crowd.
That will surely change on Wednesday.
Madrid are expected to attract around 1,800 fans. Meanwhile, 10,000 people are expected to arrive in support of Eintracht.
The signs were there even when Stats Perform arrived in Helsinki on Monday, with pockets of Eintracht supporters traveling to the city. A day later, the fan park was mostly populated by local football fans taking advantage of the rare opportunity that such a major sporting event – involving one of the biggest clubs in the world – was coming to their city.
The Helsinki center is likely to be a hub for Eintracht’s traveling masses, and even though Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti imposed the rule alongside him in an opening training session on Tuesday, fans of the German team were making their presence felt off the pitch as coach of the team. deceased.
This is nothing new, however. Barcelona manager Xavi was furious last season after 30,000 Eintracht fans reportedly managed to enter the Camp Nou to watch their side sensationally eliminate Barcelona in the Europa League quarter-finals. For the final against Rangers, which took place in Seville, authorities estimated that 50,000 Eintracht fans traveled to the Andalusian city.
“They played a big role, if I remember the game at Barca, 30,000, something special and that helped us a lot to perform at this level. They’re not there to sightsee, they’re there to support us because they believe in us,” goalkeeper Kevin Trapp said in Eintracht’s pre-match press conference.
“Tomorrow it will be the same, we know there will be another 10,000. We try to do our best and to be able to celebrate again. It’s a huge part of this club, this team, it makes us helps every time.”
Eintracht might have the loudest travel support, but any local neutrals are likely to be there to watch Madrid’s stars. Ancelotti, when asked about his brief experience of Finland so far, compared the country to Canada, his wife’s home, and in training his side looked sharp as they put on a show for various media and a small group of fans soaking up the late evening sun.
Karim Benzema and Luka Modric accompanied Ancelotti during Madrid’s press conference, with only two of the superstars expected to line up in white on Wednesday. Ancelotti, as amiable and calm as ever, confirmed that both players would start – unless they had any objections. His team has just finished its pre-season, and there were signs of players still shedding rust in the finishing drills that ended their training session.
Eintracht opened their Bundesliga campaign with a 6-1 hammering at the hands of Bayern Munich, and head coach Oliver Glasner knows that, even if his side are underdogs, they cannot be so naive against the 14 times European champions. With key player Filip Kostic out to complete a move to Juventus, Eintracht must avoid another humiliation, although it is an exceptional feat to have achieved this showpiece in the first place.
As for Helsinki, it may be a far cry from the footballing hotbeds of Paris, London, Milan, Munich or Madrid, but these cities already have their fair share of big matches. The welcome was warm, the weather perfect and the stadium – built in the 1930s but recently renovated – an ideal venue.
Asked after his fan park appearance, Litmanen told Stats Perform: “It’s very important for us to have this kind of game because we don’t see these things very often. We can’t get the final of the Champions League which we haven’t participated in. World Cup or European Championships. It’s a big game for Finland.”
Now is the time to enjoy the show.