Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Iceland, you make us look even worse

I have to admit: It gave some serious goosebumps. Iceland just beat England 2-1 in the Euro 2016 playoff. The effect on this side of the screen was a mixture of admiration for the Icelanders and a sense of sympathy for the English. It must sting to first have your Brexit-pumped masculine national pride rise through the roof, and then get your ass kicked by Iceland in a game you invented. I assume that now they know approximately how this guy felt.

There was another aspect in the experience of watching that ass-kicking spectacle, though. That aspect was due to a very specific fact: I am a Finnish guy who likes international football.

To make a long story short, Finland has never qualified to a major international tournament. And it is fair to say that there have been, well, numerous efforts. The sport is not without traditions in Finland. The 1912 Olympics tournament saw the Finnish team, back then officially appearing under the flag of Russia, finish fourth. That still stands as the country’s best international achievement. Let’s face it – if your main bragging rights is a fourth place from a tournament that has long since lost any real significance, dates back to a time when you were technically not a country, and to an era when about five countries in the world knew the concept of sports, things could be better. But as a Finnish football fan, you quickly learn to take what you can get.

Football in Finland of later days has had its peaks, however. We have had Jari Litmanen achieving greatness in Ajax in the 90’s. We have had Sami Hyypiä captaining Liverpool FC. A couple of decades ago, there was even something you could call a “golden generation”. There were a bunch of high-class European top professionals. But even they never qualified to any international tournaments. They were good, though – occasionally they had to score an own goal by their own goalkeeper’s arse on the second minute of added time to escape such an anomaly. That’s how good they were.

In later years, it has been a bit worse. Nowadays that arse-goal counts as “the good old times”.

But here’s the thing: It was all supposed to change for the Euro 2016. Now 24 teams would qualify. That would give at least a sporting chance to weaklings like Finland. And to top it all, for once we had luck in the draw – or so we thought. Finland was drawn in a group with Northern Ireland, Romania, and Hungary, which was unanimously, and excitedly, assessed as relatively easy. Much like going up Mont Blanc in a wheelchair is relatively easy if you first tried the Himalayas.

The result? A point from Romania, a point from Northern Ireland, matches that absolutely nobody wants to remember, a sacked coach, and a comforting feeling that at least some things in the chaotic world are still permanent. Meanwhile, Iceland swept the floor with the Netherlands, and qualified.

That’s why Iceland’s heroics in the Euro 2016 come with an extra twist. It is like the final and ultimate insult added to the gaping, incurable injury that is known as supporting the Finnish national football team. I mean, earlier we at least had a handful of excuses. You know, the usual – the long winter, lack of resources, poor facilities, small talent pool. You cannot expect a small nation trapped in the Nordic conditions to really compete in the world’s biggest sport, not even momentarily, you said (and tried very hard to ignore that Sweden exists). And then you watch Iceland beat England and march into quarterfinals.

Yes, Iceland, the nation about the size of the city of Tampere, physically existing as an ash-farting little island in the middle of north Atlantic. It is not quite the center of the footballing world – or the center of anything else. Hell, if a country’s history involves a major emigration event from there to Greenland, it is not exactly Rome. But man, those Icelanders are a tough tribe. It is safe to say that after England was decimated by a country that literally has to send in every fourth of its professional footballers to even field a team, the Finns are finally out of excuses.

That is when a Finnish football fan finds a way to combine crazy creativity with self-pity. The idea is this: Could we just fold the national football team? Decide that we do not want to do this anymore? Is that a thing you can do? Has anyone tried?

I mean, the voice of reason has to step in at some point. We could just count our losses and admit that we never quite got the hang of this football thing. We could keep amateur football, but leave the international play to others, and use our limited resources to something that has even a minuscule chance of success and does not produce national traumas on a yearly basis, right?

The more you think about it, the better the idea gets. We could make pacts with football academies and national football associations abroad. In the rare cases when a kid with football talent grows up in Finland, we could dispatch them to a partner country, to learn the language and integrate there, so that they could quickly acquire the new citizenship. We could still enjoy seeing Finns in international games, only in other countries' squads. It is sure that many more of the kids would reach that level after not having to spend their youth in the footballing equivalent of Mordor. If we negotiate the agreements right, we could reap great rewards. I mean, Norway has not been that strong in international competition lately, right? Let’s strike a deal with them: You get all our football talents, and you send us some of your cross-country skiers (preferably some of the less asthmatic variety). We would even gladly take just that one guy who is the fifth-fastest sprint skier in the world, but never sees international competition because a single country is only allowed to send four athletes. Everyone would be happy!

But then again, maybe it is not good to mess with the basic building blocks of national identity. A Finn feels at home in a cozy mixture of humility, self-belittling and general pessimism. We like to be regularly reminded that life is ultimately a hopeless march towards new disappointments. After we somehow got disturbingly good in hockey, sports do not serve that purpose quite like they used to. At least we can trust the good old football squad to always carry that flag. Who am I kidding? In the next campaign we will be cheering for them again, knowing that even if they do not qualify, they will always continue to provide unforgettable experiences for new generations. There will come a year when they’ll wait until the third minute of added time before the inevitable arse-goal.

But lastly, and finally seriously: Iceland, you are awesome. I hope to visit someday.

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