Teemu Pukki is Blazin’
Last year saw a true revival in the belief amongst Finland’s national team.
Two years previously they’d just come off the back of a chastening year. A bruising nine defeats from 11, supplemented only by a pair of draws, had seen 2016 deemed a write-off. “We had a really hard time,” Teemu Pukki admitted to FIFA.com.
But that dour mood fulfilled its transformation last year, following a steady rise, as they topped their UEFA Nations League group. It was a rare chance to delight in a Finnish football triumph for a nation that is still yearning for a major tournament debut. In-form striker Pukki hopes it could be a springboard.
“It was a big thing for Finland,” the 28-year-old explained. “We haven’t achieved that much – almost nothing in my lifetime in the national team – so that was a special thing. It’s a big dream for all the Finnish people to go to a EUROs or a World Cup. That’s the challenge now.”
His side’s leading active cap-holder, the Norwich City man was crucial to that conquest, netting three goals in three successive 1-0 victories to put them in the driving seat and seeing them up to 59th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. It was perhaps no surprise, however, with the former Schalke and Celtic striker in red hot form since his move to Norwich City.
With 24 goals in 35 games he has put the Canaries in pole position for promotion to the English Premier League as he tops the scoring charts in his debut season. “The last couple of seasons in Denmark had been really good,” he said, having left Brondby with a cup winner’s medal.
“It’s been really easy to come into the team, the guys were really nice to me and took me in really well. Also, the way we play suits me really well. I’ve been enjoying it from the first moment and that for me is when you play the best.”
Ten years on since his debut, he featured alongside the likes of the legendary Jari Litmanen, but relying on top-level players is unfortunately not a luxury currently available to them. “When I played my first game there were some world class players like Litmanen and [Sami] Hyypia.
“They were really close to achieving something. I’d hoped we would be there, but I’d like to see this age group take Finland somewhere.”
But their first steps towards qualifying for UEFA EURO 2020 are far from a walk in the park. “It’s probably the hardest game we have coming up first: Italy away. But I think it’s good to get that game out of the way and for them also it’s their first national team game in quite a while, so we’ll just need to believe.
“They didn’t make it to the World Cup, so it’s really important for them to be there in first place and go through,” he said assessing their chances of making the top two. “There’s also Bosnia and Herzegovina, but all the games are going to be tough.”
With Greece, Armenia and Liechtenstein also for company, their last qualifying campaign holds some encouraging memories, following coach Markku Kanerva’s arrival that began their rise from 110th in the world. “He has known us all for a long time, too, having coached us in the U-21s. So he knows how to get the best out of us.
“Towards the end of World Cup qualification we managed to not lose any games,” Pukki stated confidently. “We drew against Croatia, who reached the World Cup Final, so that already has us thinking we are able to beat some bigger teams and play even games against them.
“It’s not going to be an easy group but I do believe we have a chance – and I think the whole team do, too.”