A major international football tournament in Finland? Really? Believe it or not, but that truly is the case! Late August through early September, Finland is hosting the 2009 UEFA Women's Championship. Twelve national teams – including the Finns – will compete in the three-week competition, the first major non-junior tournament organized by Finland.
Known mainly for its love for winter sports such as ice hockey, Finland has a rather exceptional relationship with football, the undisputed king of summer team sports. During the long winter season Finnish football players take refuge in shadowy indoor arenas where they prepare for the short but hectic summer season. Despite the not-so-favorable conditions, football is, quite surprisingly, the most popular team sport in Finland. The Football Association of Finland has around 1000 registered teams and some 113 000 members, not to mention all the non-registered teams and players which make the total count of footballers almost a half a million.
Despite the popularity it enjoys among juniors and amateurs, Finnish football has so far been unable to deliver the kind of international success achieved by other Nordic nations like Sweden or Denmark. In fact, Finnish men's team have never even qualified for a major tournament. The women's team, however, have done better: the current home tournament is their second major event to date. The first tournament Finland took part in was the 2005 European Championship in England where they, to the surprise of many, made it through to the semifinal only losing it to Germany, the team that would eventually win the championship.
Finland was appointed host for this year's tournament in July 2006. The 12 teams who made it through the qualifying stage to the final tournament are divided into three groups. The two best teams out of each group together with the two overall best number threes will make it to the semifinals. The matches will take place in five different venues over the four cities of Helsinki, Turku, Tampere and Lahti. The final is played in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium on 10 September.
The list of teams competing in this tenth Euro Cup tournament offers no real shockers, Iceland being maybe the only minor surprise. The other contestants, alongside Finland and Iceland, are Denmark, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Russia, Sweden and Ukraine. The number of nations allowed in the competition was increased by four from the previous years.
The ambitions of the Finnish organizing parties are set just as high as those of the 12 competing teams. The total attendance for the tournament is hoped to reach 250 000, a fairly high estimate which would mean about 10 000 spectators per game. To meet this goal and to create more hype around the event, the organisers have handed out a considerable number of free tickets to schools and junior teams. The tournament of this scale couldn't obviously become reality without the untiring efforts of the full-time organizing committee backed by an army of 600 volunteers.
Even though the smaller European football nations have been able to step up their game over the recent years, there is no way around the fact that the traditional football countries still dominate the scoreboard and this year proves to be no different. In the previews for this year's tournament, Germany is widely considered the number one favourite closely followed by a number of ambitious challengers determined to dethrone the reigning European and world champion.
To get a full picture on how high the level of European female football is, look no further than the latest FIFA world ranking. All of the 12 teams competing in this year's Euro Cup are ranked in the top 19, many of them even breaking into the top 10. Finland and England fare not too badly either, being 18th and 9th respectively.
The 22 women making up the Finnish team are facing a tough challenge if they are to improve on their 2005 Euro Cup achievement which saw them play in the semis against Germany. Coach Michael Käld and his team are however confident that they are destined to do great things in front of the cheering home crowd. After failing to qualify for the 2007 World Cup by the closest of margins, the Finnish ladies are more than willing to prove the rest of the world that 2005 wasn't a mere fluke. Coach Käld can again introduce an experienced group that knows how to win international games: no less than 18 Finns play as professionals in Swedish, German and Norwegian major leagues.
The English women have a long and relatively consistent record in major tournaments, a history which dates back to 1984, the year they for the first, and so far only, time played in the Euro Cup final. Speaking about consistency, England has appeared in all but two Euro tournaments and has qualified for World Cup twice. The greater glory has nevertheless eluded the English ladies and there have been some bitter disappointments too. For instance, in the 2005 home games, England was left without a place in the semifinals, a cold shower to many enthusiastic English fans. Therefore it is clear that this year the English team headed by manager Hope Powell will do their best not to repeat the same mistakes and will instead try to fight their way to the final rounds. For England, the 2007 World Cup already saw a light at the end of the tunnel when the team made it to the semifinal. Manager Powell's group possesses a great deal of both ability and potential to prove the critics wrong and who knows, maybe they are closer to England's first ever major victory than one might expect.
Text: Joonas Mikkilä, Embassy of Finland
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