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Finland hope for a ‘Pukki party’ at Euro debut

Helsinki (AFP) – When Finland’s players step onto the pitch at their first ever European Championship, the Nordic nation’s hopes will be pinned on star striker Teemu Pukki repeating his recent goalscoring success.

Pukki’s 10 goals in qualifying propelled Finland to their first major tournament, while his attacking prowess this season was key as Norwich City secured promotion back to the English Premier League.

“Of course, Pukki plays a huge role in our squad,” Finland manager Markku Kanerva said last week, adding that the side has “waited decades” to qualify for the finals of a major championship. 

In a country of 5.5 million where ice hockey reigns supreme, Finland’s Euro debut has caused the popularity of football to skyrocket, with Pukki as the sport’s new figurehead.

Celebratory “Pukki parties” erupted after the team qualified, while cans of “Norwich City craft beer” now line Finnish supermarket shelves, bearing Pukki’s face on the yellow label. 

“But I’m always emphasising the team effort,” Kanerva is quick to add. “He’ll need the other players to help him score goals.” 

For that, Kanerva will be able to call on the likes of midfielder Glen Kamara, formerly of Arsenal and now of Rangers, and Bundesliga-based Joel Pohjanpalo, as well as Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky.

New talents Marcus Forss of Brentford and Pafos’ Onni Valakari also made the squad.

The 21-year-olds both scored on their international debut last November, inflicting a shock 2-0 defeat on world champions France. 

“We’ll have to defend very well against the top teams, that’s for sure,” Kanerva said, adding that Finland’s unity and level-headedness are among their strengths. 

– Icelandic inspiration –

The “Eagle Owls”, 54th in the FIFA rankings, will face Denmark, Russia and world number one Belgium in the group stage.

“We’re the underdogs in this tournament but I think that’s something we like to be, it gives us power to show that we can really compete at that level,” Pukki told a press conference in Helsinki last week.

The team will be looking for inspiration from Iceland, whose remarkable success during the last European Championship in France saw them knock out England on their way to the quarter-finals, roared on by huge support and their “Viking Thunder Clap”.

Kanerva admitted that he recently invited Iceland’s then manager, Lars Lagerback, to share with his squad the secrets of “the Icelandic miracle”.

With vastly reduced crowds this time round due to Covid-19, however, only a fraction of the 30,000 Finnish fans who originally bought tickets to Euro 2020 are expected to be able to attend.

– Late bloomer – 

At 31, Teemu Pukki was something of a late bloomer: his career began in 2006 but his knack for notching up goals only truly came to light once he signed for Danish side Brondby in 2014.

He moved to Norwich on a free transfer in 2018, promptly scoring 29 times in his first season.

While known off the pitch as an unassuming, down-to-earth family man, once in the box his precision and calmness under pressure make him a dangerous assassin.

Laid low at the start of May by a torn ankle ligament, Pukki said he is “really confident” he will be back on form in time for the Euro. 

With a tally of 30 goals for Finland, he is now just two short of the country’s all-time top goalscorer Jari Litmanen, who helped Ajax to Champions League success in 1995.

Revered as the best Finnish footballer ever, Litmanen is still affectionately known as “the King”.

But as the Euro gets underway, Finnish fans will be willing Pukki to steal the king’s crown.

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