Party time: Finland into its first major soccer tournament

Sports

Teemu Pukki of Finland, right, celebrates his goal during the Euro 2020 Group J qualifying soccer match between Finland and Liechtenstein in Helsinki, Finland, on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. (Martti Kainuleinen/Lehtikuva via AP)

HELSINKI (AP) — Flag-waving Finland fans poured onto the field, embracing each other and mobbing the players as fireworks exploded outside the stadium.

A party decades in the making finally erupted in Finland after its national soccer team qualified for a major tournament for the first time on Friday.

The Finns beat Liechtenstein 3-0 in Helsinki to secure a place in next year’s European Championship and end decades of embarrassments, disappointments, and near misses on the international stage.

“Many of us have been waiting for this for years, some even for decades,” read a post on the Twitter feed of Finland’s national team.

“15.11.2019 will be remembered as the day when the Dream of Generations came true. And we did it together.”

Jasse Tuominen scored in the first half and fellow striker Teemu Pukki, the team’s most celebrated player, added two goals after halftime in front of Finland’s jubilant fans at the Telia 5G-areena.

The victory guaranteed second place behind Italy in Group J of Euro 2020 qualifying, with a game to spare.

Better known for its ice hockey team, rally drivers, and javelin throwers, Finland — a nation of around 5.5 million people — was the only major Nordic country to have failed to reach a World Cup or European Championship in soccer.

The class of 2019 achieved what Finland’s so-called “golden generation” — including Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypia — failed to do around the turn of the century. Litmanen, the former Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool playmaker, was in the stadium on the historic night.

The team is coached by Markku Kanerva, a former primary school teacher who inherited a side that had gone all of 2016 without a competitive win. He has made Finland hard to beat and defensively strong — and has a potent scorer in Pukki, who has nine goals in nine games in qualifying.

The win sparked wild celebrations in the team’s dressing room and across Finland, where soccer has been high on the sporting agenda this year because of the team’s success. Hundreds of people — many half-naked despite below-freezing temperatures — gathered round the famous Havis Amanda statue and its fountain in central Helsinki to celebrate the achievement, like sports fans did after Finland won the men’s hockey world championship this year for the first time since 2011.

“Oh Finland is, oh Finland is, oh Finland is finally in the men’s soccer championship!” Finland’s Prime Minister, Antti Rinne, tweeted.

Finland, which is the 34th different national team to qualify for a European Championship, has been in great form for the past two years under Kanerva. It also finished top of its group in the UEFA Nations League last year, guaranteeing a playoff spot for Euro 2020 that will not now be necessary.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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