Having interviewed the current Finnish national team’s manager Anna Signeul in 2017 while she was with Scotland, Rich Laverty is well versed with the heartbreak that she’s suffered in qualifying for major tournaments. However, 2021 has seen things come full circle, as he discusses in his latest column.
Finland may not be the first team that people rush to watch, and perhaps they’re not well known as a women’s football nation, but to see them qualify for Euro 2022 in the last week in dramatic fashion might change that. As someone who met their current coach for a lengthy interview several years ago, it’s great to see them making that leap.
Swedish coach Anna Signeul was the Scottish head coach when I sat down with her in a Cyprus hotel in the lead up to Euro 2017, to discuss her team’s preparation for a tantalising opening match against England.
Signeul had been at the helm of the Scottish national team for over 10 years and revolutionised their set-up, and if you know the backstory of her successive heartbreaks with that team, you’ll understand why Finland’s two stoppage time winners in as many games have such meaning.
During that hour in her team’s Larnaca hotel, Signeul looked back at some of her near misses. This was probably made easier by the fact she was now looking forward to a major tournament with the nation she’d spent years sculpting, but it didn’t make listening to her reliving the agony any easier.
For Euro 2009, it was away goals that made the difference in a thrilling two-legged 4-4 aggregate match against Russia. After a 3-2 loss at home in Scotland, even an 85th minute winner in the return leg wasn’t enough to take Scotland over the line.
It was, however, the Euro 2013 competition which constituted the greatest heartbreak – it is also one that many probably don’t even know about:
In the play-offs, Scotland drew 1-1 at home to Spain in the first leg and then again in the second leg, taking the game to extra-time.
Kim Little’s 98th minute strike looked to have finally sent Signeul and Scotland to a first major tournament, and even Silvia Meseguer’s 113th minute goal wouldn’t alter that outcome.
But with minutes to go, Spain were awarded a penalty. Up stepped key player Veronica Boquete, only to have her effort saved. It looked to be all over until the same player volleyed into the back of the net in the 122nd minute.
As the Spain staff and substitutes flooded the pitch, Signeul sat slumped in her seat, stunned and demoralised – it had somehow all been taken away from the Scots. The video of how it all unfolded is on YouTube. Seriously, watch it. You won’t see more drama anywhere else.
To see Signeul qualify with Finland for her second consecutive Euro’s off the back of two late goals shows that good things do come back around. Ironically, it was Amanda Rantanen’s comedic 95th minute winner away at Scotland that ended Signeul’s former nation’s hopes of competing in England next year. Again, one to add to your watch list.
Then, in the group decider against Portugal at the weekend, with both sides tied on points, Linda Sallstrom’s 93rd minute winner sealed it – proof that good things do happen to good people. Certainly, Signeul is one of the good people I’ve met during my time covering the women’s game.
Finland’s late win in Edinburgh back in December did sadly bring an end to Shelley Kerr’s reign in charge of the Scottish national team, and simultaneously robbed us of the opportunity to see what should have been a new golden era for the squad – the likes of Caroline Weir, amongst others, competing on a big stage in England.
It’s likely an indictment of Kerr that a team consisting of not just Weir, but Kim Little, Erin Cuthbert, Claire Emslie, Jen Beattie and Rachel Corsie, couldn’t manage top two in their group and didn’t score a single goal in the four games against main group rivals Finland and Portugal.
Finland’s chances of success in England next year are slim, and they’ll know that. They’ll be in pot four alongside play-off winners as one of the nations with the lowest UEFA coefficient, but it will be a great chance once again to see Signeul and her team on a big stage.
Follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty