The Spurs keeper sees a bright future for the Finnish team, as well as for aspiring female footballers across the globe, writes Um-E-Aymen Babar.
Tinja-Riikka Korpela hopes underdogs Finland will inspire the next generation of talent as the team prepares for the Uefa Women’s Euro 2022 in England this summer.
The Tottenham keeper, who has over 90 caps for her country, has lost none of her childlike enthusiasm for the game and was in celebratory mood after being named in their 23-player squad earlier this week.
Finland are preparing for tough group fixtures at the tournament, playing against Spain in their opener on July 8 before facing Denmark and Germany. But the team is daring to dream, and they are hoping to encourage young girls to do the same.
Speaking at an event on gender equality held at the Finnish Embassy this week, Korpela said: “We are very excited. The team was announced on Thursday and now it feels real. The game against Spain will be tough but we have a history of being the underdogs and that is our strength.”
Korpela is now on the cusp of playing in her third European Championships after first featuring on the big stage when Finland hosted in 2009. Although they were knocked out at the quarter-final stage by the Lionesses 13 years ago, impressive scalps over Denmark and the Netherlands made rivals sit up and take notice.
And for the goalie, who never believed she could become a professional footballer as a child due to the lack of visibility of female footballers, these successes were the culmination of a long-held but seemingly impossible ambition.
The 36-year-old has good reason to feel confident this time around: she’s at home with the Euros in England, having played in the WSL for three years at Everton and now Spurs.
Reflecting on Finland’s progress, she said: “The media wasn’t so interested in us before that tournament. It was during and after that tournament that we got a lot of attention. I remember thinking that this is what I have been training for as a young kid. The first thing we noticed was how many people came, they cared enough to come and watch us. I thought they wouldn’t come. After that I went to play in Norway, Sweden, Germany, and now I am here in England.”
It’s not just the players who’re optimistic about Finland’s chances of making it out of Group B. The entire country’s expectations have been raised by an unblemished qualification campaign that saw them record seven wins and a draw.
Jukka Siukosaari, the ambassador of Finland to the UK, added: “The line-up against Germany, Denmark and Spain will be tough, but the embassy has full confidence in the team and we are proud of having qualified for the Euros with an unbeaten record.”
Overcoming difficult challenges is something Korpela knows all about. The experienced keeper has witnessed first-hand the strides made towards gender equality during her long career in football. She started playing at just six years old in northern Finland and is now the captain of her national team 30 years later – but the path was never easy.
She said: “I didn’t have any female football players as role models because they did not exist – or so I thought, because they weren’t on TV or in the newspapers.
“I thought I couldn’t become a professional football player because I was a girl. I watched and played a lot of sports, and dreamed that one day I would play in front of thousands of people in these stadiums. I had posters of football players in my room – all of them were men.
“Luckily, I worked hard enough to achieve my dream that once seemed impossible. Fortunately, a few years later I found out that we did have a team and Finnish players were playing abroad. Why wasn’t this told to me before?
“I am lucky that I come from a country like Finland. There are still a lot of countries where girls cannot play. The girls there still dream about it and, thankfully, they do because dreaming is free. I want to believe that their dreams can come true.”Embed from Getty Images
These days, it’s Korpela who’s an inspirational figure for many young girls as they queue up for autographs and consider her one of their idols. “You want to tell them it is possible. It’s easier to believe your dream when you see it. We need to be seen and heard. Come to watch our games, show us on TV, write about us in the media. Little kids deserve it. We deserve it,” she added.
Korpela was joined by Brighton star Danielle Carter and journalist Rich Laverty on a panel at the event where a group of schoolchildren were able to ask the players about their motivations. The keeper’s message was simple: “Hold on to your dreams. I had the dream that I wanted to become professional and that kept me going. I learnt from my family that if you work hard then your dreams can come true. I always had their support so I am very grateful for that.”
While gender inequality remains a huge problem in women’s football, a similarly pressing issue is the game’s alarming lack of Black and Asian players. In 2017, Carter was appointed to the FA Council in their commitment to grow diversity and inclusion, but she expressed her concern that governing bodies were not doing enough. She said: “More needs to be done in trying to locate and give young Black and Asian players more opportunities, because they’ve not been able to showcase their talents where the scouts are.”
The panel also expanded on the media’s role in improving equality across the game, and the importance of visibility which Korpela touched on earlier. Laverty added: “There’s always more that could be done. There is a natural progression that will happen and we are seeing that now with all the newspapers having dedicated journalists to cover the women’s games. We’re seeing job roles being created that didn’t exist before.”
Aside from the natural progression of the game, some initiatives have made quiet but vital steps in increasing the visibility of the women’s game.
Carter pointed to the recent decision by the Germany men’s team to wear the women’s kit for their clash with England to show support for the Women’s Euros. “Whilst that may seem small, it was major because it shows the men are supporting the women’s team and it creates more conversation around that topic. As small as those things seem, they all add up.”
While the investment and interest in the women’s game is continuing to rise, and the upcoming tournament will be a huge factor in contributing to this growth, the overall agreement was that more still needs to be done. “We still have a long way to go,” said Korpela. But on her personal journey to the pinnacle of women’s football, you get the feeling she’s closer to the summit than ever.
Follow Um-E-Aymen Babar on Twitter @ItsUmeAymen