After a long period of regression, the Finnish are looking to get back to the top of the game.
June 19, 2016 by Lorcan Murray in Preview with 0 comments
There is a storm building in Europe — spinning in the streets of Salzburg, ploughing across French fields, and lurking in Swedish parks — and it’s heading straight for London. With WUGC nearly upon us, it is time to learn a bit more about some of the men’s teams who will be competing in England next week, squaring off against the best the world has to offer.
Once resting near the top of the world both geographically and in ultimate, Finland has a long and varied history. Somewhat of an ice age has followed the heyday of Finnish relevance on the international stage. Appearances in semifinals were once routine for the Finns. Their highest placed finishes in the WUGC Open division are their silver medals from Gothenburg in 1983 and Leuven in 1988. The subsequent growth of ultimate throughout Europe and further afield led to a recession of Finnish relevancy after their 1999 European gold medals. However, on a recent trip to Japan, the Finns were the only team to improve their seeding into the top eight, showing that there are embers under the ice. Recent outings, or lack thereof, cast doubt over the true depth of this team, but there is definitely something lurking in their lakes.
Ultimate traditions are deeply rooted in Finland. The first instances of discs cutting through the brisk Scandinavian air date back to the seventies, which in ultimate history is nearly Neolithic. It seems the initial ultimate purveyors sought to repay old debts to the Vikings by introducing the sport to their homeland first. The Finns, along with Sweden, were some of the first Europeans to play ultimate, creating an intense rivalry that continues to this day. Sweden has had the upper hand in this battle for the last few years, Leuven being the last time the Finns placed above them at a world championships1. A reality the Finnish are painfully aware of.
The Finnish national selection board has trusted the coaching responsibilities of the national squad to a relatively young group of player-coaches. Jarno Sihvo of Espoo’s Otso along with Mikko Paanasalo and Pekka Kinnunen from Sipoo’s SOS have been tasked with reigniting Finland’s national team. The young coaches were blooded together on Finnish junior teams and are products of Finland’s impressive youth system. While administrators and captains support them, the Finnish ultimate community is looking to these three men to inject the national squad with fresh ideas before London.
It is understandable, given the size of ultimate in Finland, that the selectors knew most of the players invited to try-outs. However, in keeping with the focus on rejuvenation from the coaches, several less experienced or established players were invited. A few of these players impressed at the try-outs and outweigh their inexperience by bringing a buoyant and hungry attitude to the team.
The finalized squad still has plenty of experience in reserve. Outside of the standard levels of skill and athleticism expected, the selectors looked for positivity. The Finnish have played more international tournaments than most European squads and they know how crucial being able to get out of bed positive on Day Four of a tournament is. Defeat and setbacks in some form are inevitable during both preparation and participation in the World Championships. The Finns have seen all sides of the tournament, from dizzying highs to demoralizing lows, and they have built a squad ready for either.
The Finns are looking to move the disc frequently and with little hesitation. Their strength lies in their unpredictability on both sides of the disc. The Finnish are coming to London with a thick playbook, the young leadership looking to deliver on their promise of innovation. Spectators of the team can look forward to high-speed attack and high-flying defense. Of course, given their limitations, there will be moments during this tournament where their destiny lies in the reception of one crazy play. This is a by-product of playing the aggressive style of offense the Finns are looking to export — potentially unfortunate for them, guaranteed success for those of us watching.
Players To Watch
Erkka Niini’s game is like a fine silk dress: seamless. A cutter blessed with the height, speed, and intelligence trifecta, Niini utilizes his natural gifts to disrupt offenses and make key receptions. Not content to rely purely on athleticism, Niini sets himself apart from other cutters with his well-honed throws and intelligence.
Roni Hotari fills the role of team medic. When things start to go bad, it is into Hotari’s hands the Finnish place their lives. A routine MVP in national finals, his eagle vision and surgical throws affords Hotari a confidence that will be well tested in London. When panic inevitably starts to creep in to the corners of Finland’s offense, it will be Hotari prescribing the Xanax. Teammates with Niini on Espoo’s Otso, these two know how to lead a squad.
The youngest player for Finland is also one of their best. Lempäälän Kisa’s Jaakko Junttu is teasing excellence in the build up to the championship. Junttu throws with the confidence of a man looking to break the world. Not content to dominate the start of possessions, Junttu is partial to taking gallop for the endzone to finish them.
What To Expect
The Finnish have languished periodically in the last 20 years. For each Sakai, there has been a Copenhagen. In one incarnation, they defeat Germany; the the next, they lose to Spain. There is no fear in the squad making its way to London in June. They feel like on their day they can raise their game to match anyone on the continent, a lofty aim for any country lacking members of the Wettin royal family. Their recent performance in the Confederations Cup raised more questions than it answered, but it was designed to be an inquisitive trip. It is fair to say aspects of Finnish ultimate froze over during the nineties, but recent efforts and impressive work on their Junior systems have started a thaw. Ask any Scandinavian geologist: the glaciers have retreated, Finland is rising.
Though beating the Swedes in the EUC final in 1999 did provide some sweet relief. ↩