Thursday, June 11, 2009
Hiddink's modernity slays Finland's golden generation
Guus Hiddink is a man used to rapturous welcomes. Fresh from his stint as Chelsea's saviour, the former South Korea and Australia manager returned to the international stage to effectively end Finland's hopes of qualifying for the World Cup, and the applause he received at the post-match press conference was indicative of the importance Russians attach to his role with their national team.
The last time I covered a Russia match for Soccernet, when they played Estonia in March 2007, the themes were similar. Alexandr Kerzhakov scored two goals, Russia won, and Hiddink talked a lot about modern football afterwards. It went much the same way this time, although the victory was much more impressive, and Hiddink's invocation of modernity had a touch more authority as a result.
One major difference is Kerzhakov's position in the team. He has had a spell in the wilderness, excluded from Russia's successful Euro 2008 campaign, but Hiddink brought him back for this match and afterwards lauded his modern style of play, which seems to be the highest praise Hiddink can bestow on any player or team. The Russian press were naturally curious as to what sparked his recall.
"He was indeed out a long time, because he was at Sevilla and he didn't play a lot there," explained Hiddink. "Later on he went to Dinamo (Moscow) and to be honest he was not performing well, and we had other strikers who were. He has big qualities but he should also work for the team."
"What he's doing now is working defensively, and in modern football you must work hard defensively, you must encourage each other and you must be committed to the team, and he's showing that perfectly this season. I'm happy with his change - not a complete change, but some change of commitment and attitude towards the national team and towards his companeros, his colleagues. And that's the way it should be."
Hiddink also mentioned Vladimir Bystrov's improvement, and consequent return after a spell out of the team, and it showed in Russia's second goal. The Spartak Moscow man bustled in between Toni Kallio and Roman Eremenko to go through on goal, with the two Finland players static and passive. They had completely contrasting games, with Eremenko easily Finland's most impressive player, and Kallio left wondering whether he will play for his country again after a disappointing performance against the pace of Bystrov.
Kallio has been the weakest link in the old guard of the Finnish national team, especially as his direct replacement, Niklas Moisander, won the Dutch championship with AZ Alkmaar this season while Kallio has rarely played for Fulham's first team. The choice reflects a wider dilemma in Finnish football, the choice between deference and respect for experienced and established players and the development of a younger generation.
"I don't want to give any knee-jerk reactions when I'm unhappy about losing," Finland coach Stuart Baxter said after the game when asked about any likely changes in the squad he will select for future qualifiers. He went on to criticise his players for lacking bravery, and claimed that Moisander could not be given his debut in a match as important as this because he is inexperienced.
More than one observer muttered about Baxter's lack of bravery in failing to give Moisander a debut before this crucial juncture, but Finland-watchers will be astonished if Moisander is not a first choice in the autumn.
In the build-up to the game Finland's two Champions League winners were seen as evidence that Finland should not be overawed by Russia's star players, but after the game neither Sami Hyypiä nor Jari Litmanen would give assurances about their future participation with the national team. Their generation is Finland's best ever crop of footballers, having moved abroad young and achieved some success with their clubs, but it now looks like they will never play in a major tournament.
Some Finns blame the five year reign of Antti Muurinen for that, as the former HJK coach was widely believed to be out of his depth. A trained electrician from the part-time Finnish football tradition, he was often subdued and maybe even subordinate to his star players.
By the time he went, Hyypiä was 31 and Litmanen 34, and the fact that both have clung tenaciously on to the dream, performing well in successive qualifying campaigns even with occasional blips, is testament to their professionalism. Under Roy Hodgson and Baxter, the well-travelled and well educated British coaches that followed, Finland's performances improved but their development programme stalled as the 'golden generation' was allowed one more crack at it.
That is likely to change now, and maybe a Finnish team not haunted by past failures will be able to build a new foundation. The footballing no-show on Wednesday night was compounded by the largest contingent of visiting fans ever to watch a football match in Helsinki.
The Finnish FA estimated that there were 13,000 Russian fans in the ground, some drawn from the Russian community living in Finland and some crossing the border to support their team.
The Finnish FA felt moved to explain the reasons for this after the game, which amounted to a combination of Russians buying them directly and Finns selling them on. Sanctions may follow for the flares that were thrown from the Russian stands, but the biggest security operation for a sporting event held in Finland was largely successful, despite some minor scuffling outside the ground before the game.
Games against Russia carry a special meaning for Finland, and former Crystal Palace midfielder turned scribe Aki Riihilahti tried to calm the mood in his newspaper column on the day of the game.
"Today we are not fighting the Winter War against the almighty Soviet Union, we're playing 11-a-side football with our eastern neighbour," wrote the Iltalehti columnist and Djurgården player.
Rival tabloid Iltasanomat did little to assist in this regard, mocking up a montage of Isto's maiden - a painting that dates from the period of tsarist rule in Finland and criticises the government's policy of russification - with the somewhat unmaidenlike Jonatan Johansson representing Finland as the double headed eagle attacks above his head.
In the original painting the maiden is holding a law book, representing Finland's privileges and autonomy as a Grand Duchy under the tsar, whereas in the newspaper and the Finland fans' banner displayed before the game, the book was replaced by a football.
The Russia fans themselves held aloft an image of a mythical warrior before the match, but their players needed little extra inspiration. The team Hiddink has moulded now has every chance of wresting first place in the group from current leaders Germany, with the match between the two sides to be played in Moscow now crucial in deciding which team qualifies automatically.