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Baxter battles against the odds

October 10, 2008
By Egan Richardson

What is a national team manager to do when his foreign-based striker won't answer the phone? In Finland, where mobile phones are a big part of the national stereotype, the answer is simple: send a text message.

GettyImagesNational coach Stuart Baxter is hoping to foster change in the Finnish game.

That's how Stuart Baxter, the 55-year-old British manager of Finland, has been communicating with Alexei Eremenko Jr in recent weeks, with the FC Saturn striker telling his club's website that he expected to be part of Finland's squad for this week's games against Azerbaijan and Russia. Baxter tried to tell him that this wasn't actually going to happen, and explain why, but couldn't get through.

'I sent him a very long SMS,' said the former AIK Solna, Helsingborgs and South Africa coach. 'I explained that we are trying to help him by doing this, but he has to get himself together and play for Saturn, then we will do everything possible to help him.'

'I don't like speculation about Alexei every time we pick a squad, I especially don't like it when he himself makes comments about it. He's been with the national team three times, the first time he turned up to camp and was out of shape, the second time he didn't turn up and we had no explanation, the third time we found out he had been very drunk two days before.'

This kind of stuff is not what the Finland manager should be doing. Speaking to ESPNsoccernet earlier, Baxter had sounded like a football missionary, teaching Finns the secrets of the beautiful game. Baxter has been in Sweden for a long time, and while the two countries are culturally similar, Sweden is miles ahead in terms of facilities, crowds, and results.

'I think it's fair to say that we have some grounds here that are at the same level as Sweden's before the 1958 World Cup,' said Baxter, invoking the tournament at which Brazil won their first World Cup and Sweden finished runners-up on home soil.

Whether to be 'more like Sweden' is a strong strand in every area of Finnish policy discussions from education to immigration, and football is no different. Swedish league matches draw huge crowds, with Stockholm derbies filling the 34,000 capacity Råsunda stadium, whereas in Finland crowds virtually never go above 10,000 for league matches. So how does Finland measure up to its bigger brother across the Gulf of Bothnia?

'It's difficult to compare, because in the big cities in Sweden there is a rivalry that is the motor of Swedish football. When I was at AIK Solna in 1998 the average crowds went up from 11,000 to 16,000, because it was the first time for a long time that the three big Stockholm teams (Hammarby, AIK Solna and Djurgården) were in the top division. The newspapers really pumped that up and you got 34,000 people at league games.'

'How do we translate that to Finland? We don't have the rivalry, so it's going to be supporter driven. The only way to drive that is improved facilities. People have to want to watch football, and they don't if the product is not what they think it should be and the place they are watching from is miserable,' says Baxter

Finnish stadia are pretty miserable, by and large. Teams play in athletics grounds, spectators watch from uncovered seating, and crowds are inevitably low. Even the Finnair Stadium, built in 2000 in the Töölö district of Helsinki, has a terrible reputation among football fans as a windswept and atmosphere-less bowl. That's quite an 'achievement' for a ground that only holds 10,770 people.

'When the situation is like that, and when people say we should go to a major tournament, two things have to happen. One, you have to develop a team that can take you there, and two; you have to develop the game. The development of the game is what underpins the national team.'

The problem is that there is no infrastructure for Finland beyond the few foreign-based stars. Baxter's job involves a lot of advocacy work to improve things, as the 'one last heave' approach has been proven not to work.

'We need to have something underpinning that group of elite players. We could qualify by a small margin or miss out by a small margin, but what we've done in the past is say to our best players 'come on, qualify this time', and if they don't then that's a failure. You get to the next qualification and if they don't manage it then that's a failure, and underneath that nothing is really changing.'

A lot needs to change in Finland. Many clubs have poor training facilities, unheated pitches which results in long spells of training indoors during the winter, and ramshackle stadia that don't keep fans dry or comfortable if the weather is not kind. And in Finland, the weather is often unkind.

'I've been talking to Honka about their new ground, and if they get a new ground they will need to have a good pitch,' says Baxter, leaning forward as he warms to the topic. 'You can get pitches now that are a mix of artificial turf and natural grass, knitted together so that the surface doesn't cut up in bad weather. You trim the grass very short, to the same length as the 5% or 10% that is artificial grass, and you don't have to worry about it becoming unplayable.'

It's difficult to imagine many other international managers getting as animated when talking about good groundsmanship, but Baxter's enthusiasm and almost evangelical zeal is indicative of the challenges he faces in a country that doesn't have much in the way of football facilities.

GettyImagesIn their opening World Cup qualifying fixture Finland claimed a creditable 3-3 draw with Germany.

'You get to each qualification and you give it your best shot, and maybe we can get to South Africa, but if we get there and nothing else is changing, you have to ask is that a success? Or is it a bit of luck? If we are going to qualify, it cannot be just a question of 'will you get there, yes or no'. We are going to get there and it is going to be because we are upgrading facilities, we are building a national academy, we are upgrading coaching education and talent identification, because we're setting out a whole strategy.'

Baxter much prefers talking about coaching and facilities than about Alexei Eremenko Jr, because he is a coach and he loves coaching. When a player fails to respond to coaching, to turn up ready to play as has happened with Eremenko in the past, it exasperates him. Baxter would like his ideas to be more automatic, that a 'Finnish style' of football can be developed that will give his players and teams an identity they can be proud of.

'I don't think they've ever settled on a Finnish way of playing. You know what is French, you know what's Italian, you know what is Brazilian, but we haven't ever done that for Finland. If we went to a World Cup, what are we going to take there and say 'this is what we're good at'?'

'Every country will reflect in the way they play football the way people live. I think in Finland, because of the climate and the history of the country, people have a bit more grit, they're a bit harder. They had to be to get through daily life'.

'There's been quite a lot of development in the clubs. That needs to be fast-tracked, because we are still behind. I think the facilities are massively important, because that's an indicator of the general popularity, the general desire, and the general interest in the game, because you're asking people to spend money.'

'We can all talk about it, but if you're not going to put your hand in your pocket to give that player a bigger contract to stop him going to Norway, the players are going to keep leaving. If you're going to put you're hand in your pocket for a new stadium because you believe your supporters deserve more, it's a big test isn't it? And at the moment we fail that test.'

  • On Saturday Finland host Azerbaijan in their Group 4 World Cup qualifier Baxter will hope that his team can replicate the impressive goalscoring which saw them draw 3-3 with Germany in their opening fixture last month.

    • Additional research by Marjo Myllyaho