Bem-vindo ao Estádio do Dragão
Kalle Koskinen Recalled His Senior International Debut For Finland
"Bem-vindo ao Estádio do Dragão!"
The voice of the stadium announcer could only just be heard booming over the ever-increasing volume of the stadium's capacity-filled atmosphere. Portugal's national stadium was packed to the brim ahead of an important night of international qualifying football.
The hosts were narrowly behind Poland at the top of Group A for the 2008 UEFA European Championships and required a win to have any chance of topping the group. However, second place was also enough to secure qualification and the runners-up of the previous competition would have settled for consolidating that on the final match day of what had been an intense qualifying campaign.
We were sitting in third place, heading into the game. Mikael Forssell and Shefki Kuqi both scored late on to secure a dramatic win over Azerbaijan in Helsinki four days previously to set up an exciting tie. We knew that a win was enough to secure our first ever participation in a senior international tournament and we were determined to get it.
I had received my maiden call-up from manager Roy Hodgson for the set of internationals. I was one of HJK's brighter performers in a disappointing Veikkausliiga campaign which saw us finish in a very lowly seventh position, some twenty points off top spot, and had been named in the competition's team of the season. A run of scoring in eight consecutive games, from midfield, had cemented my place is a key player for the capital side and we were determined to bounce back in the next campaign.
At the age of twenty-one I was still very young by football terms, and certainly much younger than some of those who I joined in the national team roster. I was surrounded by national legends, most notably former Ballon d'Or third placed attacking midfield maestro Jari Litmanen and Liverpool's defensive hero Sami Hyypiä. Both players had lifted the holy grail of the UEFA Champions League, as well as several other major trophies, but had never seized the opportunity of reaching a major international tournament. At the ages of thirty-six and thirty-four, respectively, the upcoming European Championships was their last chance of capping off remarkable careers in style.
It was a team dotted with quality, in truth, with the reliable Jussi Jääskeläinen in between the sticks and former Chelsea cult hero Mikael Forssell at the other end of the pitch. Experience and quality combined to give the national team their best ever set of players in history, with a worthy manager in Roy Hodgson at the helm. It ever there was a time to reach a major tournament, this was it.
Roy sat me down the day before the game against Portugal and explained to me that he planned on starting me in midfield, alongside Jari Litmanen and Markus Heikkinen. We had anticipated the Portuguese to line up with two midfielders and he asked for me to run them ragged and to keep their midfield under immense pressure and on the back foot as often as possible. It was a big ask for a player with no previous senior international experience but he trusted in my energy and my desire to do the necessary to win.
The importance of the fixture did not properly sink in until we began our pre-game warm-up. The stadium was full to the rafters a long time before kick off and the singing boomed from the stands. The crowd moved and spoke in unison, in support of the hosts. They truly defined how the fans could be the twelfth man. It was intimidating. It was beautiful. It was football.
Then kick-off came. It was us against them. Nothing else in the world mattered. Before the referee blew his whistle I looked towards the away fans where my father was. His face was lit up with pride. He gave me a nod of confirmation, as if to say 'this is the opportunity you craved, now take it'.
And take it I did. Within eight seconds I had upended Portugal's Miguel Veloso with a strong, but fair, challenge, sending the player to the ground and the ball out of play. I was immediately swarmed by the opposition who shoved me and screamed at me in a foreign tongue. Pepe and Bruno Alves were at the heart of it.
I was pulled away by Jari Litmanen, the calmest player on the pitch, as the referee immediately. Jari whispered words of encouragement in my ear, telling me to continue pressing their buttons. He turned and jogged backwards towards his position, winking at Pepe as he did so. His counterpart was left with a scowl of pure rage, as if he was a child who had been told he could have no more sweets.
The Portuguese were as graceful as they were aggressive, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Ricardo Quaresma offering flair and trickery on either side. They continuously attempted the extravagant but our rearguard, lead by the composed and alert Sami Hyypiä, reduced Portugal's opportunities to set-pieces. We were here to win and our performance in the opening minutes of the game showed that.
The first half so us create no more than a hand-full of chances as our attack was matched well by the hosts' rearguard, with Jari coming close with a wicked long-range effort while Forsell directed a back-post header agonisingly over the bar. We conceded two free-headers from set-pieces but Jussi was excellent in goals as he parried both away from danger.
We went into the dressing room at half-time with our tails up. We had matched the hosts, despite the awesomely-terrifying atmosphere, and looked more like scoring from open play. Roy kept us on our toes, however, and was not happy with the number of set-pieces we had conceded. While Ronaldo and Quaresma were infamous for feigning foul incursion, Roy pleaded with us not to present them with valid opportunity to do so.
We upped the tempo in the second half and pushed for the all-important goal, as did the hosts. They attacked and we defended well, then we attacked and they defended well. It was a complete contest between both sides as the game ran towards its conclusion.
Portugal boss Luiz Felipe Scolari seemed content with a share of the spoils and had set his team up to defend deep in the final stages of the game, allowing us to do all the attacking. We obliged, with wave-after-wave of crosses, long balls, short intricate plays and set-piece routines, but to no avail. The Portuguese held the door shut.
As the game creeped into stoppage time, we knew we had to give it all or nothing. Either we won and earned qualification or we didn't win and failed, once more. We upped the urgency and gave it everything we had.
Then came the drama. With Litmanen substituted midway through the second period, I had been handed the set-piece responsibilities. I lofted a deep free-kick into the penalty area where Sami was set to attack the ball but an eager Pepe left the 'Flying Finn' in a heap on the ground, with the ball sent back where it came from. As my team mates protested Pepe's challenge in the area to the ref, I controlled the ball on my chest before putting everything I had into one last strike at goal from all of thirty-five yards. The ball whistled, like an arrow, into the far top corner. We had done it, we had reached the European Championships.
I punched the sky and ran towards the away supporters with my arms aloft, roaring with ecstasy on my way. My fellow team-mates, including the subs, had swarmed me as celebrated what was surely the winning goal. It was a brilliant feeling. We had done it.
Except we hadn't. The ref was standing at the penalty spot, signalling that we were to take a penalty kick for the foul of Pepe on Sami. He had no interest in playing advantage, despite every Portuguese player looking to play on at the time. As soon as the goal had gone in, our opposition had argued with the ref to the point where he felt obliged to award the foul. My debut goal was chalked off, but we still had the opportunity from the penalty spot.
Up stepped Mikael Forssell, a man who had stepped up to the challenge so many times. But this time was different. We thought the game was over and we had won. We felt cheated, and there was an unusual stir in the air. Even before he began his run-up, it was evident that the stars had aligned to deny us what we craved so much. Forssell's spot kick was tipped wide by Ricardo and the referee blew the full-time whistle. The game had finished nil-nil; a good result and a strong performance but it was not enough for us to achieve the qualification we coveted so dearly. The dream was over.
, I've always been envious of your writing ability, to be honest!
, he's an authorative figure! Thank you for the kind words.
Previous Update: #2 - Rite of Passage
Next Update: #4 - Sie Sind Die Besten