The minnows of Euro 2020 are braced for their toughest tests yet with Belgium, Spain, Holland and Russia all awaiting them in their groups.
But for North Macedonia and Finland, in particular, it is something of a miracle they are here at all – and they are going to enjoy it.
From the moment Norwich City’s Teemu Pukki fired Finland into their first finals, scoring twice in a decisive 3-0 win over Liechtenstein to finish second in Group J, #PukkiParty was trending on Finnish social media.
Finland and Norwich striker Teemu Pukki celebrates his country’s qualification for Euro 2020
And 18 months on since that famous night in Helsinki, the Eagle-owls can’t wait to get started.
‘Hopefully we’ll make history right in the first match,’ the Finland coach Markku Kanerva, a former teacher, said from the team hotel as he prepares his side to face Denmark.
Their qualification is remarkable because professional football in Finland does not have the numbers or the resources that other nations have to draw on. The average professional player receives just £17 per hour.
Qualification for Euro 2020 is the first time Finland has made it to a major tournament
Preparations in North Macedonia, meanwhile, have been more problematic. The team’s new strip arrived in the wrong colour. Rather than their usual bright red and yellow, the kit turned out to be burgundy and caused a furious response in the eastern European country, which will now be using the old one.
Meanwhile, another one of the less-fancied teams Slovakia is hoping their talisman Marek Hamsik, with his mohawk hairstyle and 408 Serie A appearances under his belt with Napoli, can fire his country back into form.
Sportsmail has compiled a handy guide to the minnows.
Group C: Netherlands, Ukraine, Austria, North Macedonia
Never has the opposition chant, ‘Who Are You?’, been more relevant.
In fact, in the case of North Macedonia it is an incisive question, rather than a slur.
The eastern European state, home to 2.1 million people, only adopted its current name in February 2019, after a long-standing dispute with neighbouring Greece was settled under the auspices of the United Nations.
North Macedonia coach Igor Angelovski celebrates with players after qualifying for Euro 2020
Elif Elmas scored the 85th minute winner for North Macedonia against Germany in March
LAST FOUR GAMES
North Macedonia 5-0 Lichtenstein
Germany 1-2 North Macedonia
North Macedonia 1-1 Slovenia
North Macedonia 4-0 Kazakhstan
Prior to that the country played as the Republic of Macedonia and before 1991, it was not even registered to appear under its own name at all, being part of the former Yugoslavia.
Unfortunately, confusion over North Macedonia’s identity is not only limited to opposition fans.
A mix up between the Macedonia Football Federation and the country’s official kit supplier, the German manufacturer Jaco, led to the team’s Euro 2020 strip being made in the wrong colour.
Journalists and supporters were bemused as the new jersey was unveiled in the burgundy of Portugal, instead of the bright red and yellow of Macedonia
‘Odd colour…’ tweeted the Macedonian Football fan account with admirable understatement, as the top emerged from its packaging.
Goran Pandev’s experience – and goals – could prove vital with North Macedonia in Euro 2020 (pictured playing for Inter Milan in 2010)
Tose Proeski Arena, Skopje, where North Macedonia have hosted their qualification campaign
Given this is the first tournament North Macedonia has ever qualified for and the country’s traditional colours are a reference to the Vergina Sun, a symbol that dates from the first capital of the ancient kings of Macedon, there was bound to be – adopting the understatement of Macedonian Football – some push back.
A national outcry followed and Muamed Sejdini, the president of the Macedonian Football Federation, was forced to apologise.
‘We are aware that the national team jersey is an honour and ambition of every football player from an early age,’ Sejdini said in a Facebook post.
Goran Pandev (left) is North Macedonia’s most-capped player with 119 appearances
‘The federation and the services in FFM take full responsibility for this choice, but will also demand responsibility from the technical partner.’
North Macedonia’s Eljif Elmas (right) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Slovenia in Skopje
As a result, North Macedonia will turn out in their old strip. And be warned, the kit man Viktor Velevski has said he is preparing 250 shirts for the squad and that should see them through ‘all the way to the final.’.
On the pitch, the Macedonians have recorded some impressive results, none more so than their 2-1 away win in Germany in a 2022 World Cup qualifier in March.
Elif Elmas scored the 85th minute winner in Duisburg, inflicting Germany’s first defeat in a World Cup qualifier since 2001.
One to Watch:
The one-and-only Goran Pandev.
He is Macedonia’s most-capped player with 119 appearances and top scorer with 37 goals. The Genoa forward is a proper player.
He has 499 Serie A appearances and 105 goals to his name, appearing for Inter Milan, Lazio and Napoli. He scored the first goal in Macedonia’s famous win over Germany.
The big one is, of course, the historic 2-1 defeat of Germany in Duisburg – only their third loss in a home World Cup qualifier in their history.
Prior to that, the Macedonians finest hours were in Southampton, when they drew 2-2 with England in a Euro 2004 qualifier and again in October 2006, when they held the Three Lions 0-0 at Old Trafford in front of 72,000 fans.
North Macedonia are on a good run including a draw with Slovenia and victory over Germany
Group B: Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Russia
The most remarkable thing about Finland’s participation at Euro 2020 is that the Scandinavian minnows are there at all.
Perhaps unsurprisingly in a country that impinges on the Arctic Circle, football is not even the most popular spectator sport – the locals prefer ice hockey.
Average attendance in the Veikkausliiga – the Finnish premier division – is just 2,620 and only two of the 12 clubs have capacity for 10,000 fans.
And while the top clubs will pay more, the average earnings of a professional footballer are just £17 per hour in Finland.
Finland’s 3-0 win over Liechtenstein – with goals from Pukki (right) – sparked wild celebrations
LAST FOUR GAMES
Ukraine 1-1 Finland
Switzerland 3-2 Finland
Sweden 2-0 Finland
Finland 0-1 Estonia
Even at the top end, the Finns struggle to find the talent they need. Last year, a premier league side posted a job ad online for a striker.
Of course, the country has produced some famous players, most notably Jari Litmanen, a veteran of Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool, who won 137 caps and scored 32 goals.
There was also dependable defender Sami Hyypiä, who racked up 318 league appearances for Liverpool, in addition to 106 caps.
The problem is, until now, there has just not been enough of them around at the same time.
Only three years ago, Finland dipped to an all-time low in the FIFA rankings of 110th, down there with the likes of the Faroe Islands and Palestine.
Jari Litmanen, (L), a veteran of Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool, won 137 caps and scored 32 goals for Finland and ex-Liverpool defender Sami Hyypiä racked up (R) 106 caps for his country
So, how have the Finns done it this time?
Well, the manager, Markku Kanerva, has taken a cautious and pragmatic approach when his side does not have the ball, adopting a 3-5-2 formation and forcing opponents into wide areas, where his players work hard to win it back.
But when they regain possession, the Finns are surprisingly ambitious. They push forward the wing backs and two central midfield players to create a front six.
The approach resonates with Finnish history and fans’ expectations. Their battle cry is ‘Hakkaa paalle’, which translates as ‘Cut them down’, an exhortation to attack that was first used by the feared Finnish cavalry, as they charged towards the enemy.
Manager Markku Kanerva has found an approach that suits Finland’s culture and players
Oh, and they also have some decent players.
The Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky – who has made 95 appearances in the Bundesliga – is a veteran of 10 years and 65 caps at international level.
Central midfielde, Glen Kamara, has won handsome praise from his club manager at Rangers, Steven Gerrard, en route to the Scottish league title.
‘He is a lovely footballer and looked like a Rolls Royce out there at times,’ purred Gerrard after an impressive Wednesday night at Hamilton.
And up top there is the guile and goal-scoring prowess of the literal GOAT, Teemu Pukki. Pukki translates as ‘goat’; in Finnish.
Literally, Teemu Pukki can claim to be the GOAT… his surname translates to ‘goat’ in Finnish
Mind you the Norwich City striker, who is returning for another crack at the Premier League next season, has 30 international goals to his name (and 26 goals in 42 appearances last season for the Canaries).
In this tournament, he could surpass Litmanen as his country’s all-time highest scorer.
But Group B will be a challenge, not just because the Finns will face the super-talented Belgians, but they must take on their Scandinavian rivals, Denmark, in front of 11,000 fans at Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium.
Rangers’ Glen Kamara has been described as a ‘Rolls Royce’ by club boss Steven Gerrard
In addition, Russia is a local derby. There’ll be plenty of banter with the 50,000 ethnic Russians believed to live in Finland.
Onni Valakari is the son of Simo Valakari, who played for the national side and Motherwell
Traditionally, jokes take the form of the Finns ribbing the Russians for being old-fashioned and having poor cars, while Finnish people are depicted as slow and given to lengthy deliberations.
The two countries share an 830-mile border, so that is likely to be a highly charged encounter and perhaps the one the Finns might most like to win.
One to Watch:
Onni Valakari is the son of Simo Valakari, who played for the national side and Motherwell.
Valakari was born in Scotland and now plays for Pafos FC in Cyprus, where the attacking midfielder has scored 18 goals in 42 league appearances.
He made his senior international debut for Finland in November, scoring a screamer on his debut in a famous 2-0 victory over France.
Following home and away victories over both Ireland and Bulgaria in the Nations League, Finland recorded a stunning friendly win over the reigning world champions, France, 2-0.
Finnish fans have been stunned by the national side’s qualification for Euro 2020 this summer
Group E: Spain, Sweden, Poland, Slovakia
Tough qualification for the European Championships means the quality of teams competing is high, and it is only in that context that Slovakia could be considered minnows.
Unlike, North Macedonia and Finland, Slovakia are in their third major championship since 1993, when the country separated from the Czech Republic.
Slovakia broke Irish hearts when they beat the Republic of Ireland in a Euro 2020 play-off
LAST FOUR GAMES
Slovakia 2-2 Malta
Slovakia 2-1 Russia
Slovakia 1-1 Bulgaria
Austria 0-0 Slovakia
In the last year, Slovakia have beaten Scotland and Russia and drawn with Austria and Bulgaria. And of course, they broke Irish hearts in the Euro 2020 play-off semi final knocking the Republic of Ireland out on penalties, before dispatching Northern Ireland in the play-off final in Belfast in extra time.
Leading the campaign at Euro 2020 will be the distinctive Marek Hamsik, who sports a mohawk hairstyle, and has 408 Serie A appearances under his belt with Napoli, as well as a cool 100 goals.
He helped the Italian side to two Coppa Italia and a Supercoppa Italiana.
The Slovak captain and attacking midfielder is also their most capped player with 126 international appearances and is their record goal scorer with 26.
At 33, Hamsik’s best years are behind him after leaving Napoli in 2019 to play for Dalian in China before moving to IFK Goteburg in Sweden last season.
The Slovaks went on to beat Northern Ireland in the play-off final in Belfast in extra time
Known for his energy, leadership, creativity and skill, Hamsik will have to roll back the years, if he is to inspire his countrymen to a repeat of the 2010 World Cup, when Slovakia progressed beyond the group stage after a 3–2 win against Italy, before bowing out to Holland.
The Slovakia squad includes two familiar faces in the Premier League in goalkeepers Martin Dubravka of Newcastle and Fulham’s Marek Rodak.
However, there is not a lot of optimism around the Slovak team of late. They have been criticised for a dull style of play, which cost the boss, former Czech international Pavel Hapal his job, and disappointing defeats to rivals Czech Republic 3-1 and Israel 3-2 has led to relegation from the UEFA Nations League B.
But whatever happens, Hamsik and his team mates are going to look good.
Slovak captain Marek Hamsik Slovak captain is their most capped player with 126 appearances
Slovakia’s home strip has the caught the eye of the critics and been hailed as one of the funkiest jerseys in the competition.
Milan Skriniar, 26, is a centre back at Inter Milan and a top player
A land of outstanding natural beauty, with more than 6,000 caves and over 600 castles and chateaux, Nike set itself the challenge of capturing the rugged scenery of the central European nation in the shirt.
The patches of light and dark in the blue top apparently depict the mountainous scenery of Slovakia.
The shirt is actually a throwback. For many years Slovakia have worn plain white shirts at home, but have now reverted to blue, the colour they adopted when they separated from the Czech Republic and which better reflects their blue and red flag.
One to Watch:
Milan Skriniar, 26, is a centre back at Inter Milan.
He is a worthy successor to Martin Skrtel and is known for his organisation skills. He can expect to be busy.
Slovakia did what they had to do to reach Euro 2020 with play off victories over the Republic of Ireland (on penalties) and an extra time 2-1 win in Belfast to knock out Northern Ireland.
In March, they recorded an impressive 2-1 win in a 2022 World Cup qualifier against Russia.