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International

Finland Aims to Restart Soccer and Relive Euro 2020 Euphoria

GENEVA — A stellar 2019 for soccer in Finland was meant to hit a new peak in the 2020 season.

The national team qualified last November for its first major tournament and Finland was going to spend mid-June obsessed by the European Championship.

Another Nordic nation making a long-shot debut dressed in blue and white, Finland was aiming to follow Iceland's inspiring run to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals.

"It was really, really positive. The country has never been so enthusiastic," Finnish league CEO Timo Marjamaa told The Associated Press of his home country that is world champion in its top sport, ice hockey.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced Euro 2020 — where Finland was set to play against top-ranked Belgium, Denmark and neighbor Russia — to be postponed for one year.

On June 16, instead of preparing to face the Russians in nearby St. Petersburg, Finnish fans are looking to restart the national cup competition stopped in March. 

July 1 is the target, pending government approval, to start the 12-team Veikkausliiga season. That's almost three months after the league's planned opening day and more than eight months since a memorable 2019 title was sealed. 

The league trophy won by KuPS in October was the team from Kuopio's first in 43 years, and the first decided in a six-team championship group after the regular season.

The backdrop was the anticipation of Finland advancing to Euro 2020 with group leader Italy by winning its home games in October and November. 

Star striker Teemu Pukki scored twice in each 3-0 win against Armenia and Liechtenstein to seal qualification with a game to spare.

"It was the best situation that I have ever had," said Marjamaa, who played in the league and Finland's national team 20 years ago. That era had stars like Jari Litmanen, a Champions League winner at Ajax, and Liverpool captain Sami Hyypia.

"Now it might be the worst," the league official said during a prolonged shutdown that has frozen the industry's income. "In the worst scenario, some of the clubs will be out of business if this will last a long time."

A typical Veikkausliiga club budget is around 1 million euros ($1.09 million). Around half might be earned on match days from ticket sales, sponsorship, food and merchandise.

"The income from matches is really, really important," Marjamaa acknowledged, though he hopes empty stadiums can be avoided. A 500-person limit could be allowed, and the league is working on plans to allow in up to 400 fans.

Finland has earned a reputation of coping well in the health crisis, with a government led since December by a 34-year-old woman, Prime Minister Sanna Marin. 

The nation of 5.5 million people had 306 deaths due to COVID-19 up to Friday, according to the count by Johns Hopkins University.

The soccer league plans a late finish for such a cold northern climate, on Nov. 21. 

Marjamaa said it could revert to just a 22-game regular season if fixture dates are lost to more waves of infections. Soccer players have not been prioritized for testing by public authorities 

The delays in play have one upside for young Finnish players, with extra time to impress coach Markku Kanerva for Euro 2020 selection.

"You have one more year to get your game up," Marjamaa said.

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