Finland’s exit from EuroBasket 2022 on Tuesday was the end of an era for two stalwarts but, Emmet Ryan writes, the beginning of a bright new future for hoops in Suomi.
There was a different flavour to the disappointment that Finnish fans felt on Tuesday, a taste that they weren’t used to but one that they ought to learn to understand and fight.
Finland has come an awful long way in basketball. As an Irishman, three decades ago I’d have considered us equals. Two decades ago, I’d have reckoned we had the edge on you and our lads went further in 2005 than Finland did. Now? The idea of Ireland even getting near the same court as the Susijengi is but a dream for me.
Yet, this is not a column telling you to be grateful for what you have achieved. Instead it is to look at that progress, what it means, and where you are going. Finland hadn’t been to the quarter finals of EuroBasket since 1967 yet in the first half of that game against Spain, Suomi set all kinds of records.
Yet still, rightly, you felt that unfamiliar and unpleasant taste in your mouths after the game because you know what can come.
If 2022 was the reward for the hard slogs put in by Petteri Koponen and Shawn Huff over the years then it also served as to the strength of the foundations those two had built. When longtime servants, especially key players, retire from a national team there are usually concerns as to whether this is the end of the party for the foreseeable future.
Not for Koponen and Huff, they have inspired a young generation of ballers that have built Finland to be ready for a bright future and one that will remain bright. Lauri Markkanen is a once in a lifetime talent for a nation the size of Finland but it’s not just him. There’s Miro Little, who at 18 has shown he could be a key man for the Susijengi for the next 15 years. Edon Maxhuni brings outside energy that perfectly complements the long-time threat of Sasu Salin who is far from done at this level.
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In 2014, I remember being amused at how a connection with Angry Birds helped Finland get a wild card to the World Cup in Spain. Then I remember seeing the army of Susijengi that descended on Bilbao, the atmosphere they brought in that opening night game and my iconic in-game memory of Pooh Jeter of Ukraine staring down a sea of blue and white as he tried, in vain, to deny Finland at maiden win in the World Cup.
In 2019, Finland almost qualified automatically. For 2023, Finland is the first team from Europe to qualify automatically for the tournament and this time there’s no doubt about the merit. Remember, Markkanen wasn’t available for the in-season windows and the Susijengi’s depth was still enough to be the fastest side from this continent to punch its ticket to Indonesia-Japan-Philippines next year.
That’s progress and sustainable progress at that. This is an organised unit with a young coach that doesn’t wilt in the moment.
I’ve seen the disappointment too. I was there when New Zealand broke Finnish hearts in Bilbao, a few days after they’d fallen to Turkey in overtime. I was in Istanbul in 2017 when Markkamania was expected to make the big breakthrough for Suomi only for Italy to crush those dreams with a brilliant bullying performance by Niccolo Melli. I’ve seen what it was like for Finland over these years.
The plucky underdogs who get the moral victories but not the real ones. As an Irishman following our sports teams, I know what it’s like to get really sick of moral victories. The only wins that matter are the ones on the scoreboard and Finland kept missing out on them when it mattered the most.
— FIBA (@FIBA) September 14, 2022
It’s an awful taste and one you grow all too used to. Then, you make the breakthrough and the pain is different. Finland’s run to the quarter finals was a beautiful retirement moment for Koponen and Huff but they’ll be the most disappointed of all Susijengi if this is the end.
No, those old guys…both of whom are younger than me, and seriously, how does Huff look that young at his age…as I was saying, those old guys don’t want the story to wrap up with their chapters.
They have dedicated over 30 combined years to building the Finnish national programme from one teams wanted in draws to one everyone wants to avoid. Finland has become a threat. The fans of other teams might party and drink with your supporters still, because y’all are great to party with, but they don’t go into games with Finland assuming they’ll be commiserating the Susijengi come the final buzzer.
So, Finland, feel disappointed. Accept it but then look at what you need to do so that you don’t feel that disappointment next time. Make the opponent acquainted with that ugly taste.