Robin Lod reckons he was too young to have watched the Finland men’s soccer team face Hungary in a do-or-die World Cup qualifier in 1997 — he was 4, after all. But Lod, now a national team midfielder, knows what happened. So does Tim Sparv, Finland’s captain, who was 10.

With a win, Finland would have advanced to a two-game playoff for a World Cup berth, putting the nation one step from its first major tournament. With the Finns up 1-0 in second-half stoppage time, Helsinki expected exultation. But when Hungary earned a last-gasp corner kick, a tragic comedy of errors ensued.

A mis-hit clearance. A scramble for the ball. A ricochet toward the net. And, finally, an off-the-line intervention that caromed off the goalkeeper for an own goal, dooming Finland to a 1-1 draw, elimination and enduring embarrassment.

“If you want to paint a picture of what Finnish football was like, that was maybe it,” Sparv said. “It became the way that people thought about football — that we’re not good when it comes to that sport and we should maybe stick to ice hockey.”

“It’s been miserable to watch the national team,” Lod said, “until now.”

Twenty-two years and 10 more failed qualification bids later, the national team finally exorcised those demons. With a win over Liechtenstein in November 2019, Finland booked a ticket to the European Championship and ended the nation’s eight-decade drought without competing in the Euro or World Cup.

When Finland opens the tournament Saturday against Nordic rival Denmark, a year later than planned because of the coronavirus pandemic, it will do so as one of two first-time qualifiers in the 24-team field.

“To achieve something like this, honestly, it is still difficult to even understand what we did because we’re a very small country,” said defender Jukka Raitala, who plays with Lod on MLS club Minnesota United. “There are bigger players in Finland who could not do that, and our team did.”

Although the player pool — drawing from a population of 5.5 million, roughly the same as Minnesota — is short on stars, players such as Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara and Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki have already etched their names in Finnish soccer lore.

So has Coach Markku Kanerva, 57, a Finland defender from 1986 to 1995 and a loyal servant to the national team who has become an unlikely cult hero thanks to his idiosyncratic methods and knack for cultivating camaraderie.

“We had a so-called golden generation,” Kanerva said of Finland teams from the 1990s and 2000s that featured Liverpool favorite Sami Hyypia and Ajax great Jari Litmanen. “As a player, I was disappointed never to qualify, and now as a coach, I’m privileged and very happy to do that.”

As recently as 2016, the Huuhkajat — or Eagle Owls — seemed worlds away from competing at the highest levels. Under Swedish coach Hans Backe, Finland went winless that year, with nine defeats, two draws and a dead-on-arrival World Cup qualifying campaign.

“Everybody was laughing at us, criticizing us,” Sparv said. “And, you know, we deserved it. We were just awful.”

When Kanerva took over for Backe to start 2017, the move garnered a tepid reaction. Kanerva had been on staff at the Football Association of Finland since 2004, first helming the under-21 men’s team, then serving as an assistant for the national team. But his résumé as a head coach for senior-level players was limited to one season at a second-division Finnish club and two stints as the national team’s interim coach.

“He didn’t have much of a CV, and some people saw him like furniture at the FA’s office,” said Ari Virtanen, a Finnish journalist who wrote a book that tracked the national team’s path to qualification. “He was kind of like a budget choice at that time.”

Coaching wasn’t even Plan A for Kanerva’s post-playing career: He moonlighted as a teacher while he was still playing, instructing primary school students in Finland and high school-age students in Sweden, and earned an MA in education at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences.

While Kanerva may have put that on hold, his players emphasize that he never stopped teaching. Sparv described Kanerva as “very pedagogical,” praising the coach for running team meetings as a dialogue instead of a monologue. Kanerva has been known to delegate assignments that amount to homework, in which groups of players collaborate on tactical analyses and present their findings. Asked whether Kanerva’s background as a teacher is apparent, Lod chuckled and said, “Oh, yeah, you can definitely tell.”

“Working with people, working with groups, how to handle different kind of characters — it has given me some tools,” Kanerva said. “In that way, [teaching] has helped me a lot.”

Kanerva’s experience with the program proved integral as well. In 2009, he led Finland to a prescient milestone: its first and only appearance in the European U-21 Championship. His team lost all three games, but key elements of that squad — which was captained by Sparv and also featured Pukki and Raitala — would help anchor the national team over the subsequent decade.

And the coach’s rapport with the group reaches beyond the locker room. Asked about a rumor that he has been known to sing for his team, Kanerva cackled and blushed, then confirmed that during one Helsinki karaoke session — with a band featuring Finland’s goalkeeper coach on bass, athletic trainer on drums and team doctor on guitar — he got onstage and shared his admittedly questionable pipes.

“We are a bunch of maybe not the best soccer players in the world, but the team spirit is just next level,” Raitala said. “What we do, we do it together, and we really feel like we got each other’s back. That was a big part of the team in 2009 as well.”

In Kanerva’s first game in charge, in January 2017, Finland traveled to North Africa with a makeshift squad and low expectations, then ended its winless streak with a 1-0 upset of Morocco. Playing in the third tier of the 2018-19 UEFA Nations League, the Huuhkajat went 4-2-0 while winning the group and earning promotion. By the time Euro 2020 qualifying began, belief had crept back.

“He has been more thorough and meticulous in his approach than Hans Backe, more analytical, and obviously he knew these players better than Backe,” Virtanen said of Kanerva. “He doesn’t have those flaws that some previous head coaches had. Obviously, it’s been a learning curve for him, too … although I think the learning curve was quite short.”

Finland went 5-3-0 to begin qualifying, with two of the losses coming to an Italy team that won all 10 of its matches. Dwindling home crowds gave way to packed stadiums as national media attention swelled. Kanerva’s once-conservative tactics grew bolder, and his nickname from his playing days — “Rive,” a nod to Brazilian great Rivellino — brought about talk of a Finnish “Rive-lution.”

Knowing a home win over last-place Liechtenstein would clinch qualification, Finland left no room for late heartbreak this time, rolling to a 3-0 victory. At the final whistle, fans flooded the field and electrified Bolt Arena, carrying players off the pitch as fireworks and flares illuminated the Helsinki night.

“I had this half an hour with my teammates in the sauna where we were a little bit calm, and we were thinking, ‘Okay, what the f--- have we done, boys?’ ” Sparv said. “It was really surreal.”

Finland’s draw for this transcontinental iteration of the European Championship is particularly daunting: Kanerva’s team will face Denmark in Copenhagen and Russia in St. Petersburg, and the one match on neutral turf — also in St. Petersburg — is the group stage finale against top-ranked Belgium. Kanerva contextualized the task by rattling off the transfer values of his opponents’ rosters — ranging from five to 24 times the Finnish squad’s valuation, by his estimation.

Although there’s a sentiment among Kanerva and his players that the pandemic-induced delay put a plug in their lightning-in-a-bottle momentum, they’re plenty comfortable as underdogs. And whatever the results, Finland will be watching. Nowadays, Kanerva is regularly stopped by strangers in the winter sports-mad nation — on the street, in the grocery store — reveling in their newfound soccer fandom.

“It has had a huge impact on the general interest of football and the national team,” Kanerva said. “That would be my hope — that this would help Finnish football in the future as well, to inspire and motivate the players and the parents. That would be the main impact for this success.”

“It shouldn’t take another 100 years,” Sparv said, “for our group to qualify for a major tournament.”

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