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Best Finnish football players of all time

Wed 28 April 2021 | 13:30

Finland is a small European country which might not have one of the strong football teams, but the country has produced some good football talents over the past years. In this article, we want to take a look at them.

Historically, football in Finland has never been amongst the most popular sports among the public. In the past, this has been the case for sports such as athletics and Nordic skiing and, since the 1990s, ice hockey and motorsports. The popularity of football has increased, however, and nowadays football is the leading sport in terms of the number of spectators.

The game of modern football was first brought to Finland in the 1890s by English sailors and was played there in Turku. The first major Finnish football tournament was played in 1906 and the winner was a school team from Turku.

Best Finnish soccer players ever

Finland is not one of football's major countries by any standards. Nevertheless, several internationally successful football stars have emerged from this cold country and have taken Finnish football culture forward in leaps and bounds. In this article, we will take a look back at the history of Finnish football and introduce the best Finnish football players of all time to you, stay tuned.

Lukas Hradecky

The Finnish goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky is currently one of the hottest names on Finland's football scene and has proved himself among the

best Finnish football players of all time

. He played for

Eintracht Frankfurt

for the three seasons and said goodbye in style by celebrating their German Cup win. In May 2018, the 31-year-old signed a five-year contract with Bundesliga fifth-placed Leverkusen.

In 2008, Hradecky earned his place in the TPS team. His move to the Danish club Esbjerg came in January 2009. In the summer of 2013, Hradecky became Brøndby's number one goalkeeper, and just over two years later, he fulfilled one of his dreams with a contract with Eintracht Frankfurt. The Bratislava-born Hradecky has so far played 64 senior international matches for

Finland

national team. He started his international career with Finland in 2010.

In 2007, Hradecký was selected by the Finnish Football Association as Promising Player of the Year, in 2010 as the Best Player of the Youth National Team and in 2016, 2017 and 2018 as Player of the Year, while the Finnish Sports Journalists' Association selected Hradecký as Footballer of the Year in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2020. Previously, he was also voted Esbjerg's Best Player 2012-2013 and Denmark's Best Goalkeeper of the Year 2013. Hradecký was voted Finland's Best Sportsman by Urheilusanomat in January 2017 and was voted Bundesliga's Best Goalkeeper for the 2017-2018 season. At the Finnish Sports Awards, he was named Sportsman of the Year 2020.

Roman Eremenko

Roman Eremenko, the next player in our list of

best Finnish football players in history

is a Russia born, Finnish football player currently playing as a midfielder for

Rostov

in the Russian League. He started playing for FF Jaro in the 2004 season. Then in August 2005, he moved to the Italian club Udinese in what was Jaro's biggest-ever player transfer. Eremenko became the most expensive Finnish player of all time six years later when he transferred from Dynamo Kiev to Russian club Rubin Kazan for €13 million in August 2011. While with Rubin, Eremenko went on to win the Russian Cup in 2011-2012, where he scored the decisive goal in the final.

He was the highest-paid Finnish player in August 2014 with an estimated annual salary of €2.2 million after joining

CSKA Moscow

. During the 2014-2015 season, he finished as the best scorer in his team and the second-highest scorer in the Russian league with 13 goals. The disciplinary committee of UEFA imposed a two-year ban on Eremenko in October 2016. The ban was based on a doping sample containing cocaine, which Eremenko gave in September 2016 during a

Champions League

match. Following the ban, Eremenko returned to the pitch for Russian league club Spartak Moscow in October 2018.

He made his senior national team debut against

Belgium

in 2007 and quickly established himself as a regular in the national team. In 2010, Eremenko scored his first senior goal against Malta. He has been a regular in the national team for the 2008-09 World Cup qualifiers, the 2010-11 European Championship qualifiers, the 2012-13 World Cup qualifiers and the 2014-15 European Championship qualifiers, and before his suspension he was the most experienced player in the senior team with 73 caps. The ban imposed on Eremenko in October 2016 also applied to international matches and he has not played for the national team since the ban.

Joonas Kolkka

Joonas Kolkka, who trained at Lahti Reippaa, was a winger and a real talent in many ways. As a youngster, Kolkka won the SM skills competition no less than four times. He made his debut for Reippaa's senior team at the age of 16. In 1994, Kolkka transferred to Myllykoski Pallo, where he played for two seasons before moving on to the

Netherlands

and Willem II. After three seasons with Willem, Kolkka was recruited by PSV Eindhoven, which was one of the biggest Dutch football clubs. At PSV, Kolkka won two Dutch league titles. Kolkka's spell at PSV lasted three seasons.

He spent the next two seasons at Panathinaikos in Greece, which was followed by one-year stints at Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany and Crystal Palace in England. Kolkka moved to the Netherlands again in 2005. Back in the Netherlands, he started playing for ADO Den Haag. He changed clubs very quickly in the land of the tulips: Feyenoord, NAC Breda and finally, in the autumn, the old familiar Willem II. The long world tour of Kolka came to an end in spring 2012 with a contract with the Texas Dutch Lions in the USA.

During his career, Kolkka played for Finland's U-15, U-17 and U-21 youth national teams. For the Finnish senior national team, he played his first competitive game on 26 October 1994 in a 7-0 win over Estonia, scoring his first goal in the 24th minute of the game. Throughout his career, he has appeared in World Cup and European Championship qualifying rounds and was a member of the team that fought for the 2010 World Cup qualification. With 98 international matches, Kolkka will always be remembered among the greatest Finnish footballers of all time.

Ari Hjelm

The next striker in our list of

best Finnish players in football history

is Ari Hjelm. He started his career at Rahola Pyrkiva, but moved to Ilves at a young age. On 26 May of 1981, he played his first match in the main league in a game between Ilves and Mikkelin Kissat, and almost a month later he scored in a game that Ilves won 0-7 against the very same team. In his first season, Hjelm scored no less than 12 goals and continued at a good pace. Hjelmin was the top scorer for Ilves on eight occasions and as a result, earned the nickname "Zico" after the Brazilian national team's star player.

During the 1987 season, Hjelm was the best goal scorer in the Champions League and was awarded Player of the Year by the Sports Journalists and the Football Association. While playing for Ilves, Ari Hjelm won the Finnish league title in 1983, was third-placed in 1984, second in 1985 and the Finnish Cup in 1990. He also served as team captain in 1988, 1991 and 1994. During his playing career, Hjelm also spent the 1988-1989 Bundesliga season with Stuttgarter Kickers in

Germany

and the following season in the 2nd Bundesliga.

He also spent time in Germany with FC St. Paul, playing in the second-highest division in the country, from 1992-1994. In Finland, Hjelm played his last two seasons as a player for Helsinki Jalkapalloklubi. Hjelm has played 100 games for the Finnish national team. He held the record for most caps for Finland until he was overtaken by Jari Litmanen in 2006. He is also the fourth-highest scorer for Finland (after Litmanen, Forssell and Johansson) having scored 20 goals. Hjelm was the captain of the Finnish national team in his time and is amongst the best Finnish football players of all time.

Jonatan Johansson

Jonatan Johansson is yet another striker in the list of best Finnish soccer players ever. He began his career in 1993 with the Finnish team Pargas IF. He transferred to Veikkausliigi - Turun Palloseura in 1995. There he played 32 games and scored 6 goals. At that time he was also called up to the Finnish U-21 national team. He moved to Estonian Flora Tallinn in 1997, also becoming the first Finn to play in the Estonian league. But he managed to play only 9 games and score 9 goals in Meistriliidze, before being sold to Rangers.

The Scottish club paid 500 thousand pounds for Johansson, although until the dismissal of the then coach Walter Smith he did not play in the first team. This changed with the arrival of Dutchman Dick Advocaat. Johansson began to play regularly in first-team matches and in the 1998/1999 season he scored 13 goals - 8 in the Scottish Premier League and 5 in the UEFA Cup. During the summer of 2000, he signed for English Premier League club

Charlton Athletic

. Charlton had to pay £3.25 million for him and an extra £250,000 after 25 appearances and avoiding relegation.

In his first season, he scored 14 goals, despite a late-season injury. He never returned to his former form after his recovery. Johansson was loaned to Norwich City in January 2006. During his time there, he played in 12 matches and scored 3 goals. He was sold to Malmö FF in July 2006 for 1.1 million euros, from where, with 55 league games played, he left for Hibernian. He then joined St Johnstone. Johansson retired from football at the Finnish club TPS. He will be remembered as one of the best Finnish football players in history with 105 national caps.

Mikael Forssell

Having scored 29 goals in 87 matches for the Finnish national team, Mikael Forssell, who retired in 2019, was a very dangerous striker and one of the

greatest Finnish footballers of all time

. Forssell, who started his career with HJK at the age of 16, has also made an impact in England, where his multi-stage career began in 1998 with Chelsea.

Chelsea

sent Forssell on loan to Crystal Palace in the First Division to gain experience, and everything went very smoothly.

But a knee injury forced a return to Chelsea and in the spring of 2003, Forssell was loaned to Borussia Mönchengladbach in the German Bundesliga, where the Finn rose to great popularity. His next return to Chelsea also failed to go according to plan and he was again loaned out, this time to Birmingham. It was there that it really happened. Forssell scored a magnificent 17 goals to finish fifth in the Premier League scoring charts. He then returned to Chelsea for a spell until a permanent move to Birmingham for the 2005-2006 season. However, an injury prevented another top season at the club.

Since Birmingham, Forssell, who has been struggling with his knee, played for many different clubs including Hannover 96, Leeds, HJK, VfL Bochum and HIFK, with whom he signed a one-year contract in April 2017 and retired from playing football after scoring 8 goals in 25 matches. Many consider him to be one of the best Finnish players in football history.

Aulis Rytkonen

Aulis Rytkönen, who started playing football at the Kuopio Palloseura, is one of Finland's most legendary footballers and amongst the

best Finnish soccer players ever

. Rytkönen was the first Finnish professional to play abroad when he joined the French club,

Toulouse

. He also played for Spanish club Atletico Madrid between 1952 and 1960. After winning the French Cup with Toulouse, Rytkönen came back to Finland in 1960, when he took over as player-coach of HJK. Rytkönen ended his playing career in 1966, after which he had a remarkable career as a coach.

In 1949, 1950 and 1952, Rytkönen was elected Footballer of the Year in Finland. Rytkönen played 37 international matches for the country in his career. He started his career with Finland in 1948 in the Nordisk Mesterskap 1948-1951 match against Denmark. In his seven years in France with Toulouse, he was only called up to the national team once during the World Cup qualifiers, as the rules of the time required the team to be made up of amateur players only. Altogether he played 37 games with the national team (including a match in the 1952 Olympic tournament) scoring 7 goals.

He was more of a technical footballer than a power player. He preferred to play as a midfielder, but during his career, he played all the attacking roles. While at Toulouse, he often played as a left midfielder. In France, Rytkö was nicknamed Monsieur Magic because of his good technique and imaginative style of play. He respected good passers and considered passing more important than scoring goals. In fact, he said, "a good player makes the person next to him shine". He will be always remembered as one of the best Finnish football players in history.

Teemu Pukki

The striker Teemu Pukki is considered one of the gems of the Kotka football academy who managed to become one of the greatest Finnish footballers of all time. Pukki debuted for FC KooTeePee in 2006 and in January 2008 the youngster moved to Spanish club Sevilla. After spending just under three seasons in Spain, Pukki returned to Finland and HJK. With the club, he won the league title in 2010, and the following season his success was completed with a Cup triumph. In the Europa League qualifying match against Schalke, Pukki performed superbly by scoring two goals. In August 2011, Pukki moved to Schalke for €1.3 million.

By August 2013, his transfer fee almost doubled when Pukki moved to

Celtic

, where he went on to win the Scottish Cup. He was later loaned out by Celtic to Danish club Brøndby. In June 2015, Pukki permanently moved to Bröndby IF. After playing 103 league matches for them and scoring 46 goals in three years, he left the Danish club after talks had failed between the two sides regarding contract renewal and he joined

Norwich City

on a free transfer.

During the 2019 season, Pukki played a spectacular season in the Championship with Norwich City. He also inaugurated his first season in the Premier League with a remarkable performance as Norwich City were promoted to the Premier League. He has 90 senior appearances to his name. His natural goal-scoring streak has also been on target in these matches as he scored 30 goals. He is regarded by many as one of the best Finnish players in football history.

Juhani Peltonen

The next player in our list of

best Finnish football players of all time

is Juhani Peltonen. He was a winger and midfielder, also the first Finnish footballer to ever play in the German Bundesliga and is considered to be one of the best Finnish football players of all time. Peltonen spent three years between 1964 and 1966 with Hamburger SV. During his 38 games there, he scored six goals.

In Finland, Peltonen was a player for Valkeakoski Hakka. With Hakka, he was able to celebrate two Finnish league titles and five Finnish Cup victories. Peltonen played 68 international matches for Finland national team and he managed to score 10 goals were scored in those games. His best seasons were in the early 1960s. The Football Association voted Peltonen Footballer of the Year in 1960, 1962 and 1964. In 1965 he was named Footballer of the Year by the Sports Journalists' Association.

Peltonen was appointed to the Gladiators of the Finnish Football Association Honorary Club on 20 August 2008. He was a real gentleman on the pitch and remains one off the pitch and truly deserves a place in SportMob’s list of best Finnish football players of all time.

Sami Hyypia

A graduate of the Voikkaan Pallo-Veikko club in Finland, he emerged once and for all as a world-class player as a central defender for

Liverpool

, only to become one of the best Finnish football players of all time. Sami Hyypiä picked up where Jari Litmanen left off in the Footballer of the Year: number one in the Sports Editors' List in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2010. Besides Litmanen, Hyypiä is the only other Finnish footballer to have celebrated a Champions League victory. In 2005, he fulfilled his dream with Liverpool as they won a memorable final against AC Milan.

In 1992, Hyypiä started his domestic league career with Myllykoski Pallo. He moved to Dutch club Willem II in 1995, where he played for three and a half seasons. Hyypiiä's most important career move came in May 1999, when Liverpool bought him for £2.5 million. At Liverpool, Hyypiä quickly rose from near obscurity to a major role and a fan favourite. He was appointed the team's captain in 2002. In 2008-2009, he played his tenth and final season at Liverpool. In total, Hyypiä played 464 games for Liverpool, scoring 35 goals.

The next season, Hyypiä transferred to Bayern Leverkusen in the German Bundesliga. After two years with the club, Hyypiä's career as a player came to an end. His impressive record also includes 105 senior appearances for the Finland national team. He scored five goals in those matches. In 2001, Hyypiä was voted Sportsman of the Year in Finland. He will always be regarded amongst the best Finnish football players of all time.

Jari Litmanen

A king. In the opinion of most, if not all football fans of Finland, undoubtedly the

best Finnish football players of all time

. In the 1990s, Jari Litmanen rose to the heights of superstardom. He has made an indelible impression, particularly on Dutch club

Ajax

, where the extremely talented Finn is one of the absolute legends. He moved to Ajax in 1992. In 1995, Litmanen won the Champions League with a truly formidable Ajax team full of world stars. In the same year, he finished third in the Golden Ball voting, just behind George Weah and Jürgen Klinsmann.

At his best, the talented footballer, who played at number ten, was among the world's finest elite, particularly for his vision and phenomenal passing ability. But Litmanen was also a prolific goalscorer. He won the 1995-1996 Champions League top scorer title with nine goals. In that year, Ajax lost the final to Juventus after a penalty shoot-out. In 1999, Litmanen moved to FC Barcelona, where he was plagued by injuries. But in January 2001, he made the move to Liverpool and the English Premier League. He was still suffering from injuries, and the following season was largely spent on the bench. He made a memorable return to Ajax in 2002.

In April 2004, Litmanen and Ajax terminated his contract by mutual consent, two months early, which allowed him to return to FC Lahti and the Veikkausliiga. After that, Litmanen went on to play abroad for German club Hansa Rostock, Swedish club Malmö and British club Fulham until 2008. Thereafter, a return to FC Lahti was again a reality. His long and brilliant career with HJK ended with the Finnish league title in the autumn of 2011. Litmanen was 40 years old at the time. Between 1989 and 2010, Litmanen played a total of 137 senior international matches for Finland, scoring 32 goals.

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