Before the World Cup and European Championships, the Olympics were the only major international competition to determine the world's best football team. But before the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, the Swedish Olympic Committee had to be convinced to include football in the first place.
The Swedish FA had to put up the funds required to stage the event, and had to give the Olympic Committee 25% of the gate for the privilege. Eleven teams competed over a week, with the tournament featuring a spin-off consolation competition for the teams eliminated in the first and second rounds. The holders were Great Britain, and they were to send a squad made up entirely of English amateurs. The fact that football was included at all was only due to the lobbying of water-polo organisations, which was then also known as aquatic football - it relied on football's inclusion to continue its own participation.
Finland entered the games in some controversy. Still part of the Russian Empire (they were a Grand Duchy of Russia), the Finnish team arrived at the opening ceremony in Stockholm bearing no flag, in a bid to distance themselves from their Russian counterparts, as well as slowing down their marching to create a physical distance. The Russian Tsar had originally banned the Finns from participating at all, before the Swedish organisers intervened. The original Flying Finn, long-distance runner Hannes Kolehmainen, even said he almost wished he hadn't won his events after seeing the Russian flag lifted when he received his three gold medals. Finland achieved full independence in 1917, just before runner Paavo Nurmi went on to win nine gold medals for the Finns.
In the football tournament, Finland's first round match was in Traneberg against Italy, in front of around 600 spectators. With a kick-off time of 11am, the weather was described as unsuitably warm. Finland scored after just two minutes, but the Italians took a 2-1 lead within twenty-five minutes. Finland nicked an equaliser just before half-time, but after the break went down to ten men after an injury to Wickstrom. The match went to extra time, and Finland scored the winner in the hundredth minute to go through to the quarter-finals, while the Italians lost their tie against Austria in the consolation tournament. Incidentally, the referee in this game was Hugo Meisl, the man who coached the great Austrian team of the early 1930s.
Finland's reward for their victory was a tie with Russia - a timely draw for the three hundred supporters hoping for a grudge match. The Russians had received a bye to the second round, giving them a huge advantage over the Finns with the game kicking off just a day after the Italy match.
Finland actually started the match better, centre-forward Artturi Nyyssönen scoring the only goal of the first half. Vasily Butusov equalised in the 72nd minute with Russia's first ever international goal, before a late winner from Jarl Öhman, the man who would become Finland's first full-time manager.
The Finns' opponents in the last four were the favourites Great Britain. Like Russia, Britain had received a bye to the second round where they had beaten Hungary 7-0 with six goals from Bradford City forward Harold Walden (he went on to be a successful variety stage performer). The British rested forward Arthur Berry and were keen to avoid any further injuries after losing Ted Hanney in the quarter-final.
From the start, Jalmari Holopainen put a Sharpe cross into his own goal, and another goal from Walden but the Brits 2-0 up after just seven minutes. Arthur Knight sent a fifteenth minute penalty high over the crossbar, after a debatable foul was given against the Finns. Second half goals from Walden and Chelsea forward Vivian Woodward sealed victory with in the final fifteen minutes. The match report described the British performance like a cat playing with a mouse, and 4,000 people in the Olympiastadion saw the Finns bow out, with a bronze medal to play for, and it is the third place match is one that is still subject of urban legends in Finland.
The match was scheduled for Thursday July 4th at the Rasunda stadium, yet the myth remains that the Finnish players decided to celebrate their achievement in reaching the semi-final by going on a huge drinking session in Stockholm on the eve of the match. The game kicked off at 3pm, and the Finns managed to resist the Dutch for twenty-four minutes before they conceded a goal. Whether it was due to a hangover or not, Holland won 9-0 to take the bronze medals. As a reward for their achievement, the Swedish hosts presented the Finns with silver medals bearing their FA's logo, also the prize award to the Hungarian winners of the consolation tournament. The Finnish FA rewarded their players with a free tram ticket and extra food rations, quite the bonus in a country struggling to discover its identity.
For the Finns, there was no shame in losing to the eventual champion. They had only played their first international match the previous year (a 2-5 defeat against Sweden), so to reach an Olympic semi-final was a big achievement. The official Olympic report provided opinions on the tournament as a whole, suggesting that the British style of play was based on science, combination and agility. Finland were lumped in with Germany, Austria and Hungary as playing with speed, hard rushes and without brain work, accusations that would have been seen as heresy against the future incarnations of those sides.
Finland went on to qualify for three further Olympic tournaments, including the 1952 Games which were held in Helsinki, but never made it past the first round. The Finnish team was defined as much by the characters as the results; they were more than just a collection of blue shirts swarming towards the goal. Midfielder Eino Soinio made his international debut in the Italy game, captained the side and scored the second Finland goal, aged just 17 years and 228 days (a youngest goalscorer record that still stands). Eino played in midfield with his brother Kaarlo, who had won a bronze medal in gymnastics at the 1908 Games, however after getting injured in the first game, he didn't feature again. Eino was selected in the team of the tournament, and had the most successful football career of any of those who featured in Stockholm. He won nine league championships with his two clubs (HJK and HIFK), and made thirty-six international appearances. After retiring from the game in 1927, he became known as a feared and respected sports journalist, writing for national newspaper HS. So feared in fact that a match report he wrote (while he was still playing) was so harsh on his team-mates that he received a three month ban.
The most infamous of the 1912 vintage was Algoth Niska, the left winger in the Finnish attack. Not only did he represent his nation at the games, but he later became known as a bootlegger during the prohibition era. Bringing alcohol into a dry country became an adventure, meeting Estonian and German ships in international waters before heading back to satisfy the urges of the Helsinki elite. In March 1930, he was arrested after being found in possession of 21,000 litres of alcohol, destined for sale within Helsinki. There is also a pub in the Aland Islands called named after Niska, with a smuggling theme, decorated like a cargo liner. But it wasn't just alcohol he smuggled - he claimed to have rescued over 150 Jews from Germany prior to the Second World War using stolen passports, and is remembered on the same memorial as Oscar Schindler. Niska even found time to fight in the Winter War of 1939-40 against the Soviets. Niska's memoirs, Over Green Waters, are currently available on Amazon for £227.
Niska died in 1954, yet he still goes by the names of The Gentleman Smuggler and The Moonshine King - and will always be the name that is synonymous with that Finnish side that came so close to an Olympic medal.