Soccer-Finns expect a 'Pukki party' in Euro debut

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FILE PHOTO: Euro 2020 Qualifier - Group J - Greece v Finland
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By Philip O'Connor and Mitch Phillips

(Reuters) -Finnish soccer fans have waited a lifetime to see their side reach the finals of a major tournament and will be hoping striker Teemu Pukki can continue his club and country goalscoring form when the party gets underway.

As Denmark will discover when they face the Finns in their opener on June 12 in Copenhagen, the unassuming 31-year-old hitman looks like your average journeyman footballer – until the ball gets into the opposition penalty area.

Once there, Pukki bursts into life, scoring all manner of goals for Norwich City and Finland that have led to the most unlikely successes.

Norwich have been promoted to the Premier League twice thanks to his goals, while for the national team his 10 in Euro qualification finally got Finland into the finals for the first time.

No other player in qualifying Group J, which featured more heralded sides like Italy, Bosnia and Greece, managed more than four.

"His performances these last few years have been sensational," Finland captain Tim Sparv told Reuters.

"I think he's always good for a goal - even if we've been playing poorly he'll pop up and score a crucial goal."

"He's a symbol for Finnish football - he has absolutely zero ego, he's so humble, one of the guys that works the hardest for the team, the way he presses, the way he closes down defenders, the way he makes it difficult for the opponents."

Hailing from the southern town of Kotka, Pukki's 15-year career took him from Finland to Spain, Germany and Scotland before his scoring knack caught fire during four seasons at Danish club Brondby.

Physically strong and good in the air, the secret to Pukki's no-frills finishing is to shoot early and favour precision over power, and he is calm from the penalty spot.

As is usual for Nordic teams based on a strong collective, Sparv does not make a habit of singling out individuals but he makes an exception for Pukki.

"The intensity he has in everything he does, it's an inspiration for everyone else. He's our talisman, the way he has been playing for the last four or five years is exceptional,” he says.

If Pukki can maintain his scoring form, he could easily help Finland emulate the Iceland team that caused a sensation by getting to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.

(Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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