By Philip O'Connor
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - After 17 years of service in his nation's colours, Finland captain Tim Sparv is on the cusp of doing something that no senior male Finnish footballer has managed - leading his side to the finals of a major soccer tournament.
A win against Liechtenstein in front of a capacity crowd in Helsinki on Friday will guarantee the Finns, better known for their prowess at winter sports such as ice hockey and cross-country skiing, a berth at Euro 2020.
"It's hard to put it into words. It's just amazing the opportunity that we have -- a home game against Liechtenstein, the stadium is going to be packed. It's hysterical in Finland right now," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Finland took part in several Olympic soccer tournaments, but few Finnish fans count that as an achievement.
Instead, they have waited patiently to take their place among the footballing nations of the world, with Sparv cheering them on from the terraces before first lining up for them at under-15 level in 2002 and then for the senior side for the last decade.
"It was a dream of mine to represent the national team when I was growing up. If you were a young Finnish footballer back then, you looked up to Sami Hyypia, Jari Litmanen, Antti Niemi, Jussi Jaaskelainen- it was a big deal for me when I first came into the national team in 2009.
"These guys were still there, so it was a fantastic opportunity for me to learn from guys who had played in big clubs, won Champions Leagues. That was pretty cool. You have to remember, this was the golden generation," the midfielder explained.
"Everybody expected them to bring Finland to a championship, so I think it was a surprise and maybe a disappointment for many that they never managed it."
The names and clubs of the current squad may be less well-known -- Sparv plays for FC Midtjylland in Denmark -- but a combination of defensive organisation, team spirit and the goals of striker Teemo Pukki, who plays for Norwich City in England's Premier League, have put them on the brink of qualification.
"Pukki brings that X-factor, the simple playing philosophy that everybody knows has helped us. He's been so amazing for us," he said of the 29-year-old Pukki, who has netted seven of Finland's 12 goals in qualifying.
"We know that if we create a chance for Teemo, he'll score nine times out of 10. He's really developed into a star player."
Citing his side's defensive stability and Iceland's recent success in qualifying for Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup as sources of inspiration, Sparv said Finland's heart and togetherness would see them through.
"Everybody plays for the flag on the front of the shirt, rather than the name on the back. You can see that the players in the Finnish national team love the team. No-one creates any issues or problems," he said.
Italy currently top Group J with 24 points from their eight games, with Finland second on 15 with their final two games against Liechtenstein and away to Greece.
Armenia and Bosnia could still pip the Finns to second place, but not if Sparv's side beat Liechtenstein, a team with no wins and only two points and two goals scored so far in qualifying.
"I can't imagine what it will be like if we win. People have been talking about these final two games for weeks," Sparv said.
"We still have some work to do, but it's going to be a big party all over Finland if we make it."
(Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Toby Davis)