(Reuters) - Finland striker Teemu Pukki scored twice as the team beat Liechtenstein 3-0 to book a place at Euro 2020 and reach the finals of a major soccer tournament for the first time.
The win secured second spot in Group J for Finland with 18 points, six behind section winners Italy, who play away to Bosnia and Herzegovina later on Friday.
With the game sold out weeks in advance and big screens set up in the centres of several major Finnish cities, expectations were high in Helsinki as fans belted out the national anthem while holding their scarves aloft on a chilly night.
The Finns tore into the visitors from the first whistle, but Liechtenstein weathered the early storm, forcing their opponents to go wide and then closing them down.
Liechtenstein kept up resistance until the 21st minute when Pukki surged across the middle. He was dispossessed, but Jasse Tuominen snapped up the ball and side-footed home to send the Helsinki crowd into raptures.
Pukki almost added a second seven minutes before halftime, but his stinging shot was turned away by the keeper. Tuominen came close again just after the break, firing a powerful header from a corner that came back off the near post.
Pukki sealed Finland’s spot at next year’s finals after Pyry Soiri was hacked down in the penalty area by Livio Meier, coolly slotting home the resulting spot kick in the 64th minute for his eighth goal of the qualifying campaign.
He crowned a superb individual performance with his second goal 11 minutes later, collecting a ball over the top and rounding the keeper. Though defender Andreas Malin blocked his initial shot, Pukki stabbed home the rebound.
The “Pukki party” started in earnest all over the country as he was substituted to rapturous applause in the 84th minute with Finland’s ticket to the Euros safely booked.
“There are no words. I’ve never been as nervous before a match as I was for this one today,” a delighted Pukki said as fans invaded the pitch to celebrate.
As fireworks erupted over the stadium, coach Markku Kanerva praised his players for their campaign.
“A fantastic effort by the players. I am so unbelievably proud, it has been an incredible journey that means such an awful lot to the Finnish people,” he said.
Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris and Cynthia Osterman