This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
Finland had just beaten Belarus 2-0 and the goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky was thanking the fans behind his goal when he suddenly grabbed a full pint of beer from a supporter’s hand and drank it all with just one gulp.
It was a typical Hradecky moment. Always a broad smile on his face and a joke on his mind, Hradecky has become a favourite among Finnish supporters.
No wonder as he is regularly pulling off spontaneous acts such as this. A few weeks after the pint episode he went on to find the supporter and pay him back – with interest. Soon enough Hradecky tweeted a picture with the satisfied fan and a case of 24 cans of Czech beer. “The debt is paid now,” he wrote.
This beer-drinking, humorous and even clownlike side of Hradecky couldn’t be further from the ambitious and self-demanding athlete he fundamentally is. Still, there is always room for a bit of banter. “There is this taboo about drinking beer,” he once told me. “Beer is made to be drunk. And about the swearing: 99.9 per cent of people swear. Why do we footballers have to be more saints than others?
“People think I get drunk every single night but that’s not the case. Of course it is not, I’m a professional. I put Netflix on, cook some food, take one beer out of the fridge and then rest. In a way we footballers are kind of institutionalised. We have to live behind closed doors. I think it is important to be yourself and thankfully I realised that early on. Whether you are in a serious environment or not you have to be yourself.”
This summer you may notice the brilliant Bayern Leverkusen keeper prominently in the Euros given that Finland, who are making their debut in the tournament, were drawn in a very difficult Group B with Belgium, Denmark and Russia.
Hradecky will have to perform wonders for Finland to qualify from the group stage but that is exactly what he has been doing for many years now with the help of one of the tightest defences you will see at the tournament; a group of defenders who celebrate blocks as though they have just scored a winning goal in a cup final.
It says a lot about the Finnish mentality when Hradecky once described stopping the ball with his “nuts” as the most satisfying way to make a save. Like many goalkeepers he has a masochistic streak.
Hradecky, 31, was born in Bratislava and moved to Finland as a toddler when his father, Vladimir, secured a semi-professional deal as a volleyball player in the city of Turku. Lukas considered himself more talented in tennis or ice hockey than football but the latter took his attention as it was played daily in a gravel field in the very modest neighbourhood where the family still lives.
In ice hockey Hradecky supports Slovakia, the country of his birth, which is not just a side note in Finland where football is just starting to rival ice hockey as the most popular sport. But in football he was central in helping the Finnish men’s national team to qualify for their first tournament finals after a century of misery.
Hradecky came through the Turun Palloseura youth academy and was promoted to the first team before turning 20 but never played a top-flight game in Finland as he moved to the Danish side Esbjerg in 2009. His start with Esbjerg was difficult, , he suffered from nerves and confessed to feeling afraid of having to touch the ball or make a save during matches. This is hard to believe now when watching someone with such confidence and a carefree mind.
Hradecky had a long talk at a summer cottage with his best friends in Finland and decided the most important thing is just to be yourself, not to fulfil other people’s expectations. And that is exactly what he has been since.
He gradually became one of the best goalkeepers in the Danish Superliga and won the Danish cup before a transfer to Brondby. Spending six successful years in Denmark is one reason his debut in the Euros will be very emotional. The first match will be played in Hradecky’s former home town, Copenhagen, against Denmark.
In Copenhagen Hradecky shared a flat with Teemu Pukki, the prolific striker who is probably the best-known current Finland player. When Hradecky left Brondby for Eintracht Frankfurt, Pukki stayed for a couple of seasons before moving to Norwich.
Hradecky was typically humorous when he spoke about his transfer in an interview with Ilta-Sanomat. “When I moved to Germany, Teemu was left only with a knife, fork, a plate and a mattress”. That is Hradecky. You always get a good quote.
That is also the Finnish national football team. No matter wether you are the biggest star or a squad player, everyone will be the subject of a joke and an equal part of the team.
Still, on and off the field you can’t avoid noticing the lanky goalkeeper with good feet, a strong presence and loud voice – because Lukas Hradecky is a special character.
Saku-Pekka Sundelin writes for Ilta-Sanomat.
Follow him on Twitter @SPSundelin.
For a tactical guide on Finland click here.