Today’s edition of the Euro 2020 Celtic Connections takes a slightly different form in the sense that it combines two nations. The two matches in Group B tonight are Russia v Denmark and Finland v Belgium. The Belgian’s, who featured earlier in this series, are already through and have all but secured top spot. Finland and Russia require points to battle for second spot, or to progress as one of the top third placed teams. Meanwhile, Denmark will not progress due to losing their opening two games. The Dane’s have of course been massively hampered by the traumatic experience of seeing their star player, Christian Eriksen, suffer a cardiac arrest on the pitch mid-way through their first match.
Denmark has a huge Celtic connection with no less than eight Celts coming from the nation (covering the period 1966 – 2018). However, the focus of this article is on the two nations battling for qualification.
Teemu Pukki is the only Finnish player to play for Celtic Football Club. He arrived at Parkhead from Schalke in 2013 and got off to a great start when he scored against Hearts on his debut. A second goal in his next league game had the Celtic fans excited, but a dip in form meant that he did not score again until December and despite being a skillful player, he ended the campaign with just seven goals in 33 games. He was, therefore, not a sufficient replacement for Gary Hooper. With the new season came new hope. A fellow Scandinavian took over as manager in Ronny Deila, and Pukki netted twice against Reykjavik in the Champions League qualifiers. However, a further dip in form ensured he was loaned out to Brondby, who made the move permanent for a fee in the region of £500K. Since leaving Celtic, he clearly developed into a top player and has enjoyed some stunning seasons at Norwich City, where his goal record is nothing short of outstanding. Perhaps he was one that got away!
Celtic has had a considerable connection with Russian football. The Bhoys first ever away win in the Champions League group stages was against Spartak Moscow, whilst we have also enjoyed some incredibly dramatic Champions League qualifiers against Dinamo and Spartak in the mid-2000s. If one delves further into the history books, then they will also notice that Sir Robert Kelly refused to play against teams behind the Iron Curtain in the first round of the 1968 European Cup due to the imperialist actions of the USSR in Hungary.
In terms of players, it is a little surprising to note that the only Russian to represent the Hoops is Dmitri Kharine. Kharine was an experienced goalkeeper, who signed from Chelsea after a decent few years in London. He had only lost his place as the number one choice at Stamford Bridge due to a knee injury, which unfortunately re-occurred at an early stage of his Celtic career. That, along with a couple of poor goals conceded against Dundee and Hibs, brought an end to his four game stint between the sticks. Having been signed by John Barnes, Kharine soon found himself working under the new management of Martin O’Neill, who strongly favoured Jonathan Gould and released the Russian in the summer of 2002.
In total, Kharine only made 11 appearances at the club, keeping six clean sheets. He was later signed by Ryman League Division 1 North club, Hornchurch. In his first game for the semi-pro outfit, he was sent off for headbutting an opponent! It was quite the fall from grace considering that Dmitri Kharine is one of the few players to have won International Honours for three countries – USSR, CIS and Russia – which was all down to the political turmoil in his home country. As well as playing at World Cup ’94 and Euro ’92 and ’96, he won a Gold medal with the Soviet Union at the 1988 Summer Olympics.
If better luck was on his side, he could have been a very good Celtic player.