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Jantunen and friends ready to get Finland back to World Cup
OOSTENDE (Belgium) - Mikael Jantunen cannot wait to get back to the Finland national team. First off, he wants to see his old friends again. But he also aims to group up with them and give Finland a strong start to the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 European Qualifiers.
And the goal for Jantunen and co. is clear: reach the global showcase event in the summer of 2023.
"We have a new younger generation coming into the national team and a lot really good players. We can for sure make it," said Jantunen, who is one of that group of promising youngsters at just 21 years of age.
In addition to Jantunen, the 22-year-old Elias Valtonen and 23-year-old Edon Maxhuni are expected to play a big role in the immediate and future plans of the Finnish team. That trio grew up playing high school basketball together back in the Helsinki Basketball Academy in the Finnish capital and then also played with each other in youth European Championships.
"The bond has been there since 15 or 16, so it's great," Jantunen said. "It's a lot of fun. Every time you go back, you know you're going to go back and play with basically your high school friends in the national team. I'm just super excited that I will see all the guys again that I haven't seen in a couple months and will get a chance to play with them again."
The up-coming World Cup Qualifiers, however, will be anything but just fun and games for Jantunen and the team. Finland face a tough window with the first game on November 25 against Sweden in Stockholm followed by a home game against Croatia on November on 28 in Espoo.
Edon Maxhuni (right) and Elias Valtonen at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018
Jantunen said he is "super excited" about playing his first game against Sweden at the senior level.
"Sweden have a lot of good players playing for good teams and they're doing a great job marketing the game so I know it's going to be close to a full house," he said. "We have to start the Qualifiers off the right way. That's why the first game is a big one. With both being Nordic countries, we have a lot of history in all sports. So in that way it's also a big game for us. We’re gonna have a lot of energy and for sure be ready for that game."
Things don't get any easier for the Finns after the Sweden game with a date with Croatia at the Espoo Metro Arena.
"Croatia is a big basketball country and they always have a good team even if they might be missing some guys. So for sure it's a really big game for us because we can't drop games at home if we want to make it to the World Cup. Every game counts."
Jantunen, who is making his professional debut this season with Belgian side Filou Oostende, is looking forward to playing in front of the home fans again.
"I am excited to have our fans back. It's been a while since our fans have been able to see our games. And we have great, loud fans, so for sure it's gonna be a great game," the young Finn said.
Jantunen will also have a motivation factor going into this qualification campaign after being unable to help Finland reach the 2019 World Cup after the country played on the global stage in 2014.
He played in eight of the 10 qualifying games and Finland had a couple of what-if games. They led by 10 points in the third quarter but lost to Iceland; trailed by two points in the final 20 seconds but suffered a four-point road loss at Czech Republic; and were ahead by 13 points with 7 minutes left at home against Russia but ended up falling in overtime.
"We missed our chance at the World Cup, so for sure it gives you extra motivation and energy for these Qualifiers. We learned a lot from those games. We had a lot of young players who now three or four years later have a lot of experience, so I think we're going to be ready thanks to that," said Jantunen, who played the qualification campaign at 17 and 18 years of age.
The loss to Russia at home in particular was a major lesson learned.
"That's a game you cannot afford to lose if you want to make it to the World Cup. We learned from that and we will be more ready for situations similar to that with our more experience, especially for the younger guys who have been through it now once," Jantunen said.
Just another experience Jantunen learned from and will now build upon with his friends from back in the day.