SOMETHING TO CELEBRATE: Estonia is enjoying its best-ever tournament performance.
TALLINN - Estonian football fans will be forever grateful to Slovenia, who was able to defeat Serbia, 1-0, on Tuesday evening, allowing Estonia to move through to the play-off stage of qualifying for Euro 2012. On Tuesday evening, Slovenia was able to hold on to defeat Serbia 1-0, confirming Estonia as second-placed getters in Group C, meaning they will now move through to the play-off round alongside Bosnia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Montenegro, Portugal and Turkey, who will be fighting it out for the four remaining spots in next year’s Euro 2012 tournament, being co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine.
By just making it this far, the Tarmo Ruutli-managed side has already made history by going further in a major football qualifying draw than any other Estonian team.
“For such a small nation like Estonia to reach the play-offs it’s something very special and it shows that things in Estonian football, in the development, have been great, so we can be reasonably happy,” Estonian Football Association spokesperson Mihkel Uiboleht told TBT the morning following the confirmation of Estonia’s place in the play-offs.
After defeating Northern Ireland 2-1 away on Friday evening, Estonia was able to move into second spot in the group, one point ahead of Serbia, who were only able to manage a 1-1 draw with the already-qualified Italians on the same night.
But with their victory over Northern Ireland marking an end to their qualifying draw, Estonia had to endure a nervous time as they awaited the outcome of Serbia’s final match, away to Slovenia on Tuesday evening.
Estonia was also playing on Tuesday evening, albeit in a friendly match against next year’s co-hosts, Ukraine. But the players could be forgiven for having their minds in other places, losing the game 2-0 before remaining in A. Le Coq Arena in Tallinn to watch the Slovenia-Serbia game, on a specially erected big screen, alongside fans.
When Slovenia’s Dare Vrsic scored in added time at the end of the first half, Estonia dared to start believing that they were about to achieve the unthinkable, given they were not even given an outside chance of being a contender to qualify from their group.
The second half did not come without some nervy moments for the Estonians, none more so than when Marko Suler gave away a penalty kick in the 64th minute. But when Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic’s shot was saved by Samir Handanovic, Serbia had blown their best opportunity.
“Everyone was struggling to watch the match, because we were so nervous all the time. Near the end, when we knew Serbia could not score twice, everybody was struggling to fight back tears because it was a very historic moment,” an evidently happy Uiboleht told TBT.
After a shock 2-0 away loss to the Faroe Islands back in June, Estonia looked to have blown their chances of finishing second in the group. But they turned the tables, winning their final three group matches, with two of the victories away, including last Friday’s win against Northern Ireland.
At the play-off stage, Estonia will meet one of the other seven teams in a home and away format, with the first leg to take place on Nov. 11 or 12 and the return leg to be played on Nov. 15. The play-off draw will be made in Krakow, Poland on Thursday.
While Estonia may be celebrating, the same cannot be said for Lithuania and Latvia. Lithuania finished their Group I qualifying campaign at home in Kaunas on Tuesday, where they were thumped 4-1 by the Czech Republic to finish second to last in their group after managing just two draws at home and one win away throughout their whole campaign. Latvia also finished up on Tuesday, losing 2-0 away to Croatia after defeating Malta 2-0 at home on Friday. Latvia finished fourth in Group F on the back of one win and two draws at home, and two wins away from home.