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Soccer minnows battling for position

  • 2002-08-01
  • Ciaran Baynes
With some success abroad tempered by ethnic squabbles at home, soccer in Estonia is a fair reflection of the country as a whole, as Ciaran Baynes reports.

It may not exactly be the equivalent of winning the World Cup. But as in many other countries, the line between soccer and politics is easily blurred in Estonia, and a victory over the "old enemy" is one to be savored.

Estonian soccer's greatest hour came with a pre-World Cup victory over Russia, and casual soccer watchers joined with hardcore enthusiasts in celebrating the historic event. But how reflective is this of the standard of soccer in the country and what can be done to help make this type of result the norm, rather than a most enjoyable one-off?

Though only a friendly, the win indicated substantial progress since the early days following independence, when Estonia's national side would regularly lose by six or seven goals to the likes of Switzerland, Latvia and Lithuania – themselves hardly footballing super-powers.

However, recent goalless draws against Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and repeated early elimination from European club competitions show a lot more progress is needed if Estonia can even consider making the finals of a major championship in the future.

Reality check

Of all the Baltic countries, Estonia had the furthest to come when they finally started competing as a national side in 1992.

It had its own league during the communist era, but with the best players siphoned off to other clubs across the old Soviet Union, there was little interest in the game and the standard was poor.

Though support for the national team is swelling, with near sell-out crowds in recent games against Ireland, the Netherlands and Russia, this is not reciprocated for domestic matches. Barely 250 fans turned up to see the leading side Flora Tallinn's first game after the mid-season break against Levadia Tallinn, and only 1,500 watched the biggest club game of the year as Flora took on Cypriot side Apoel Nicosia in the Champions League.

Arno Pijpers, Flora and Estonian national coach, believes his club side and its rivals at the top of the division are the equivalent to mid-table sides in his native Netherlands. This seems a fairly generous assessment, especially after Flora's goalless draw against Nicosia, which is likely to lead to their early elimination from the competition once again.

Indeed, outside Estonia, the country is viewed as having one of the weakest leagues in Europe.

Also, the result against Russia may be a smoke screen for the casual observer of Estonian football, because passionate followers will realize that with only one point garnered during qualification for the 2002 World Cup, Estonia remains a minnow in world football.

In the approaching European Championship qualification, a tough draw against Belgium, Croatia and Bulgaria means Estonia is likely to be left vying with Andorra to avoid finishing bottom of the group.

But despite all this, there are reasons to be positive about the country's footballing future.

The new all-seater A le Coq Arena, home of Flora and the national side, will hold almost 15,000 fans when finished next season and will be an impressive stadium, with an adjacent training complex to help the country's next generation of players.

The man responsible for this is Aivar Pohlak, Flora's chairman and a "godfather" figure behind the Estonian game.

He raised the funds to build Flora's new ground and has put much of his time and money into improving the club, but he insists all his efforts are aimed at improving the national team and the game as a whole in Estonia.

"The national team is the priority," Pohlak said. "My ambition is for us to develop players here, to the point where they can go abroad to improve their game. Then we replace them with younger players, and the process repeats itself. This is not done to finance Flora, the money is useful, but we are run as a business anyway."

The other half

Despite more players successfully plying their trade abroad in recent years – Mart Poom will soon be the subject of a £5 million ($7.5 million) transfer in England, while Andres Oper and Indrek Zelinski are both key players for Danish side Aab Aalborg – it seems that the best use is not made of all the players closer to home

Though Russians make up roughly a third of the Estonian population and the majority of paid footballers in the country, only a handful of players of this ethnicity are ever in the national squad.

Prior to the last two years, Flora generally only picked Estonian players, and with the national team being made up almost exclusively of current or past players of the club, the international team was virtually a closed door to Russians.

The situation seems to be improving now. Flora has developed a more inclusive policy of fielding players speaking Russian as their first language and currently one such player, Jevgeni Novikov, is a key man for both the club and national teams.

Flora also has young resident aliens like Aleksandrs Kulik and Tarassemko in its ranks.

However, it still seems perverse to an outsider that in the last eight years, the three top scorers in the domestic league, Maksim Gruznov, Andrei Krolov and Sergei Bragin, have not won a single cap between them.

The first two are uncapped, while Bragin played before new citizenship laws came into force in 1993, which make all three ineligible.

The Estonian Football Fede-ration has never sought a government award of immediate citizenship for these players, as was gi-ven to the father of two of Estonia's most successful athletes, skiing sisters Kristina and Katrin Shmigun, to enable him to coach his daughters. This is because the footballers are not seen as essential to the national side.

It is likely that this would only happen if a player of the ability of Estonian-born Valery Karpin, who grew up under the Soviet soccer system and is one of the star men in the Russian national side, faced such passport problems.

Many in Estonia would argue that if a player is not prepared to learn the Estonian language sufficiently to pass the tests to acquire citizenship, they do not have the commitment to play for the national side.

This seems to be a view Pijpers goes along with.

"There may be some players who would come into consideration if they had citizenship," Pijpers said. "If they get the passport, then we will consider them."

The commitment of Russian speakers to the Estonian side is certainly a thorny issue. The majority of Russian players interviewed for this article admitted supporting the "mother country" when Russia faced Estonia. Indeed, the atmosphere at the ground with a slight majority of pro-Russian fans led to minor incidents of in-stadium fighting that almost took the shine off the famous win.

Pijpers is keen to foster a team spirit and has admitted that if he had the choice between an Estonian or Russian speaker of similar ability he would choose the former.

But though steps are being made to include the entire population, perhaps a more pro-active approach is required to encourage young Russians to aim to play for the national team.

This should become less of an issue in the future with Russian youngsters growing up learning the language and Flora's new more inclusive policy.

Similarly, if and when Estonia joins the EU, more players will be able to go abroad to further raise the standard of the country's best players.

Perhaps only then, with a team mo-re reflective of the country's demographic make-up, could the national side hope to compete for qualification in a major international competition and reproduce their triumph over Russia on a bigger stage.