Ireland face Estonia banana skin
In the lead-up to last month's draw for the Euro 2012 play-offs, one team stood out. A country with so little football pedigree that it almost looked like a typing error amongst the other play-off qualifiers - a perceived free pass to the European Championships.
When Ireland were selected to face Estonia, the gasps of relief emanating from Dublin could be heard across Europe. This website claimed Ireland had "landed the ideal Euro 2012 play-off draw". Irish defender Darren O'Dea acknowledged that, if he could have chosen, "it would have been Estonia". After losing four play-offs in the last 15 years, including the controversial loss to France in 2009, it seemed Irish luck had changed.
Even Estonia's captain reckoned Ireland had been given the easiest draw. "I totally agree. I think everyone was hoping to get Estonia," Raio Piiroja said, prior to Friday's first leg in Tallinn.
But Irish fans had better resist booking a trip to Poland and Ukraine for now. This Estonian team are on a roll and cannot be written off until the final whistle in Dublin on November 15.
Estonia's hopes of a play-off berth seemed finished in June when the Sinisargid ('Blue Shirts') lost to Italy and Faroe Islands. Estonia were fourth, four points behind second-placed Slovenia and one point behind Serbia. Plus the Serbs had a game in hand.
"It felt like it was the end of the world," Piiroja recalls. "We mucked up big time against the Faroe Islands. We had three games left and two were away - two hard away games and one at home - so not even in our best dreams [could we expect to] get nine points out of our last three games."
But they did.
Estonia beat Slovenia away and then got the better of Northern Ireland twice but still needed results to fall their way on the final match day. Slovenia did Estonia a favour and beat Serbia 1-0. Piiroja watched the game from his home in the Netherlands, where the tall defender plays for Vitesse Arnhem. "It was a strange situation for us because it was the most important game in Estonian football history but Estonia wasn't playing in it," Piiroja says.
Since Estonia rejoined UEFA in 1992, they had never finished higher than fourth in major tournament qualification. The play-offs are new territory. For a country that had no organised football system 20 years ago and that has a population of just 1.3 million, this improvement is quite incredible.
Football was a pariah sport during Estonia's Soviet era. The tiny Baltic country struggled under the Soviet regime for half a century and in that time football became associated with the Russians who ran the state institutions. Basketball became the sport of choice among ethnic Estonians. "Estonians hated the game because Russians liked it so much," Piiroja explains.
However, since independence in 1991, football has made steady progress, even surpassing basketball as the most popular team sport in the country.
To come from a point where hardly any Estonians played football to one where there is a structured system and a national team with a shot of qualifying for the European Championships isn't easy. Two men deserve most of the credit. The Estonian football association (EJL) president, Aivar Pohlak, and former national team coach Teitur Thordarson.
"The first step was [Pohlak] hired a foreign coach who was Teitur Thordarson, who had knowledge," Andres Vaher, sports editor for Ohtuleht, one of Tallinn's main daily newspapers, says. "He started to teach our players from zero."
Thordarson introduced many fundamental ideas to Estonian football, such as the concept that youth teams should play the same system as the senior team. The Icelander focused on discipline and defence during his tenure in the late 1990s. Current manager Tarmo Ruutli has loosened the reins now that most of the national team players are based abroad. "[Ruutli] wants to play more [of a] passing game and he gives a little bit more freedom," 23-year-old striker Kaimar Saag says.
The Estonians' new liberty on the pitch was apparent in their two wins over Northern Ireland. The Blue Shirts thumped the Northern Irish 4-1 in Tallinn and then a month later, trailing 1-0 at halftime, Estonia controlled the second half in Belfast.
"We held the ball all the time. I was watching with my mouth open - 'What's happening?'" Saag laughs. "Then [Konstantin] Vassiljev went in and scored a penalty and an amazing second goal."
Estonia won 2-1. Vassiljev, the match-winning substitute, scored five goals during qualifying. The Russian-based midfielder is Estonia's main man. "Definitely Vassiljev," Piiroja says. "He can score fantastic goals out of nothing."
Qualifying for a major football tournament would be a huge achievement for Estonia, another accolade in the nation's proud sporting tradition. Estonia regularly punches above its weight at both the summer and winter Olympics. But football is the new frontier.
Estonia may not get a better chance to qualify for a major tournament. Ireland's history of failure in play-offs makes them far from a sure thing. But no matter the result, EJL president Aivar Pohlak knows his work isn't over.
"If when I die we have the basics of football then I'll have to be happy," Pohlak says, having been on the EJL board since it was reborn in 1992. "We are coming from nothing. We are still in the process of the first real steps."
According to Piiroja, who has won over 100 caps for his country, this Estonian team won't be the first with a serious shot of qualification.
"The Estonian Football Association is building up a huge system, working hard with the youngsters and there's more young football players than ever before in Estonia and they're getting pretty decent results in the Under-19 and Under-21 national teams as well," the 32-year-old says. "They're probably better than me when I was 19 or 21 years old."