Play-offs the pay-off for Estonia's development

 

THE FOOTBALLERS of Estonia are loving it. Finally, they are the centre of attention. For once, a team sport has captivated the heart of this fledgling Baltic nation in a land more used to individual pursuits and personalised glory.

Captain Raio Piiroja has never witnessed anything like it. In a career that will see him win his 107th international cap on Friday night, the five-time Estonian player of the year has been used to being taken for granted. Now, as the Republic of Ireland prepare to return to the old town of Tallinn for the first time in a decade, football has even pushed cross-country skiing off the back pages.

The people want to talk to their national team captain. They stopped him in the arrivals hall on his return home from Vitesse Arnhem to ask his opinion of their country’s Euro 2012 play-off chances against Ireland.

The 32-year-old defender even ran out of fingers on his winter gloves to count the number of journalists at yesterday’s first press conference of the week in the brewery-sponsored Le Coq Arena. Yet still he won’t subscribe to the Giovanni Trapattoni theory that Estonia against Ireland is a David v David affair, a battle of the underdogs as the Irish boss has claimed.

“Mr Trapattoni knows what he is saying and what he is doing, he is trying to focus his players but they are the favourites,” insisted Piiroja, a survivor of the 2002 World Cup qualifiers between blue and green.

“I know the team we will play on Friday. Most of the Irish players are playing in the Premier League in England and this season they are getting game time with their clubs so we are definitely the underdogs here.

“That suits us because it is a challenge and we are better when we face a challenge. We have already made history in this European Championship and we know the play-offs against Ireland are a new possibility for us.

“The past year has been a roller -coaster for us. When we lost to the Faroe Islands in June we thought it was all over but we played well last month, we got lucky in the end and we are here now. We are happy with that but we know Ireland will be favourites to win these games.”

This is unchartered territory for Estonia. A third-place finish in their qualifying group would have been an achievement. To beat Serbia and Slovenia to second spot was almost careless for a nation who didn’t even feature on the international stage 20 years ago.

“When we started playing as a country 20 years ago we were really horrible. We lost every game by three or four goals and we were lucky if we kept the opposition to zero. A nil-nil was a great result for us then,” admitted Piiroja.

“Now it is different, things have developed in a natural and normal way, step by step and here we are. Maybe it is a little bit too early for us but we will see.

“Our players are playing outside the country now, in many different leagues. They are playing at a better level and they are improving. Another main point is that we have been playing together for a long period as a team and that is the key of our success.

“Did I think 10 years ago when Ireland were last here that we would meet again in a Euro play-off? Probably not – but I am an optimist and we have always had hope even if we are a small country with limited resources. That is why I am happy today.”

MLS striker Joel Lindpere, on the Red Bulls side beaten by Robbie Keane’s LA Galaxy last week, returned to the Estonian fold after a two-year self-imposed exile yesterday but will only start on the bench at best on Friday.