Commentary

Can Estonia keep its dream alive?

Updated: November 10, 2011, 2:31 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

Aivar Pohlak, president of Estonia's Football Association, is having a hard time relaxing.

"It's somehow emotionally a very difficult time," he said. "There's no space for excitement. Such a moment for me means more thinking, more concentrating on the future, because OK, it's one thing where we are now, which is important. The key questions are, 'Why are we there? How do we keep it going?' So I have to say it's very stressful."

Pohlak should be giddy, because not many predicted that Estonia would feature in the Euro 2012 playoffs. And no, for those wondering, Estonia wasn't expected to win its group.

If Estonia ousts Ireland over two legs beginning Friday, the former Soviet republic will find itself in a major tournament for the first time. What an achievement it would be. A year ago, Estonia languished outside the top 100 in the world rankings. Some of its internationals ply their trade in the soccer backwaters of Azerbaijan, China, Belarus, Hungary and Cyprus, and a population of 1.3 million means Estonia's player bank is thin.

It was even thinner 20 years ago, when basketball and skiing were the sports of choice in the embryonic stages of independence. Having the proper paperwork was just as important as soccer skills.

"I was assistant coach of the national team, and I was 29," the friendly Pohlak said in a phone interview. "We had 26 players with Estonian passports to choose the national side. That's not a big group. You can select almost everybody! At the end of the Soviet times, football didn't exist in Estonia. It was like empty fields to build something."

Success has come two or three years earlier than anticipated, according to Pohlak, although the current qualifying campaign has been as bumpy as a twin engine landing in a snowstorm. Another finish in the middle, or worse, of the standings looked likely when Estonia needed a pair of injury-time goals to beat the Faroe Islands 2-1 -- at home -- to begin.

[+] EnlargeKonstantin Vassiljev
Peter Muhly/Getty ImagesEstonian midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev scored five goals in qualifying.

But 13 months ago, Estonia upped its game, notching one of the most memorable wins in its history, 3-1 against Serbia. Estonia had beaten or drawn good teams at home, but this result came on the road. With momentum, Estonia in June was handed a morale-sapping 2-0 defeat by the Faroes, who swim in the same minnow pool as Moldova, Liechtenstein and Kazakhstan. There were rumblings that manager Tarmo Ruutli's contract, essentially due to expire at the end of qualifying, wouldn't be renewed. It's since been extended.

"If someone would have said that we would lose to the Faroes and still finish second, you would definitely say this person was crazy," Andres Vaher, head of sport at Estonian national newspaper Ohtuleht, said in a phone interview.

Italy cruised past Estonia 3-0 in Modena before the Faroe debacle.

"When we beat Serbia, of course expectations went high up, but then we lost to Italy," captain Raio Piiroja said in a phone interview. "It was 3-0, but we played horribly. It should have been worse. Then we lost to the Faroes, and we thought that was it, that we'd never make it."

Disappointing performances from World Cup entrants Serbia and Slovenia kept Estonia in contention for Euro 2012, and Estonia ended the qualifying campaign by doing the double over Northern Ireland, rallying for a 2-1 victory in Belfast on Oct. 7. Then came an agonizing wait.

Idle on the final day, a nervous Piiroja settled in to watch Serbia's visit to Slovenia: A win for the Serbs, and they'd snatch second and head to the playoffs. Boosted by a Nemanja Vidic penalty miss, Slovenia prevailed 1-0. Estonia was in. "I can't say it was Serbia against Slovenia," said Piiroja, a defender with Vitesse Arnhem in the Netherlands. "For me it was like Estonia against Serbia."

Estonia aims to play a possession-based game, unlike when Piiroja made his debut three decades ago. In those days it was 11 men behind the ball, and going forward meant punting and chasing. The unquestionable star man these days is midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev, who scored five goals in qualifying. Vassiljev can't get a game with his Russian club, Amkar Perm. Piiroja also singled out keeper Sergei Pareiko, the starter at Poland's Wisla Krakow, as someone to watch.

[+] EnlargeSamir Handanovic, Nemanja Vidic
AP Photo/Darko BandicOne of the key moments to Estonia's qualification campaign was when Nemanja Vidic missed the penalty for Serbia.

But hard work, organization and a familiarity with each others' games have been equally important. Seven of the starting 11 against Northern Ireland in October have amassed 50 caps or more. When uber-rich players say they're proud to represent their country, it can sound like a cliché. Not in Estonia's case, Vaher said.

"I think for national teams it's a big bonus for the smaller countries, whose players always want to come," he said. "In general, they want to represent the country and are not thinking, 'I have a small niggle, and I cannot represent my club next week.'"

In Ireland, Estonia meets a similarly hardworking unit, albeit with more skill and a meaner defense. Still, if the Irish were chuffed to be paired with Estonia, the opposite is true. At least Pohlak thought so. Estonia avoided the nation the unseeded teams didn't want, Portugal, and Ireland's record in playoffs isn't great. The return from injury of influential striker Robbie Keane is a massive lift, yet Kevin Doyle, almost as valuable up front, is suspended for the opener in Tallinn on Friday.

Piiroja, at least publicly, won't admit he wanted Ireland. He scoffs at theories by some back home that Estonia should beat Ireland because it's already handled Northern Ireland. "I'm not so naive," Piiroja said.

Tickets for the first leg at the A. Le Coq Arena -- named after the Estonian beer company -- sold out in a half hour, which is highly unusual. Extra seats will increase capacity to more than 10,000, said Vaher. Only twice in qualifying did Estonia draw more than 5,500.

"We don't have a football tradition that every game is sold out," Vaher said. "It depends on the opponent, the importance of the game, the weather. But now people are saying this stadium is too small. A few years ago they were saying it's too big."

Pohlak would be a fitting man to write up the fairy tale if Estonia advances, given he's an award-winning author of children's literature. But Piiroja isn't allowing himself to look too far ahead. "I think everyone in the team has been dreaming a little bit, but not too much," he said. "It seems to be so close. But at the same time it's so far away."

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.

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