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Ireland game preview: I like Estonians – for now!

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Damien Duff.
IT’S time for a little secret but only so long as you promise not to tell anyone else -- it’s easy to like the Estonians.  So easy, it is almost a guilty pleasure.

It’s now Tuesday evening in the Baltics as I write, and the Old Town of Tallinn looks the same.

I was last here a decade ago, when Ireland beat Estonia 2-0 en route to the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea via a Pacific Island that my psychiatrist recommends I don’t talk about.
Back then, when Richard Dunne and Mattie Holland were scoring the goals that mattered in the brand new Le Coq stadium, Ireland were threatening to become a force to be reckoned with in world football and Estonia were the newly born also-rans of the European game.

Their football team, like their country, had only been in existence for a few years, and the former Soviet occupied state was finding its feet at so many levels, least of all of them football.

Today, 10 years later and on a Tuesday as it happens, the Estonians all around me here are enjoying what they are calling their Miracle Year.

Their economy has just bounced back from a Celtic Tiger-style collapse and is booming again. Their cross-country skiers are winning all around them, and their wife-throwers retained their world title at the recent wife-throwing championships in neighboring Finland.  I kid you not.

That’s not even half the story, however. None of the above is the reason why the happiness index is heading for the stars here on Planet Estonia. On Friday night, the footballers of Ireland will meet the footballers of Estonia for only the third time in either of their histories.

We won both the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, both of them 2-0 at it happened. We’d gladly take the same result this time around.

In fact, Giovanni Trapattoni would sign for it now given half a chance, and he hasn’t even left Dublin for Tallinn yet.

Estonia’s national football team is suddenly big news, and not just in this part of the world. They are through to the European Championship playoffs and a double date with the Irish after finishing second in their qualifying group – ahead of Serbia and Slovenia. Not bad, eh. Not bad at all.

That form, and a win in Belfast to get them this far, explains why association football is suddenly big news in a country where the sport was once suppressed by the Russian overlords who were finally overthrown in the eighties, in part by a singing revolution as it was known.

The Estonians will be singing again on Friday night when the 14,000 capacity Le Coq Arena will have just 1,400 fans cheering for the visiting Irish side, and the rest will be going blue and shouting their team all the way to Poland and the Ukraine next summer.

Naturally, I don’t want the Estonians to be successful in their playoff quest. I want Ireland to qualify for Euro 2012 because I know how much good it will do for our battered national pride, never mind anything else.  I know how much sport can lift the nation as it did at the end of the oppressive eighties.

I want to see Shay Given, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne end their international careers with a Euro finals swansong. I want the FAI to benefit from the riches that accompany qualification for a major finals.

But right now, I am sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place. After just 24 hours back in Estonia, I have fallen for their charms once again.

The people here are friendly and gracious hosts. Their football team and the people who work with them are welcoming and hospitable and open to an Irish inquisition.

They literally couldn’t do enough for myself and the reporter from the BBC’s German office when we landed on their doorstep for Tuesday afternoon’s press conference.

To a man they spoke openly and eloquently of their team’s journey from moral defeats 20 years ago to the brink of a Euro finals appearance.

They told us in great detail how football was a prohibited game in the time of Russian governance, how the sport was banned from Estonian schools by the Soviet invaders.

And they explained to us just how much it would really mean for this country of just 1.4 million people, all of them now football fans, to beat Ireland over the two legs of the playoffs on Friday and then next Tuesday.

If they play football as well as they sell their story, then Estonia might just pull off a massive surprise. They talk a great game and I was almost ready to buy their story.  Almost.
Come Friday night. I’m going to park my sympathy to one side and remember the one thing that is crucial in all of this -- I’m going to remember where I come from.

So thanks Estonia, but sorry. It is Ireland all the way for me.  We need Euro qualification just as much as you do!

Sideline Views

GAA: Good news for Dublin GAA fans -- Pat Gilroy is to stay on as manager of the All-Ireland champions for at least another year. Gilroy has been the mainstay of the recent revival in Dublin’s football fortunes and, if we are all fair and honest about it, their success has given the game a boost as well.  I’m sure it takes a lot of his time for very little reward, but Gilroy’s decision is to be commended even if it is bad news for Meath in their bid to get back to the top of the tree in Leinster, never mind Ireland.
RUGBY: A bit like Robbie Keane with the soccer team, we won’t know how good Brian O’Driscoll really is until his international rugby career is over. The news this week that Dricco is to undergo surgery on his injured shoulder and won’t play for at least six months means he will miss the Heineken Cup with Leinster and the Six Nations with Ireland. When he is out injured, we should consider life without him. And hope he does indeed get fit enough to play again.
BOXING: Joe Frazier’s death is to be lamented. I’m old enough to remember late nights in my granny’s house, waiting for the live coverage from America of those great heavyweight fights featuring Smokin’ Joe, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman before he found a grill. They were special times made all the more special by Frazier and his boxing buddies. May he rest in peace.
SOCCER: Congrats to Sligo on a second successive FAI Cup final triumph on Sunday, but what a pity referee Richie Winter ruined the game when he sent-off Shelbourne’s Barry Clancy in the 36th minute. Clancy should have got a penalty, in my opinion, and not a second yellow card for diving inside the box. The decision ruined the game.
RUGBY: Good news from Wales, where the Ospreys have banned their players from wearing colored football boots and using false tan. As the club that helped spawn the great but ludicrous Gavin Henson, the move is to be welcomed. Now if only some of their Premier League football counterparts would follow their lead.
GOLF: Rory McIlroy is now the second best golfer in the world and going out with the best female tennis player on the planet in the shape of Caroline Wozniacki. So, to quote the old and classic George Best story, where did it all go wrong for young McIlroy?
ATHLETICS: A young man by the name of John Coghlan won the Dublin cross-country title at the first attempt on Sunday. He’s the son of a certain Eamonn Coghlan. Class, as they say, is permanent. And hereditary.


HERO OF THE WEEK

THOSE who know such things -- hello Niall O’Dowd -- tell me it is quite something to win any race at the Breeders’ Cup meeting at Churchill Downs, so to win one at just 18 years of age must be some feat. Joseph O’Brien did just that last weekend, and his achievement on winning the Turf in Kentucky aboard St. Nicholas Abbey – trained by his legendary father Aidan O’Brien -- deserves all the credit that is coming his way. Well done young man.

IDIOT OF THE WEEK

I HAVE a hatred for spitting which I will go into in detail if we ever meet for a quiet pint.  I despise the act and I detest anyone who practices it. Wigan defender Antolin Alcaraz appeared to spit at Wolves star Richard Stearman during his team’s 3-1 defeat at Molineux and has been charged with doing so by the English FA. If he is guilty, and it looked like it to me via the television pictures, then Paraguay international Alcaraz truly is an idiot abroad.

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