Ireland game preview: I like Estonians – for now!
By: Cathal Dervan | Published Wednesday, November 9, 2011, 4:52 PM | Updated Wednesday, November 9, 2011, 4:52 PM
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 ViewsGAA:
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