Before clashing on the 6th of September for the WC2014 qualification campaign, Netherlands and Estonia had already squared up in the A.LeCoq Arena 12 years ago. It’s a game that all Estonian football fans have had carved in their memories notwithstanding the final result was favorable to the visitors.
A BIT OF HISTORY
ESTONIA 2-4 NETHERLANDS (WCQ – 2nd June 2001 – A.LeCoq Arena)
First of all, it was the very first game that the Estonian national team played at the newly built stadium.
Secondly, Estonia managed to hold on a goalless draw the Dutch side for more than a hour.
Let’s remind some of those who were playing in the Dutch side: Van der Saar, Frank de Boer, Reiziger, Cocu, Hasselbaink, Kluivert and, last but not least, Ruud Van Nistelrooy.
However, this was nothing yet compared to what happened at 64’.
Estonia steals possession from the Dutch in midfield; the ball is brought back into defence; a vertical pass is sent Marko Kristal: the nr.10 sees nr.9, striker Andres Oper, attacking the space with his speed and serves him deep with one touch. The Dutch rearguard is suprised by the quick unexpected verticalization: Oper avoids one opponent, then resists to Mario Melchiot trying to disturb him; Oper is already in the box when he slams it past Van der Saar: 1-0 for Estonia!
The entire Lilleküla audience is standing up celebrating the goal: madness brings one Estonian fan to invade the pitch to reach the bunch of Estonian footballers however he’s promptly stopped by the stewards. The new stadium doesn’t have any kind of fences yet.
The Dutch players are incredulous at what just happened: they are one down with less than half an hour to go against Estonia, a football minnow.
Notwithstanding the embarassment, they will manage to pull themselves together and equalize four minutes later with Captain Frank De Boer firing a rocket at Martin Kaalma’s goal. The poweful shot is deflected by the then young defender Raio Piiroja. 1-1
However, it happens again.
76’, Kristal works out a long ball for Oper on the right flank. Oper has a lot of space to run in to catch it. When he latches onto it, Melchiot is standing on his way at the edge of the box. The nr.11 takes a look at what’s going on inside the box and sends it in on the front post where Zelinski is quicker and anticipates the Dutch defender: 2-1!
Fifteen minutes to go and Estonia is leading again!
This time it will last longer, seven minutes, as Van Nistelrooy (who subbed Hasselbaink earlier) will make it even again with a poacher’s goal.
The rest is known: in the remaining time (eight minutes plus added time) Van Nistelrooy and Kluivert will sign the Dutch comeback for a 2-4 final score.
After that, Estonia haven’t managed to score against the Orange, let alone to take the lead of the game: 5-0 the return game in September 2001 and 3-0 the game last Spring in Amsterdam.
Out of that Estonian team only Andres Oper and Raio Piiroja are still active, with the latter being the captain and Oper the Estonian international topscorer of all times.
Kristal and Zelinski have both retired and they work together as coach and assistant coach at FC Levadia Talinn (Estonia’s second most-titled club) currently top of the Estonian top-flight table.
The back then coach of Estonia was a Dutchman: Arnoldus ’Arno’ Pijpers, 42 games as Estonian coach in 5 years (2000-2005), now coach at a club in Kazakhstan (FK Taraz) after working for many years within the Estonian FA to develop the youth system.
Van Gaal will be back for the second time in Lilleküla stadium: will he have a deja vu of that crazy ’white night’?
Coach Tarmo Rüütli has picked up 24 men ahead of the clash with Van Gaal side.
The squad is made up mostly by footballers playing abroad with the only exceptions represented by Dmitri Kruglov, a left full-back who recently returned to Estonia (at Levadia) after a contract terminated in Russia (FC Rostov); Estonian Champion (with club Nõmme Kalju) right full-back Tihhon Śiśov and finally the midfielders Alexander Dmitrijev (Levadia Tallinn) and Martin Vunk (Sillamäe Kalev).
Defender Ragnar Klavan, is the only one playing in a European top league as he’s at his second stint with FC Augsburg in the Bundesliga.
Two of the 24 don’t play in Europe: Captain Raio Piiroja has signed this year for Chinese club Chengdu Blades and Joel Lindpere is earning a living at Chicago Fire in the MLS (he was at New York Red Bulls with Thierry Henry before moving to Michigan State).
Oper was not called up due to an injury to his shoulder he picked up in…a taxi: ’We were sitting with a friend in a taxi – recalls the record topscorer about the accident occurred in June – when suddenly a bus drove into us! I don’t know why it happened, maybe brakes didn’t work. Initially I just felt something weird with my shoulder, but nothing else. Later on it was more and more painful. The doctor suggested to do some x-ray: it was clear I had to go into surgery.’
With Oper ruled-out, the top-scorer available for Rüütli is midfielder Kostantin ’Kostja’ Vassiljev (15 times netting with ’sinisärk’, the blue jersey), a regular at FK Amkar Perm, Russia.
Vassiljev was the great protagonist of the enthusing ride that brought Estonia to EC2012 play-offs lost to Ireland in November 2011, the highest tip reached by the Baltic country in football.
Rising stars of the national team are the forwards Henrik Ojamaa (11 caps 0 goals, a regular at Legia Warsaw, Poland) and Henri Anier (8 caps 3 goals, recently signed by Motherwell following Ojamaa himself who spent great words for his teammate to be signed by the Scottish club).
After the successful EC2012 campaign, Tarmo Rüütli had to go thru barren times as many protagonists of his typical XI went thru injuries (Piiroja, Vassiljev, Zenjov) and still injuries are affecting his choices: Morozov, replacing the injured Piiroja as centre-back, has picked up a serious rupture of collateral ligaments (3 months out); the right flanker and midfield jolly, Sander Puri, tore an hamstring few weeks ago in an English League Two game with his side, York City FC; Tihhon Śiśov injured his ankle ligaments two days before the Europa League play-offs on board of Kalju; Piiroja himself has just returned to play. Except Morozov, the others have all been called up as Rüütli hopes to recover some of them, with Puri having the best chances of making it compared to the others.
In the last game with Latvia on the 14th of August, Rüütli fielded the following XI (substitutions in grey)
Among Ojamaa and Anier, according to Estonian press, Rüütli should, at the moment, favour the latter however he never disclosed his real intentions. Truth is also that he might entrust the most experienced Zenjov as a starter. The idea of presenting a solid and experienced XI might also extend to the other lines: Kruglov might be played at left full-back in place of Teniste (as he can cover both roles on the left side) and Lindpere be given a starter on the left flank. Ahjupera is not technically endowed, however his physical qualities (196cm) make him the classical ‘tower’ helping the team to come up and opening spaces for the second striker. Kink is ready to replace Puri on the right flank. If no other injury will come on the way, this should be the most probable line-up.
10 CURIOSITIES ABOUT ESTONIAN FOOTBALL
1. The president of the Estonian FA is Mr.Aivar Pohlak. A former writer of books for children, maths and Estonian language and literature teacher, he is the ’founding father’ of modern Estonian football. Controversially, he is also the chairman of club FC Flora which has risen more than an eyebrow for the evident conflict of interests. Try google his name and you will discover his special outfit. He is also a referee of football and recently officiated a national cup game with his daughter and son-in-law as linemen and for the home team he used to play with when he was younger (FC Kuressaare).
2. Arno Piipers is not the only Dutch related to Estonian football. After him, and just before Tarmo Rüütli, another Netherlands son has been sitting on the Estonian bench: Jelle Goes, he had 13 matches as Estonian coach collecting only 2 wins and 1 draw. Today he is offspring manager at Anzhi Makachkala.
3. Other foreign coaches of Estonia have been 3 Hungarians (between the two wars) an Austrian (1930) an Icenlander (1996-1999) and a Danish (caretaker for just 8 games in 2007 before Rüütli was appointed).
4. On club level, there are strong ties between Vitesse Arnhem and FC Flora. Many players have been coming and going from one club to the other (including Raio Piiroja, 2 apppearances with Arnhem’s club). At the moment the goalkeeper Marko Meerits (grown at Flora and sold to Vitesse) has returned to Holland after a loan period back to Flora. In Flora plays the young talent Sander Van de Streek on loan from Vitesse.
5. The previous name of ’A.LeCoq Arena’, Lilleküla, comes from the area where the stadium was built which in Estonian means ’flower village’. The stadium is set between two arms of railways, one south-bound and the other east-bound. The capacity is 9,300 which can be brought to over 10,000 by adding removable stands at each bottom.
6. Ragnar Klavan has set the unbeatable record of being the first Estonian footballer to have played in the Champions League during his stint at AZ Alkmaar. It happened on the 29th of September 2009 when he came in as a substitute in Group H game against Standard Liege. It was the 2009-10 Champions League season, the one that ended up bitterly for Van Gaal in Madrid as he lost to Mourinho’s Internazionale. Just the previous season, the Dutch gaffer was Eredivisie Champion with Alkmaar before Klavan joined the club.
7. Before moving to A.LeCoq Arena, the Estonia national team home was the old stadium of the Kadriorg, the city park. Tallinn has another big stadium, Kalev Staadion, home of the oldest Estonian club: JK Tallinna Kalev. The facility is also home to folk dance festivals and Sunday flea markets during the Summer.
8. The most capped Estonian international is Martin Reim, 157 caps including the game in Lilleküla in 2001. The only active players of the top 10 of the most capped are: Andres Oper (133), Raio Piiroja (111) and Enar Jääger (95). Martin Reim is the present-day U21 coach.
9. Thanks to their successful EC2012 campaign, Estonia reached the record-breaking position of 47th in the FIFA nations ranking. 4 years earlier (2008) they were at 137th. At the moment they are 85th, ahead of the other two Baltic states (Lithuania 106, Latvia 119)
10. Estonia participated into their first UEFA/FIFA final tournament last year when they were awarded as host of the U19 EC which was won by Spain. The Estonian U19 squad didn’t make it past the group stage.
Click on Angelo’s name above to follow him on Twitter
Angelo Palmeri covers Estonian Football in English at ‘Rumori di Spogliatoio’