NEAR MISSES AND UNDER ACHIEVEMENTS: THE CRISIS IN ESTONIAN FOOTBALL
They say when you are a small fish in a big pond you learn to appreciate the little things in life. In football that means embracing your rare moments of triumph.
Such has been the case with the Estonian national team since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Estonia has taken part in 12 qualification campaigns but unsurprisingly has failed to reach an international tournament on each occasion.
Expectations have never been high from this nation of 1.4m people but their performances in recent years have been anything but acceptable for their own standards.
After the success of the Euro 2012 qualification campaign many Estonian football fans would have been forgiven for hoping that this was the beginning of something special.
The side led by Tarmo Ruutli at the time remarkably finished second in their group, behind eventual tournament finalists Italy, to secure a play-off spot.
During qualifying they achieved impressive away wins over Northern Ireland, Slovenia and Serbia, who finished just one point behind them.
Estonia were rewarded with a two-legged play-off against the Republic of Ireland, who were also considered one of the weakest sides in the draw.
For the first time hype and expectations were high for the Estonians going into the first leg in Tallinn.
Ruutli’s side went into the match with plenty of momentum having won their final three qualifiers in emphatic style.
But they failed to turn up on the day as the Irish showed why they had lost just once in qualifying by securing a convincing 4-0 away win.
Hope was all but lost going into the return leg and the end of the dream was confirmed after a 1-1 draw in Dublin.
It was heartbreak for Estonia who had already exceeded expectations by progressing from a qualification group with teams considered better than them. Ruutli led his side into the 2014 World Cup qualifiers but he was sacked after his side finished second from bottom in their group.
The FA replaced him with Magnus Pehrsson from Sweden, a decision which surprised many supporters. The young manager was relatively unknown in international football having previously managed clubs in Denmark and his homeland.
Despite his lack of experience however, his compelling CV and his ability to manage his players drew interest from the Estonian FA and thus they decided to hire him.
When Pehrsson was revealed as the team’s new manager at a press conference FA Chairman Aiva Pohlak said the Swede would be temporarily in charge until a suitable Estonian coach would be found in a few years time.
Regardless of how strange that sounded at the time, the goal for Pehrsson was to take the national team to the next level as there were plenty of young and potential players coming through.
Up until 2013 Estonia had always proven to be a difficult opponent to break down and the target was to become the 'next Iceland'.
But things didn’t quite work out for Pehrsson and the FA. His style of play was considered too cautious and defensive as they struggled to form cohesive attacks and score goals.
By the end of the of the Euro 2016 qualifiers they had found the net just four times as they finished fourth and six points from a guaranteed play-off spot. Their lowest point in the campaign came after a 0-0 draw away to San Marino.
Pehrsson appeared to lack the trust of the players, who didn’t seem to understand nor respect him. During his time in charge he even fell out with first choice goalkeeper Sergei Pareiko, who he dismissed from the national side.
Pehrsson’s player selections were often questioned as he largely favoured the experienced players in the Estonian First League rather than the promising youngsters or those playing abroad. And despite his side’s clear inability to score goals he seemed reluctant to change his tactics.
The FA held on to Pehrsson following the disappointing Euro 2016 qualification campaign only to lose patience with him soon after.
The Swede left his post by mutual consent after losing 7-0 to Portugal in a friendly and then 5-0 to Bosnia & Herzegovina in their opening 2018 World Cup qualifier.
Pehrsson’s replacement was named quickly as Martin Reim, Estonia’s most-capped player, was hired for the job.
Prior to taking on this challenge, Reim had coached Estonia’s biggest club FC Flora as well as the country’s U21 and U23 national teams.
And unlike Pehrsson, who largely selected the most defensive players, Reim tends to choose those best suited to each position.
The 45-year-old has a huge task on his hands as he looks to turn Estonia’s fortunes around.
His first match in charge ended in a 4-0 win over Gibraltar but it has been a difficult start to life in charge of his national side.
Reim’s last three qualifiers have ended in 2-0 and 8-1 defeats to Greece and Belgium respectively as well as a 0-0 draw at Cyprus.
And while they recently defeated a strong Croatia side 3-0 in a friendly, it is obvious that they are still finding goals hard to come by.
This will be Reim’s biggest challenge as he looks to replicate the confidence and ruthlessness showed by the side that nearly reached Euro 2012.
But if given the time and if his international playing experience is anything to go by, he could be the right person to take Estonian football to the next level and lead the national side to its first-ever international tournament.
Only time will tell what happens in the coming years but in the mean time Estonian football fans will remain hopeful.