On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. This time out we’re looking at a country that can boast one of the highest tree populations in the continent, the third highest literacy rate in the world, and a national hero famous for talking to hedgehogs. Stone the crows, its Estonia.
The Player: Mart Poom
The first Estonian to play in the Premier League, the highest capped goalkeeper for the national team, and arguably the progenitor of the ‘experienced third choice keeper’ role now exclusively inhabited by washed-up average Englishmen. Say the name ‘Mart Poom’ to any Premier League fan and immediately their minds will be whisked back to the heady days of the mid-90s, where an Estonian playing in goal for a team from the East Midlands was the height of exotica. The mop-topped stopper arrived at Derby County in 1997 having originally been brought to England by manager Jim Smith at his previous club Portsmouth. By then a regular with the Estonia national team, Poom had spent the first six years bouncing around clubs in his native country, while also spending a year in Finland with Kuopion Palloseura. After managing just four appearances at Fratton Park, Smith jumped at the chance to bring the blonde custodian to the Baseball Ground for a touch under £600,000. Signed late in the season as an emergency replacement for Russell Hoult, Poom’s debut for the Rams came the following week at Old Trafford, in a game that remains etched in the memories of every Derby fan that witnessed it. Though outshone by the bandy-legged Costa Rican Paulo Wanchope, Poom nevertheless played a vital role in securing a 3-2 victory that all but confirmed his new club’s Premier League survival.
That performance immediately installed Poom as Smith’s #1, and over the next five years he would make 146 league appearances for the Rams. Relegation in 2002 saw him join Sunderland, initially on loan before eventually securing a permanent move, with his most iconic moment at the club ironically arriving in a match against Derby at Pride Park. With the Black Cats a goal down, and the Division One meeting deep into stoppage time, the Estonian came up for a corner and planted a header past his opposite number to salvage a point for Mick McCarthy’s side. Even more jaw-dropping than the ‘keeper scoring was the standing ovation he received after being announced as the goalscorer that had denied Derby all three points, as his former fans paid tribute to their departed hero. After three injury-hit seasons in the North East, Poom was signed as cover for Jens Lehmann and Manuel Almunia at Arsenal, and spent two years warming the bench in North London. In his solitary league appearance for the Gunners he kept a clean sheet against another of his old clubs Portsmouth.
Winding down his career with a short spell at Watford, Poom eventually racked up 406 club appearances throughout his career, along with 120 international caps. His six Estonian Footballer of the Year awards go some way to showing how highly regarded the goalkeeper was thought of in his home country, and in 2003 he was named as Estonia’s Golden Player at the UEFA Jubilee Awards. Poom could also boast a Championship winners medal, a Champions League runners-up medal, and the FC Flora club record for clean sheets, oh, and a goal of course.
The Game: Estonia 0-3 Scotland, 1997
It may seem strange to celebrate a nation’s footballing achievements by profiling a game which, on paper, looks far from their finest hour, but when the national team from a country of 1.3 million people participates in a match that has earned its own Wikipedia page, you can be sure there’s a story worth telling.
Estonia had embarked on just two World Cup qualifying campaigns before the Soviet occupation following World War II saw the country enveloped into the Soviet Union, and the Russification of the nation begin. It wasn’t until the introduction of Perestroika, a political movement for reformation within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in 1987 that any semblance of political activity was restored to the country, meaning that all sporting activity undertaken in Estonia was performed under the Soviet Union banner. All that changed in 1991, however, when a referendum for independence returned a vote of 77.7% in support, and Estonia declared its Day of Restoration on 20th August. The national team we welcomed back by FIFA in 1992, and played out a draw against Slovenia in their first fixture since regaining independence. All of which meant that the campaign for USA ’94 offered Estonia their first opportunity to challenge for a World Cup place for fifty six years. Sadly the Sinisärgid were ill-equipped to face the might of Italy, Portugal and Switzerland, and finished rock bottom of their group, earning a solitary point in a goalless draw with Malta.
Four years later though, a kinder draw left them in a group with fellow former Soviet states Belarus and Latvia, along with the more established, but eminently beatable, Austria, Scotland and Sweden sides. By now Estonia had begun to develop a crop of skillful players, capable of taking on their fellow European minnows, including Flora’s Andres Oper, who would later enjoy spells in Denmark, Russia and the Netherlands. The installation of Icelandic coach Teitur Thordarson, who had earned his stripes in the Norwegian Eliteserien with Lillestrom, had reinvigorated the country’s interest in the national team, which had waned after a three year spell without a win. Though the campaign for France ’98 began with a defeat in Minsk, Estonia finally earned a World Cup win in the return leg, as Sergei Hohlov-Simson’s goal sealed a 1-0 victory over Belarus. Next to visit the Kadriorg in Tallinn were Scotland.
Though they’d comfortably beaten their Baltic opponents four years earlier, there was a nervous atmosphere surrounding the Scotland team and their travelling fans, with the knack of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory already a well worn trope of Craig Brown’s side. On the eve of the game, as they trained in the Estonian national team’s stadium, Brown discovered that the floodlighting wasn’t up to standard, and passed his concerns on to Jean-Marie Gantenbein, the FIFA commissioner for the match. After much back and forth with the head office in Zurich, Gantenbein declared that the kick-off time would be brought forwards by almost four hours, scheduling the match to begin at 3pm local time. For Estonia, a team comprising part-time players and dependent on their growing support, an afternoon kick-off for a midweek game was a non-starter. With work commitments preventing players and fans from making it to the stadium on time, combined with a training camp scheduled that very afternoon, it was logistically impossible for the Estonian team commit to the earlier start. So they didn’t.
Come 3pm Tallin time, there were fourteen men on the Kadriorg pitch, and none of them were wearing Estonian blue. Just Aiver Pohlak, president of the Estonian FA had promised, the hosts would not leave their headquarters until 4pm. All of which left Miroslav Radoman, the Yugoslavian referee who clearly took his job too seriously, to run through the pomp and ceremony of a World Cup qualifier as if half the pitch weren’t entirely devoid of footballers. Thankfully Scotland captain John Collins won the toss (otherwise they might’ve been waiting a while), and Brown’s team kicked off. Then, three seconds later, Radoman blew his whistle to signal full-time, and the travelling Tartan Army celebrated a default 3-0 win, before partaking in their own impromptu game on the pitch. In the event FIFA saw sense and declared the result void, with a replay of the tie arranged a month later at AS Monaco’s Stade Louis II stadium. A crowd just shy of 4,000 supporters then witnessed a game marginally less exciting than the original fixture, as Estonia and Scotland played out a goalless draw.
Those two points made little difference to either side’s World Cup prospects, as Scotland went on to qualify as the best second-placed team, and Estonia failed to pick up another point throughout the campaign. Though it may not be their finest hour, it remains the fixture that earned the former Soviet state fifteen minutes of fame across Europe, and gave us one of the all-time great football chants.
“One team in Tallinn! There’s only one team in Tallinn!”