Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Steven Beacom: Minnows showing Northern Ireland the way

Northern Ireland finished second from bottom in their Euro 2012 qualifying group

One of the most common things you will hear in relation to the Northern Ireland football team is that we are a small country and therefore have limited numbers to choose from.

Fair enough if you are playing Germany, Italy or Russia.

But not when you are playing Estonia, a nation with less people than us.

For the record there is 1.8 million here and 1.35 million over there yet when the teams met in the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, Estonia came out on top — TWICE.

Northern Ireland were hammered 4-1 in Tallinn and then lost 2-1 at Windsor Park after a late double from Konstantin Vassiljev (pictured).

It was a shattering defeat to a side who did what our wee country dreams of doing — finished second in the group and earning a play-off for next year’s Euro finals.

Estonia will play the Republic of Ireland in a two legged tie for a place at Europe’s top table in Poland and Ukraine.

It’s a remarkable achievement because Estonia only gained independence from the Soviet Union 20 years ago.

Politics — we know all about that in Northern Ireland.

Estonia are clearly showing the way for smaller nations.

So, what can we learn from Estonia and their extraordinary rise to prominence?

Mihkel Uiboleht, head of public relations at the Estonia FA says: “What we achieved in our qualifying campaign was due to a collection of work since becoming independent in 1991.

“Effectively we inherited nothing at that time. In 1993 when our national team was formed in our top league we only had 25 players eligible to play for Estonia.

“The others playing in our league were Russian.

“It should be noted that at that time no-one was really playing football in our country.

“Football is a symbol of a nation but with the Soviet occupation we couldn’t act as a free state and the feelings of our people and nation were suppressed. We were not supposed to feel like Estonians and couldn’t represent Estonia at international level so there was a feeling of being cut off. There was a belief amongst the Estonian people that the Russians didn’t want us to play football because it is such a passionate sport and that they wanted to make it extinct.

“It seemed to work because Estonia was the only place that did not have a team in the higher Soviet leagues.

“Our first match back after independence was in 1992 against Slovenia in a friendly.

“Since then it has been a case of being patient, bringing in expertise from aboard like coaches from Iceland and Holland before appointing our current boss Tarmo Ruutli who has worked well since 2007.

“When we started I would say it was more of an idea and vision rather than a strategy.

“Our first step was to make football part of the Estonia culture again and make it a habit for young kids to play.

“We had to re-establish the position of football in our country.

“We have had very little support in terms of finance from our government, so that has not played a key part. This year in terms of finances coming from the state we are number eight on the sporting list even though football is the biggest participation sport in the country.

“Yet now we have over five times the players that played 20 years ago, 16,500 registered players and six professional clubs here. Importantly we have 35 playing abroad in places like Denmark, Holland, Russia, Hungary and Cyprus and one in England.

“One of the key issues in our success lately has been getting players to play regular football abroad.

“We have analysed other nations and used Norway as our example to follow.

“We found that just because a player is not successful at youth level, it doesn’t mean that he will not go on to become a good player.

“Sometimes youngsters can play too much football. We are careful that does not happen with our players and if they aren’t successful at youth level, we don’t disregard someone we feel has potential.

“Right now we are in the middle of an exciting time for Estonian football but we are also realists and know this might be our only chance to reach the finals of a major tournament in the next 50 years.

“That’s what you think when you are a small country.”

Uiboleht adds that there is more expectation for Northern Ireland to succeed than there is for Estonia.

He says: “Northern Ireland is a little different to us in that it is a bigger country and they have a great history with qualifying for three World Cups in the past and having huge names like George Best and Pat Jennings.

“With qualifying in the past comes expectation that you will qualify again but it is not easy. To have a chance you must always have hope, players who are totally committed, a good coach and some luck.”

Other minnows

Montenegro (Population: 626,000) Fifa ranking: 39. Highest ever ranking: 16 (June 2011)

There are only seven countries within Uefa that are smaller than Montenegro and they are one of only nine with a population of less than 1m — yet they are two games away from qualifying for Euro 2012. They only played their first international in March 2007 after independence and have risen from 199th in the Fifa rankings to 16th earlier this year.

They beat Northern Ireland 2-0 in a friendly in August 2010 and were unbeaten at home in Euro 2012 qualifying, drawing 2-2 with England as well as a scoreless draw at Wembley. They face the Czech Republic in the Euro 2012 play-offs.

Estonia (Population: 1,415,681). Fifa ranking: 59. Highest ever ranking: 58 (Sept 2011)

Estonia managed to reach the play-offs for Euro 2012.

They won half of their games in the qualifying series, including home and away victories over Northern Ireland. Those weren’t the Estonian’s biggest results though, they came away to both Serbia and Slovenia — although there was a 2-0 loss in the Faroe Islands along the way too. If they can beat the Republic of Ireland over two legs it will mark the best moment in the country’s football history.

Slovenia (Population: 2,048,847) Fifa ranking: 27. Highest ever ranking: 15 (Oct-Nov 2010)

Qualified for the World Cup at only the second time of asking, playing in the 2002 finals in Japan and South Korea — although they lost all three games.

The same thing happened in the European Championships, after failing to qualify for Euro 96 they were in Holland and Belgium four years later, gaining draws against Yugoslavia and Norway, but losing to Spain. After missing out on World Cup qualification in 2006 they were back again last summer, qualifying from the same group as Northern Ireland, they defeated Russia in a play-off.

In South Africa they beat Algeria and drew with USA to keep hopes of a last 16 place alive going into the last game against England. Although they lost 1-0 to England it was actually Landon Donovan’s 91st minute winner for the USA against Algeria that sent them home.

Latvia (Population: 2,366,515) Fifa ranking: 75. Highest ever ranking: 45 (Nov 2009)

Made the Euro 2004 finals after defeating Turkey in a play-off.

A large number of players ply their trade in the lowly ranked Latvian domestic league.

Iceland (Population: 318,452) Fifa ranking: 108. Highest ever ranking: 39 (Sept 1994)

They have never qualified for anything but they did put paid to Northern Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for the Euro 2008 finals by winning twice in the qualifying group.

Faroe Islands (Population: 49,267) Fifa ranking: 122. Highest ever ranking: 94 (Dec 1992)

Managed to hold Northern Ireland to a draw during the Euro 2012 qualifying series.

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