Qualifying play-offs involve a home and an away match for both teams, and the final eliminators en route to UEFA EURO 2012 are no exception. As always, the team playing the first leg at home aims for a decent result to defend in the difficult away clash, but in Estonia's case, the plan has gone badly awry.
Some 10,800 fans packed the Lillekula Arena in Tallinn to cheer on their heroes last Friday, but coach Tarmo Ruutli’s side fell to a sobering 4-0 defeat against a very good Republic of Ireland team, and now require nothing short of a footballing miracle in Dublin on Tuesday if they are to claim a place in Poland and Ukraine. However, for the side lying 59th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, the heavy defeat was soon forgotten, as the Estonians continue to enjoy making the play-offs for the first time in their history.
“We’re a well-balanced team, but on top of that, we've had a certain amount of luck," goalkeeper Sergei Pareiko exclusively told FIFA.com. The diminutive Baltic nation were drawn in qualifying Group C, where they finished second to Italy despite the presence of 2010 FIFA World Cup™ contenders Slovenia and Serbia. “Our opponents underestimated us, but reaching the play-offs was still a nice surprise. We started believing in it after we’d beaten Slovenia," the player related.
Best-ever group outcome
Unfortunately for the Estonians, the Irish had done their homework and were in no mood to misread the threat posed by their opponents. “The Republic of Ireland were always going to be favourites for both matches, but we're giving it our best shot. Every footballer wants to win, and we're no exception. We're fit, we're ambitious and we're confident," Pareiko said.
In truth, the men from the Baltic did themselves no favours in the first leg with the loss of both centre-backs Andrei Stepanov and Raio Piiroja to red cards. Another factor in the hefty defeat was the individual class of Irish captain Robbie Keane, who contributed goals on 71 and 88 minutes to make the second leg all but a foregone conclusion. Keith Andrews had opened the scoring after 13 minutes, Jon Walters doubling the advantage shortly before Keane's first goal.
Despite it all, Estonia's appearance in the play-offs rates as historic, and also provided a massive boost to their position in the World Ranking. They rose to 58th in September after their biggest-ever leap up the standings, also taking them to the best-ever position.
Fitter than ever before
Pareiko, an ever-present in his country's qualifying campaign, feels there are a number of reasons why Estonian football is on the up: “We've started to play much more dynamic and aggressive football in recent years, and we've tried to be more flexible in every position. As well as that, we've started to believe we can win."
The 34-year-old is in good shape personally too, after joining Polish champions Wisla Krakow last February. “I'm really settled at the club, and we’re still in the running for the title. There are lots of good teams in the Polish league, all of them at or about the same level. There’s no dominant team and no underdogs, which is what makes it so interesting.”
Retirement not yet an option
Pareiko's contract runs until May next year, but the man capped 26 times by his country has not begun contemplating what might happen after that. “As a 34-year-old footballer, there's no point planning long into the future. I'll wait until the end of May, and we'll see what happens." The keeper reckons he has never been fitter in his career, and he currently has no plans to retire from the game, either at club level or for his country. “Provided I'm still wanted in the national team, I'm ready and willing to support my friends," he confirmed.
Regardless of the outcome in Dublin this Tuesday, the men from the Baltic will always be proud of reaching the play-offs. And while a maiden appearance at a major tournament seems unlikely for now, the next chance follows very soon in qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil - although a group comprising the Netherlands, Turkey, Hungary, Romania and Andorra looks tough on paper. But as Pareiko wryly observed at the end of his chat with FIFA.com: “There's never going to be an easy group for us."