One of many states that emerged anew on the European scene after the dissolution of the USSR, Estonia has gradually developed its football infrastructure since regaining independence in 1991. The country may be yet to make a significant impact in international competition, but the national team caused a major stir by finishing ahead of Serbia, Slovenia and Northern Ireland in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying to reach the play-offs as runners-up to Italy.
Football took root in Estonia in the late 19th century, having been imported by British sailors. The sport spread fast, and the cities of Narva and Tallinn contest the honour of having staged the first-ever game. However, the first recorded match was in Tallinn on 6 June 1909 between Meteor and Merkuur, the original clubs.
By the time the Estonian Football Association (Eesti Jalgpalli Liit or EJL) was formed on 14 December 1921, the number of clubs had risen to 29 and a domestic league was in operation. Estonia had even enjoyed a first taste of international football, meeting Finland on 20 October 1920. FIFA membership followed in 1923.
Although that first fixture was a 6-0 defeat, Estonia held Sweden in their next outing in July 1921, and eventually celebrated victory in their sixth international, beating Lithuania 5-0 in Kaunas on 24 June 1923. The national team then participated in the Olympic football in Paris in 1924, losing to the United States.
Estonia competed regularly in Baltic football tournaments against Latvia and Lithuania, triumphing in 1929, 1931 and 1938. They also figured in qualifying for the 1934 and 1938 FIFA World Cups, notching a first win in 1937 against Finland. However, the game's development was halted in 1940 with the country's annexation by the Soviet Union. The last official international was a 2-1 home success over Latvia on 20 July 1940, after which the EJL was wound up.
Under the occupation Estonia had no possibility of joining UEFA when European football's ruling body was established in 1954. However, the Estonian SSR championship continued throughout the years of international isolation. The EJL was finally re-formed in 1988 and, from 1991, could resume its involvement in FIFA activities.
The year 1992 was an especially notable one as the newly independent state was admitted to UEFA and Estonia played their first international friendly in over half a century, drawing 1-1 with Slovenia on 3 June 1992. Subsequently, Estonian national teams and clubs have featured in almost all UEFA competitions for men, women and juniors.
The domestic championship, or Meistriliiga, also started up again in 1992. FC Flora and FC Levadia Tallinn became dominant forces, although FC Norma claimed back-to-back titles in the early 1990s, a feat matched by FC Lantana. If Estonia struggled initially to make their mark on the international stage, their steady improvement yielded creditable UEFA European Championship qualifying draws against Scotland, Croatia and Bulgaria.
The country's two most famous players are goalkeepers: Evald Tipner, who played for Sport Tallinn between 1924 and 1939, and Mart Poom, a national-team stalwart from 1992 who left Flora to ply his trade in England and finally retired in 2009. Martin Reim, capped 157 times, was a local legend who never made the breakthrough abroad. Reim also stopped playing in 2009, four years after Marko Kristal, a 143-cap veteran, had quit.
Several outstanding players have prospered in other countries: Indrek Zelinski, Urmas Rooba, Kristen Viikmäe, Raio Piiroja, Sergei Terehhov, Joel Lindpere and Marek Lemsalu in Scandinavia; Andres Oper in the Netherlands; Ragnar Klavan in Germany; and Sergei Pareiko in Russia. Given the work being undertaken at youth level – including hosting the UEFA European Under-19 Championship in 2012 – there will be additions to that list as Estonia plots a hopeful soccer future.
Estonia's aspirations were also boosted by a great run in UEFA EURO 2012 qualification when they came second in their group, above Serbia, Slovenia and Northern Ireland, to qualify for the finals play-offs for the first time. Their adventure was ended by a heavy home defeat by the Republic of Ireland though Estonia did manage to draw the return leg away from home.
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