An amateur side containing a doctor, an estate agent, several students and a prison guard – representing a club named after the Brazilian team graced for 18 years by Pelé – will on Thursday make their continental debut against 2013/14 UEFA Europa League group stage participants Tromsø IL. Introducing Tartu FC Santos.
Founded in 2006, Tartu Santos play in the Estonian third tier, which they lead after 17 games of the 2014 campaign, and occasionally have fewer than 15 squad members present at training. Let president Meelis Eelmäe take up the story.
"When we formed the club, we didn't want our children to play traditional Estonian football," he told UEFA.com. "We chose the Brazilian path. We want to play football with a lot of dribbling and short passes. Football is like a saint for us, and that what Santos means in Portuguese."
Tartu Santos – guided by former Lithuania coach Algimantas Liubinskas, who took charge in April – owe their place in Europe to an extraordinary run to May's Estonian Cup final where they were beaten 4-0 by Meistriliiga champions FC Levadia Tallinn.
In a squad boasting such an eclectic mix of players, the experience of 28-year-old midfielder Timo Teniste – who made 68 top-flight appearances over two spells for Tartu Santos's more illustrious city rivals JK Tammeka Tartu – will be vital against a Tromsø outfit relegated from the Norwegian Eliteserien in 2013.
"I decided to end my professional career two years ago," said Teniste. "That's how I found myself at Santos, who have progressed in the Estonian league system year upon year. Thanks to few more ex-Tammeka players and lucky draws in the Estonian Cup we have got to the UEFA Europa League."
The players' love for the sport transcends their enthusiasm for their varied mix of day jobs, even if their occupations do sometimes preclude them from fulfilling their footballing commitments. "Unfortunately, not all of us can train regularly," explained Teniste, whose brother, international defender Taijo, plays in Norway for Sogndal IL Fotball.
"People need to earn money, but we have had a very good turnout in the last two months. Usually, we have 18 to 24 players at each session. It's less sometimes, but at least 14 players are usually there.
We have musicians, a doctor and a logistics specialist within the squad, but the most unusual profession is a prison security guard. There are also students, a construction worker, an estate agent and youth coaches in the team. Most of us have been playing together for many years. Our understanding is great, but it's not our only strong suit. For example, we are much better technically than all the other sides in our league." A 7-2 defeat of HÜJK Emmaste on Friday is testament to that.
"The attitude of our players is very professional," added Eelmäe. "Only a few consider their main jobs to be more important than football. Most of the players chose a job which won't interfere with playing football.
"We have no fear. Every European match – regardless of the opposition – gives you valuable experience. It's the most important thing for us. We have been developing rapidy, but this is not our limit.
We want to be in top league in two years and be back in Europe in three to four."
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