Estonian football is celebrating a historic first after FC Levadia Tallinn reached the UEFA Cup first round with a 2-1 aggregate win against FC Twente.
In the 14 years that Estonian clubs have been trying their skills and luck in European competition, only three local sides have gone beyond the first qualifying round in any tournament, but Levadia advanced further on Thursday by negotiating the UEFA Cup second qualifying round against Dutch opponents. It might seem a minor achievement, but for a small country like Estonia, where the focus is more a strong national team than clubs, this is a huge success.
"It was bound to happen eventually," 52-year-old Levadia coach Tarmo Rüütli told uefa.com. "Things are rarely the same every year - the different aspects do not always click together. Estonian clubs are not classy enough to expect to qualify with an average performance: we need some luck, a good draw, players with the right attitude, and many other small details. I would not say Estonian clubs have taken a huge step in development, but I believe this season we have achieved a certain stability and are able to maintain it."
FC Lantana Tallinn were the first Estonian side to enter a second qualifying round after they passed through the opening phase of the 1996/97 UEFA Cup. In 2000/01 and 2004/05, Levadia did the same in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Cup respectively, losing on penalties to Norway's FK Bodø/Glimt on the latter occasion. This season has seen two Estonian teams win through a first qualifying round in the same campaign for the first time, with FC Flora accompanying Levadia, although only Levadia have made the next step, with Flora succumbing to Brøndby IF of Denmark.
Having beaten Finnish club FC Haka in the first qualifying round, Levadia rode their luck to win 1-0 at home against Twente last night after a 1-1 draw in Enschede. "The difference between the level of Twente and Levadia is substantial, but our players and staff had huge self-belief," captain Konstantin Vassiljev told uefa.com. "We put everything into these games, fought and had some luck as well. Although the top level of European football is a long way away, after these matches we can at least say we are on the right track."
Whether Levadia can go further remains to be seen, as they join 79 other teams in the UEFA Cup first-round draw in Monaco from 13.00CET today. Rüütli, however, is keeping his ambitions modest. "I really don't know," he said. "Let's be honest, Twente were the stronger side in both legs, but in football it is not always the strongest side that wins. You also need defensive resilience and good fortune to go through in the knockout rounds of a cup competition. We are not worried about who our next opponents will be. It cannot get any harder, as Twente dominated us completely."
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