Estonian football is celebrating its centenary this year and the sport has certainly come a long way in the Baltic state since British sailors first spread the word around Tallinn harbour.
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Estonian football is celebrating its centenary this year and the sport has certainly come a long way in the Baltic state since British sailors first spread the word around the harbour of Tallinn.
As in many countries, football owes its roots in Estonia to the proselytising efforts of visiting British seaman, who spread the word close to where they moored in the capital city. The game quickly caught on around Tallinn and in 1908 the first Estonian team saw the light of day, with an Englishman serving as manager. A year later, Merkur became the nation's second outfit, and their lineup composed mostly of print workers was involved in Estonia's first official match on 6 June 1909, when Merkur succumbed to a 4-2 defeat by Meteor.
With independence from the Russian Empire declared in 1918, the doors were opened to international football and the Estonian national team contested their first game on 17 October 1920, a crushing 6-0 defeat by Finland in Helsinki. That was followed by a goalless draw with Sweden, two more heavy losses to Finland and a draw with Latvia, before Estonia could celebrate their first victory – a 5-0 triumph over neighbours Lithuania in Kaunas on 24 June 1923.
The Estonian Football Association (EFA) had come into existence two years before that on 14 June 1921 and became affiliated with FIFA in 1923, joining again in 1992 after the break-up of the former Soviet Union. That was also the year Estonia entered the UEFA fold and disputed their first official international in 52 years, drawing 1-1 with visitors Slovenia to mark their return to action after their previous outing against Latvia in 1940.
During the intervening years under Soviet rule, JK Tallinna Kalev were the only club to taste life in the Soviet top flight, lasting two seasons before relegation in 1961. More recently, FC Levadia Tallinn made waves by defeating FC Haka and FC Twente in the 2006/07 UEFA Cup qualifying rounds, only to then capitulate 3-1 on aggregate to Newcastle United FC in the first round.
On the international stage, the highs have been limited, but Estonia finished a worthy fourth in qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, collecting five wins along the way. They also achieved a memorable 2-1 friendly victory over Russia in March 2002, a result that lifted the side to 60th in FIFA's world ranking, their highest ever position. Now as low as 113th, they nonetheless held Portugal to a 0-0 draw in their last match on 10 June. At the opposite extreme, Estonia's biggest defeat was a 10-2 loss to Finland in 1922.
Now retired, Martin Reim holds both the national and European record for international appearances, having amassed 157 caps after making his debut in Estonia's first match following independence 17 years ago. The 38-year-old added his most recent in the 3-0 victory over Equatorial Guinea on 6 June, slipping on his boots one last time for the game with which Estonia celebrated their centenary. The country's all-time leading scorer is Andres Oper, meanwhile, who has so far plundered 35 goals in 112 matches. In club football, goalkeeper Mart Poom set a local landmark by reaching the 2006 UEFA Champions League final with Arsenal FC.