Returning stars stir passions in Estonia

Bolstered by the return of a clutch of Estonian internationals, the Meistriliiga kicks off on Saturday amid a wave of optimism that this season could be the best yet.

Estonia midfielder Martin Vunk will turn out for Sillamäe Kalev
Estonia midfielder Martin Vunk will turn out for Sillamäe Kalev ©Getty Images

The return to the Meistriliiga of a number of established Estonian internationals has raised anticipation levels ahead of the 2013 campaign, which begins on Saturday.

The majority of the ten clubs have been active in the transfer market during the close season, recruiting from far and wide in the hope of bettering last term's performances, yet it is the acquisition of the Estonia players that is dominating conversation. 

JK Sillamäe Kalev, who finished fifth in 2012, brought 39-cap forward Vjatšeslav Zahovaiko back from a spell overseas in Portugal, Hungary and Finland and drafted in experienced national-team midfielder Martin Vunk from Greece's Panachaiki FC. Meanwhile FC Flora Tallinn strengthened with forward Sander Post, most recently of Norway's Aalesunds FK, while also loaning goalkeeper Marko Meerits from Vitesse in the Netherlands.

Sillamäe Kalev coach Algimantas Briaunys told "Vunk will play a big role in our team. He is very ambitious and has a great attitude. He is also a good communicator, so I don't think he will have any problems adapting here."

Fourth last time, JK Trans Narva, who have signed former Flora No1 Stanislav Pedõk in addition to several players from Russia's lower leagues, are aiming for a top-three finish – even if club president Nikolai Burdakov was rather guarded in stating his side's pre-season target. "We have renewed around 80% of the squad, so we'll define our goals after the first half of the league."

The new arrivals have elevated hopes that this could be the best and most competitive campaign yet. "When we say the Estonian league has strengthened, it is not just wishful thinking – it is fact," said Aivar Pohlak, head of the Estonian Football Association (EJL). "All the teams have got strong squads and set better training schedules. The record attendance at the Estonian Super Cup [FC Levadia Tallinn 3-0 JK Nõmme Kalju] was also positive. Another plus is the return of a lot of experienced players."

Save for the late capture of FC Gomel midfielder Aleksandr Dmitrijev, capped 76 times by Estonia, cup holders FC Levadia Tallinn were the only club to refrain from making significant changes to their playing staff. Their young team finished runners-up behind JK Nõmme Kalju last term and the feeling is that they will be the better for it as they chase a first title since 2009.

"The evidence suggests the league may have become stronger, but it's hard to argue that progress has been swift," said Levadia director and former Estonia defender Sergei Hohlov-Simson. "Vunk and Meerits are big names who will attract fans, but we think you can't achieve success without stability. We have kept 90% of our squad – only captain Igor Morozov has left [for KSP Polonia Warszawa]."

The biggest transfer news may be yet to come. Champions Nõmme Kalju, who have tended to shop abroad of late, have not ruled out an interest in Estonia midfielder Sander Puri as well as Finland legend Jari Litmanen, still going strong at 42.