Estonia’s historic qualification for a Euro 2012 play off berth has put slightly more focus than usual on the small Baltic state.

Estonia has a population of around 1.3 million and is tucked up in north eastern Europe, bordered by the sea on two sides and Russia and Latvia on the others, with the Gulf of Finland separating them from Scandinavian neighbours to the north. Outside of the region, Estonia is known principally for the tragic Tallinn to Stockholm ferry disaster in September 1994 in which 852 people died and, more happily, for winning the Eurovision song contest in 2001. And Mart Poom.

The image many people have of former Soviet bloc countries, or anything east of Switzerland for that matter, is of grey and decaying concrete skylines where booze and cigarettes are available for next to nothing. But Estonia couldn’t be further from this stereotype as a country and people with more in common with their Scandinavian cousins to the north (the Finno-Ugric of Finland) than their former rulers to the east.

The citadel of Tallinn’s medieval turreted old town and its swish business district debunks the architecture myth instantly.  Almost certainly in reaction to their fifty years of oppression under Soviet rule, Estonia now enjoys high levels of press, economic and political freedom and the highest GDP per person of the former Soviet republics. They also have a ‘paperless government’, relying instead purely on technology and electronic information.

In footballing terms, they are largely remembered (in the UK anyway) for not turning up against Scotland in a World Cup qualifying match in Tallinn in October 1996. Scottish concerns over the quality of the floodlights at the Kadrioru Stadium were raised with FIFA and the game was moved forward to a 3pm kick off. The Estonians were unhappy with the decision and continued to plan for a later kick off as originally scheduled. Match officials led the Scottish team out alone at 3pm where they kicked off and the game was officially abandoned after three seconds. Rumours that the Scottish team played the full 90 minutes and the match remained goalless are unfounded. They eventually replayed the game on neutral ground in Monaco where it did end 0-0.

Estonia’s qualification performances since independence in 1991 have done nothing to really suggest that this year’s success was on the cards. Their first competitive game as an independent nation since 1937 ended in a 0-6 defeat to Switzerland in Tallinn in a World Cup 1994 qualifier. They went on to gain just one point from that campaign, a goalless draw in Malta, finishing bottom of the group and scoring just one goal in ten games. Qualification for Euro 96 was even worse, losing all ten games including a 7-1 thumping in Croatia and an embarrassing 5-0 defeat to Baltic rivals Lithuania.

The World Cup 1998 campaign saw Estonia chalk up their first competitive win as they defeated Belarus 1-0. The winning goal came from current Levadia coach Sergei Hohlov-Simson.  Euro 2000 qualifying saw further improvements with a win in Lithuania, a point in Bosnia and a narrow 3-2 defeat in Scotland. Estonia twice led against the Dutch in Tallinn in World Cup 2002 qualifying and were 2-1 up with ten minutes remaining. But goals from Patrick Kluivert and Ruud Van Nistelrooy (2) meant the match ended in a 2-4 reverse for Holland. World Cup 2006 qualifying saw them finish fourth of seven teams in a campaign that included five wins and a memorable 1-1 draw against the old enemy Russia in Tallinn.Sergei Terehhov netting a memorable equaliser after Andrei Arshavin’s first half opener.

The draw for their Euro 2012 qualifying Group C did not bode well for Tarmo Rüütli’s side. Despite Italy’s abject World Cup showing in 2010, they were still clear favourites and won the group easily conceding just two goals along the way. Serbia and Slovenia, both also World Cup qualifiers in 2010, would surely battle it out for second spot with Estonia, Northern Ireland and the Faroe Islands making up the numbers.

And it didn’t start well. Estonia’s opening match saw them trailing to the Faroes for the majority of the match until two injury time goals from Kaimar Saag and captain Raio Piiroja saved their blushes. Conversely, they then led Italy 1-0 at half time in Tallinn but two second half goals gave Italy a narrow 2-1 win.

An excellent 3-1 win in Serbia was a fillip, but surely no more than a good one off performance as they followed it with defeat at home to Slovenia days later. A point at home to Serbia was well received but defeat in Italy and an embarrassing 2-0 loss in the Faroes seemed to have ended any realistic chance of a play-off spot.

Estonia entered their last three qualification matches knowing they needed nine points and had to rely on others slipping up. But win they did, starting with a 2-1 victory over Slovenia in Ljubljana. A brace of wins over Northern Ireland followed to put them into the play-off spot, though they were still reliant on Serbia failing to win against Slovenia in Maribor. A Dare Vršič goal on the stroke of half time gave Slovenia the win and sent Estonia into rapture.

It was a difficult task to cement second spot after defeat in the Faroes and losing four out of ten games, but they managed it. The play off draw in Krakow on 13th October gave Estonia the draw they were probably hoping for – Ireland. They were always in for a tough draw given that four of the play off qualifiers would be seeded, but managing to avoid Croatia, Czech Republic and Portugal is a bonus.

Inconsistent though Estonia may be, Ireland are a surmountable opponent. For those few who pay any heed to the FIFA World Rankings, Ireland are currently in 25th position – two places below Serbia and two above Slovenia – so Estonia will take comfort from their ability to win in Belgrade and Ljubljana in the group stage.

Konstantin Vassiljev, currently at Amkar Perm in the Russian Premier League, was Estonia’s star of qualifying with five goals. He scored in both games against Serbia and both goals in the 2-1 win in Belfast. Vassiljev is one of a number of good attacking players in this Estonia side along with the likes of Sander Puri, Sergei Zenjov, Ats Purje  and Middlesbrough’s Tarmo Kink but they can lack a focal point for their attack. This was once provided by their all time top scorer (with 36 goals) Andres Oper, but his appearances have been limited in the past couple of years and he is currently without a club.

Given the size of the population, it is also not surprising that there is not the strength in depth of larger countries. One or two injuries to key players could irreparably damage Estonia’s chances. The back line is marshalled by experienced captain Raio Piiroja who has recently passed the 100 cap mark and behind him Wisla Krakow’s Sergei Pareiko is a strong last line of defence having inherited the number one shirt from Mart Poom in 2009.

Were they to overcome Ireland in the two legged play-off, Estonia would become the smallest team (in terms of population) to qualify for the European Championships since its inception in 1960. And it would be some achievement given where they stood with three qualifying games remaining.

By Matt Morrison

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona