Tuesday 17 September 2019

'When I was a child I did not have a country to dream of'

When Shay Given was a kid, Ireland's future record cap holder always dreamed of playing for his country.

Martin Reim, Estonia's record cap holder, smiles. "When I was a child, I didn't have a country to dream of."

However, when he turned 21, he could at last dare to have such a dream when, shortly after Estonia peacefully gained her independence from the former USSR in 1991, the country's national football team was reconstituted.

And, in the end, Reim did play for his country -- a remarkable 157 times, in fact -- making him the second most capped player in Europe and the most experienced international soccer player never to have played in a World Cup.

It was a career, thus, that did not reach ultimate fulfilment, but the 41-year-old is disarmingly indifferent about his playing achievements, his pride at seeing his country truly coming of age in her 21st year as a football nation, easily surpassing any personal feelings of regret.

"It's going to be very difficult for us," says Reim of the impending Euro 2012 play-off against Ireland.

"But it's down to sudden death, isn't it? Who knows what could happen? Both teams started at the same point and they have reached the same point, so who knows what the next 180 minutes have in store?"

Both teams may have started from the same place in qualifying, but that is where the comparisons cease.

When Reim grew up in Tartu, Estonia's second city, the sprawling air base served as a permanent claustrophobic reminder of how even dreams could be curtailed by boundaries.

"Estonia was not in our thoughts growing up," says Reim, who recently led Flora Tallinn to a successful defence of their league title.

"Today, young people grow up with dreams of playing in England or Spain, for the big clubs. For me? Perhaps Spartak Moscow might have been in my thoughts."

For the Estonians, football resembled oppression, not liberation. It was not seen as an escape mechanism. The more one pursued it, the tighter one tugged at the chains of internment by a ruthless occupying power.

The solution during Soviet occupation seemed remarkably simple, its gruff, startling logic so redolent of the era.

Basically, Estonians didn't play football because the Russians did. The Russians weren't good at basketball, so Estonians played that instead. Football lapsed into a coma.

From July 18, 1940, when they defeated Latvia 2-1 pre-occupation, Estonia withdrew from the beautiful game. They would remain unbeaten for more than half a century.

Perhaps another reason the Estonians decided to abandon football was also devastatingly simple -- they weren't that good at it. In 45 years of international football, not one Estonian was deemed of sufficient standard to get near a USSR squad.

For nearly two decades, they did not have a team in the Russian league. What began as a conscientious objection would lead Estonians to virtually banish the sport from their memory banks. In a culture of brainwashing, this wasn't too difficult.

"For much of this time, basketball, cycling and even cross-country skiing were much more popular within Estonian society," according to football writer Jonathan Wilson. "The perception that football was a game imposed by the Soviets would be extremely difficult for the ordinary people to shake off."

Football was a Russian sport. So, too, ice hockey. On big occasions, Estonians would be paradoxically glued to their televisions -- if only to hope for the defeat of the motherland.

For much of the period of the USSR's annexation of Estonia, football languished in eighth or ninth place in terms of popularity -- with each passing generation, isolation seemed to fit more snugly.

As in many countries, football in Estonia had owed its roots to the proselytising efforts of visiting British seamen in the 1880s, who spread the word close to where they moored in the capital city.

Yet a century later, the sport would dramatically emerge once more, when the largest public anti-Soviet demonstration of the occupation years would take place in a football stadium -- riots would follow.

Then, during the liberating 'Singing Revolution' that formed the road map towards independence, football also played a crucial role in the eventually peaceful transition from submission to freedom.

Reim was already 21 when Estonia staged its first international in 51 years -- 1992's 1-1 draw with Slovenia that prolonged the unbeaten record.

But his ship had sailed, in terms of professional football, overseas. The furthest he made it to was Kotka in Finland.

And so his career path now mirrored that of his country's national team. They grew up together.

Regularly whipping boys in the early years, Estonia grew more credibility thanks to the influence of outside coaches and the gradual resolution of an ethnic dispute, whereby many Estonians felt only 100pc Estonians should play for the national team.

The Russians were called 'Kolonists' and Estonia's first manager, Uno Piir, attempted to include them in early national teams, but was over-ruled -- as author Simon Kuper explores in his seminal work, 'Football Against the Enemy.'

The tables had been turned. Now Estonia was the oppressor; their policy of ethnic hatred akin to England, for example, refusing to select black players. Reim's Flora Tallinn were the fourth best team in the country and yet supplied most of the national team.

Little wonder they conceded 27 goals in their first qualifying campaign before going three years without a win -- that unbeaten half-century or more was soon a distant memory. Fittingly, Sergei Hohlov-Simson, an Estonian of Russian extraction, scored the goal against Belarus that ended the sorry winless sequence. At one time, the same player had been the subject of public protests.

Konstantin Vassiljev, the country's star player, typifies the modern breed of 'Russophones' in the current squad, which is representative of the population as a whole (about one in three are of Russian extraction).

Football is now the country's most popular sport. The irony for Reim, whose Flora side lost out to Shamrock Rovers in Champions League qualifying this summer, is that he didn't make it this far.

"People ask me would I like to be out there when the team lines up for the national anthems," laughs Reim, who will be working for Estonian TV at A Le Coq Arena in Friday night's first leg against Ireland.

"Not at all. It is just enough for me to be among my Estonian colleagues watching the team try to complete what would be a magnificent achievement for them and the country."

Reim played for Estonia in Ireland's last visit to Tallinn during the 2002 World Cup campaign, an auspicious one from Ireland's point of view as that 2-0 success marked their last successful qualifying campaign. Ireland also won the home leg 2-0.

"This team is a little different," stresses the erstwhile diminutive midfielder, a veritable Stoichkov of the Baltics. "We can move the ball a lot more in combinations than we did then and against a team with a British style, that can be an advantage.

"However, I don't think that there is any way that we can dominate the possession. Ireland will play a straight game and be very physical, with a lot of pushing, so we have to respond to that."

Ask him can Estonia win. He pauses. A deep breath seems to inhale a century of history.

"It's amazing to think that the country I have grown up with, one with such a basic game, stands on the verge of this moment," he says finally. "Why not? The extraordinary can happen."

In Estonia, they know this only too well.

Irish Independent

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