Estonia on verge of minor miracle of play-offs

Estonia are on the brink of achieving the "small miracle" of reaching the playoffs for next year's Euro 2012 finals which would complete a remarkable transformation for the national football team.

The Baltic nation with a population of just 1.3 million and long cast in the role of one of European football's whipping boys since their re-introduction as an independent nation in 1992, will take one of the eight play-off berths if Serbia fail to win in Slovenia on Tuesday.

"When we won the away game against Serbia, a team that played in the World Cup, it was a sign to us and to others that we were no longer a pushover," Estonian FA spokesman Mihkel Uiboleht said.

Things have changed dramatically since Estonia's first qualifying campaign ended with them losing all 10 qualifiers for the Euro 96 finals.

In stark contrast, Estonia finished this campaign with a 2-1 win over Northern Ireland in Belfast on Friday and are currently second behind Group C winners Italy with 16 points.

Serbia have 15 points and if they fail to win in Slovenia, Estonia will finish second. A draw is not enough for the Serbs as Estonia beat them 3-1 away and drew 1-1 with them in Tallinn so have the better head-to-head record.

RIGHT CHOICES

Although results have been mixed: Estonia have won in Serbia, Slovenia and Northern Ireland, but also lost 2-0 in the Faroe Islands and lost at home to Slovenia, overall, coach Tarmo Ruutli rates the campaign a success.

"It gets close to four out of five but at the same time it is not over yet," he told the Paevaleht newspaper.

"I seem to have made the right choices and I am glad that this beautiful game has become enjoyable for the spectators and we have gained some good results."

According to commentators on Vikkerradio, Estonia will achieve "a small miracle if they make it to the play-offs," while Uiboleht believes the away wins boosted the confidence of players who no longer feel they are cannon fodder for everyone else.

When asked what had made the difference in this tournament, Uiboleht told Reuters it was as if all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle had fitted together.

"As a small country we don't have any star players and we have to play as a team, it is the only way small teams can be successful," he said.

"The result is a mixture of everything, from the fans, the players' team work and the selections by [coach] Ruutli of substitutes, who went on to score."

There is another reason too: Estonia's best players are now playing all over the continent in places as diverse as Poland, Norway, Turkey and England and are improving individually from playing in stronger leagues than the Estonian first division.

However, no one in Estonia is taking anything for granted yet, with Uiboleht adding, with typical Estonian reserve: "We are happy with the way we have done well but we have to keep a cool head."