Tiny Estonia makes splash in Euro 2012 qualifying
Of the eight countries contesting playoffs for the 2012 European Championship, Estonia is perhaps the biggest surprise of all.
The Baltic nation of just 1.3 million people lacks previous football accomplishments and its domestic league is ranked 47th of UEFA's 53 member countries, behind minnows like Malta and Liechtenstein, though those countries rank lower than Estonia in FIFA's rankings.
Estonia also displays a lack of excitement for the sport that is unusual in football-crazed Europe. It's partly a legacy of five decades of Soviet occupation, when the tiny republic developed more enthusiasm for winter sports and basketball.
When Estonia faces Ireland in the first leg of the playoffs on Friday, it will be the most important game the national team has played since the country regained independence in 1991, and a rare chance to play before a sold-out crowd at the 10,000-seat A. Le Coq Arena in Tallinn.
''It's a 10-year-old stadium and it has only been full for the first game against Holland, England, Brazil ... not many games,'' says Mart Poom, a former goalkeeper in England for Derby County and Sunderland, who is the biggest name in Estonian football.
Estonia's biggest sports achievements to date include Erik Nool's decathlon gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and three gold medals in cross-country skiing at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.
Until now, the country had never come close to qualifying for the European Championship or World Cup. In the previous European qualifying campaign, Estonia was next-to-last in its group, ahead of Andorra.
This time around, Estonia stunned experts with away wins against Serbia and Slovenia - both of which played at the 2010 World Cup - to clinch second place in Group C, well behind Italy.
''Before, I was thinking that if we achieve some notable result then it will mean a lot for football,'' said Aivar Pohlak, a children's author and literature teacher who has been president of the Estonian Football Association since 2007. ''But now - after the first notable result, I can say that it (means) much more for society, much more for people, much more for the nation, for the state.''
Only five Estonian clubs pay their players a full-time wage, and the lopsided league throws up anomalies like Lasnamae Ajax, which conceded 192 goals in 36 games this season without winning a single game.
This low standard forces most of the Estonian national team to play abroad.
Konstantin Vassiljev, the attacking midfielder whose two goals against Northern Ireland clinched the 2-1 win that helped Estonia secure a playoff berth by finishing second in their qualifying group, plays for Amkar Perm in Russia.
Three of his teammates also play in Russia, while other members of the squad play for clubs in Norway, Poland, Denmark, Cyprus, the United States, Belarus, the Netherlands and even China.
Estonians turned their interest from football to basketball during the Cold War, partly because of local basketball team Kalev's success in the Soviet league.
''I think generations lost the habit of coming to games,'' said Poom, who is now sporting director for Flora Tallinn, Estonia's top club. ''Football was very popular before World War II, with big crowds by our standards.''
Even though admission was free, only 375 people came to watch Flora clinch the domestic league title against Viljandi last week.
After an emphatic 4-0 victory, Flora players celebrated before a small cluster of fans struggling to create an atmosphere by chanting and lighting flares in the near-emtpy stadium.
The contrast with the big leagues of Europe couldn't have been greater.
''It's a bit strange coming from playing in front of 10,000 people, and here you are playing in front of 500 people, but still ... you have to do your best,'' said Norwegian midfielder Erik Midtgarden, on loan at Flora from his Dutch club, Vitesse Arnhem.
Last season, average attendance in Estonia's Meistriliiga was just 160 - 10 times lower than the Irish league and the lowest of all European top divisions, according to the U.K.-based European Football Statistics website.
Poom said Estonian football fans prefer to watch the English Premier League on TV than to go see matches in their lackluster domestic league.
There already are signs of increased interest in football among young people, even if they have not yet made it into stadiums of the domestic league, says Frank Bernhardt, the German coach of Estonia's under-21 team.
''Last year we overtook basketball in terms of the number of players, and I think this year it will grow a lot,'' says Bernhardt, who has overhauled the country's youth setup since arriving in 2007.
Estonian football officials hope the national team's success in Euro 2012 qualifying will give the sport a boost also at a club level. After Estonia made the playoffs, a group of lawmakers formed a lobby group to push for improvements in the country's football infrastructure.
''It's not possible to talk about developing football culture in Estonia if we don't even have proper training facilities,'' says Deniss Borodits, the chairman of the parliamentary group. ''There's currently no proper indoor arena in the country. This makes training during the winter season very difficult.''
Associated Press writer Jari Tanner contributed to this report.