Rolling Estonians (Sorry)
I’d like to think that you guys cut me a little slack on Fridays. After a long week at work (earning, might I remind you, less than the average nurse does), I often fail to put anything up on here on Friday nights. Tonight, however, I was spoilt for choice. With England playing Estonia at Wembley tomorrow afternoon, though, I felt that it was time for a quick reminder of Estonia’s unique protest against the tyranny of FIFA during the qualifying rounds for the 1998 World Cup, when their decision not to comply with an edict from Zurich resulted in one of the, if not the, strangest matches in the entire history of the competition.
In October 1996, Estonia were due to play Scotland at the Kadriorg stadium in Tallinn in the UEFA Group 4 of the 1998 World Cup qualifiers. All to play for – especially since Estonia had won their previous match by a single goal against Belarus and were (albeit temporarily) breathing down Scotland’s necks in the group placings. The problems started the night before, when the Scottish squad turned up to train at the stadium and became immediately aware of the poor quality of the floodlights. They complained immediately to the FIFA commissioner, Jean-Marie Gantenbein, who called an emergency meeting at the stadium with the Estonian FA and the referee. Temporary lighting was brought in from Finland. Initially, the view was that the match could go ahead at the scheduled time of 18.45, but by the next morning a message had been faxed to the Estonian FA, advising them that the kick-off would have to be brought forward by three hours. All hell broke loose.
The Estonians, to put it simply, refused to play. They claimed, understandably, that they wouldn’t be able to get the required security in place for a different kick-off time and (less understandably) that their part-time players wouldn’t be able to get the time off work for the earlier kick-off time (what boss would turn down a late request for a half day if you said, “sorry it’s short notice, but I have to play for the national football team in a World Cup qualifier this afternoon”?). As the Scots left for the stadium, it became apparent that the Estonians were still at their training camp, and wouldn’t be leaving until the evening. All of this meant that Scotland turned up the Kadriorg stadium, but had no opposition. They went through their full warm-up, got changed into their kit, and took the pitch with the officials, who went through the full rigmarole of checking the nets and shaking hands in an empty stadium. It would be nice to think that they all thought that the Estonians were hiding in camouflage on the terraces as part of some sort of Beadle-esque prank, but it’s likely that this was rubber-stamp administrating gone mad. And slightly strange. Scotland won the toss, and kicked off. As soon as the ball moved, the referee blew for time, and that was that. A full match report from a Scottish supporter present that day can be seen here.
The match was awarded to Scotland as a 3-0 win but, to general disbelief, Estonia were successful in their appeal against the decision and FIFA eventually decided that it should be replayed at a neutral venue. The following February, the two teams replayed the tie at Le Stade Louis II in Monaco, and… drew 0-0. Estonia lost their remaining eight matches and finished second from bottom of the group, above Belarus on goal difference. Scotland qualified at the expense of Sweden, and FIFA were probably pretty relieved that they did. Had they failed to make it to France because of those dropped two points, we would probably never have heard the end of it. Some interesting questions remain, though. Why couldn’t the Estonian players get the time off work to play in the afternoon? What would have happened it Billy Dodds had turned around at kick-off and belted the ball back and straight over Andy Goram into the net? Were the Scotland players capped for the match? Somehow I can’t see this happening at Wembley tomorrow but, my word, I wish it would.