Fitba Week: When Estonia Didn’t Turn Up

by | Sep 4, 2019

It’s an experience with which many Sunday morning footballers will already be familiar. You turn up for a match, only to find that the opposition have decided, for whatever reason, not to turn up at all. It’s frustrating – quite asides from anything else, a lot of pubs might not be open for another couple of hours on a Sunday – but it’s generally accepted as a non-occupational hazard for the enthusiastic amateur player, but it’s a dfferent matter altogether when it happens to a group of professional players. In the autumn of 1996, however, precisely this happened, and it led to one of the most bizarre-looking spectacles in the history of international football.

The fortunes of the Scottish national football team were somewhat different in the middle of the 1990s. They might have failed to qualify for the previous World Cup, but this was the exception rather than the norm at the time, and the team had performed creditably at the 1996 European Championships, unlucky in failing to qualify for the quarter-finals of the tournament by the narrowest of margins. By the start of the following October, their qualification group for the following World Cup had begun. FIFA had upped the number of teams in the finals from twenty-four to thirty-two and this meant more qualification places within UEFA, but even so being placed in the same group as Sweden – who’d made the semi-finals of the previous tournament – and Austria meant that qualification was far from a given. That said, though, they started their qualification with a creditable goalless draw in Vienna and followed that up with a win in Latvia. A solid start, then.

Next up was a trip to Tallinn to play Estonia, on the 9th October. Changes in the European geo-political picture following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union two years later altered the face of European international football, and the Estonian national football team regrouped soon after its declaration of independence in August 1991, playing its first recognised match since June 1940 against Slovenia in June 1992. The team could only pick up a point from ten matches in their 1994 World Cup qualifying group, though, and in attempting to qualify for the 1996 European Championships they lost all ten of their qualification matches. Their start to qualifying for thr 1998 World Cup finals, however, had been more successful. After losing their opening match in Minsk against Belarus, their second qualifying match – played, as Scotland’s was, four days prior to the meeting in Tallinn – resulted in their first competitive win since reformation, reversing the score in a return encounter against Belarus.

Problems, however, started to become apparent when Scottish officials turrned up at the Kadriorg Stadium in Tallinn the night before the match for an under-21 match to find that the Estonian Football Association had rented temporary floodlights from Finland which, so far as the Scotland manager Craig Brown was concerned, were too low and likely to cause glare for the players. They raised the issue with FIFA’s match delegate Jean-Marie Gantenbein, but Gantenbein carried out brief checks before confirming that the match could kick-off, as originally planned, at 6.45 in the evening. Unhappy with his conclusions, the SFA lodged a formal complaint with FIFA, who convened a meeting for 2.30 in the morning on the day of the match, whereupon they agreed that kick-off should be moved to 3.00 in the afternoon.

This time, it was Estonia’s turn to feel aggrieved. So far as they were concerned, moving the kick-off time at less than twenty-four hours notice was a logistical impossibility. Their full-time players were at a training camp more than sixty miles away from the stadium, whilst their part-time players (and supporters) would be at work. In addition to this, they’d signed a television contract with BBC Scotland to show the match live, and BBC Scotland were covering a live memorial service for the victims of the Dunblane massacre that afternoon which they were not going to turn their backs on for the sake of a football match. Much-needed money for a struggling football association in a country still adjusting to life in a capitalist world after half a century of communism wasn’t something that Estonian Football Association could afford to throw away, though. Moreover, the Estonians felt slighted and a little patronised by FIFA’s decision, as though their financial struggles and status as a small and new nation were unimportant to the governing body.

So began a brief game of cat and mouse. Aiver Pohlak, the Estonian FA president, stated that, “We shall leave our headquarters at 4pm as scheduled for a 6.45pm kick-off. We know that the Scots will have been and gone by then and there will be no game today. But we do think the Scottish FA have been very, very unfair to us.” Craig Brown, it has been said, maintained the belief that the Estonian team would turn up to play at the last minute, and accordingly instructed his team to treat the match as per normal. Serbian referee Miroslav Radoman, it turned out, was as much of a stickler for detail as Brown. The Scotland team changed into its full kit, stood for its national anthem, and warmed up while Radoman’s assistants checked the goal nets, before the coin toss. All without any opposition present. Then he blew the whistle, Scotland kicked off, played the ball forward… and after no more than three seconds, Radoman blew the whistle to signal the end of the match.

Around 600 Scotland supporters had made the trip to Tallinn for the match, and at least they saw the humourous side to it all. One supporter in a kilt got onto the pitch with a ball and got one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon by kicking it into an empty goal, whilst the song repertoire for that afternoon included “Sing in the daylight, we only sing in the daylight”,  “Always look on the bright side of life” and, of course, “There’s only one team in Tallinn.” And if there was any disappointment to be had in not getting to see the match, this was surely superceded over time by having the ability to say that “I was there” on such a unique occasion.

Sure enough, the Estonian team turned up later on that afternoon, but by that time the Scotland team had gone. It was initially believed that Scotland would be awarded a walkover three-nil win. After all, FIFA had mandated an earlier kick-off time and the Estonian team simply hadn’t turned up for it and this was what Scotland had been told by the FIFA delegate Gantenbein after the “match.” The press, however, was universally supportive of the stance that Scotland had taken over changing the kick-off time. Writing in the Guardian, football writer Frank Keating criticised Scotland’s decision, saying that:

Scotland, simply, should have put up with the lighting in Tallinn and played by the rules. Hadn’t their scouts been to the ground to suss it out? That is when any complaint should have been registered.

The tartan turkey-cocks had the light in their eyes, poor diddums. If yesterday Scotland were acting the Big Advanced Nation then their three points were too easily, flaccidly and unfairly won.

This, however, wouldn’t quite turn out to be the end of the story. Rather than merely announcing the walkover win for Scotland, FIFA instead announced that they would be meeting a month later by their executive committee, which was then led by Lennart Johansson, who was a FIFA vice-president, the president UEFA and, significantly, so far as Scotland were concerned, Swedish. When the meeting came about, the decision fuelled the growing impression that Johansson’s involvement was as much concerned with preserving the best interests of his home nation as anything else.

FIFA decided that, rather than awarding the match to Scotland, it should be replayed, and that the replay would take place four months after the original had been scheduled, in February 1997. Furthermore, rather than being played in Tallinn, it would be played at the Stade Louis II in Monaco, for reasons that weren’t made readily apparent. To Scotland supporters, this was all the confirmation that was needed of Johansson’s malign influence. Captain Gary McAllister, who would have been suspended for the Estonia, would now miss their crunch game against… Sweden.

There was nothing, however, that the SFA could do. Quite possibly fired up by the speculation about Johansson’s involvement in FIFA’s decision-making process, Scotland beat Sweden by a goal to nil at Ibrox in November 1996, but when the replayed match against Estonia came about the following February, a feeble crowd of just 3,766 people witnessed a goalless draw. However, in their following match, Scotland beat Austria two-nil at Celtic Park to strengthen their position. Sweden beat Scotland in Gothenberg in June, but there was still one final twist to come.

At the start of September, Austria beat Sweden in Vienna, a result which rendered Sweden’s win over Scotland relatively meaningless. In the final round of group matches, played in October 1997, Austria put four goals past Belarus to win the group. Sweden beat Estonia in Stockholm, but Scotland beat Latvia at Celtic Park and, as the second-placed team with the most points, qualified for the 1998 World Cup finals without even having to go into the play-offs. Sweden missed out altogether.

More than twenty years on, it’s possible to see both sides of the story. On the one hand, Scotland would have known from the point that the draw was made that every point in this group was critical if the team was to qualify for the 1998 World Cup finals. Being drawn against Austria and Sweden meant that one of these three teams was going to miss out, and decent teams have previously missed out on tournaments because they’ve dropped points against modest teams rather than against the bigger teams in their groups.

On the other hand, though, it’s difficult not to have considerable sympathy for the position in which Estonia found themselves. Across Europe, reasonably newly-formed nations were finding themselves having to sink or swim in an economic system that doesn’t care much for the less wealthy and, whilst the various confederations that make up international football were more than happy to add as many new members to their number as they could, there was precious little support for national federations in terms of assisting them to build the infrastructure to hold international matches.

Rather than placing responsibility on the shoulders of either team, though, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was a failure on the part of FIFA. We can never say for sure whether Lennart Johansson was consciously supporting his home nation in his role as a FIFA vice-president when the decision to make Estonia and Scotland replay their match in Monaco, but it’s easy to see how this impression would be formed. By the time it got to this stage, though, the damage had been done. Why hadn’t FIFA carried out all required checks well in advance of the match? Why were the regulations at the time so lax? And why did their delegate for the match make the decisions that he did? So many questions, so few answers. At least both the Scottish supporters and players didn’t have to wait two hours for the pub to open, on that very peculiar afternoon in Tallinn.