Estonia's Sporting Cathedral: A Le Coq Arena & the Home of Opportunity
Sometimes, a stadium that stands out in the world is not about the size of the stadium, but rather the size of people's interest for a stadium to be relevant. No country perhaps has a better example that than from Estonia, as the nation struggled to find its identity in the mid-1990s following independence.
Estonia managed to spark interest among its people in 1999, even if their first major stadium only seated 5000 people. The reward for that interest was a lliteral "railway" toward a new sporting cathedral: Lilleküla Stadium, or commonly known as A Le Coq Arena in Tallinn, Estonia. Since 2001, the home of Estonia's football team became the springboard for players nationwide at national and international level.
The stadium's size normally seat up to 10000 people, but by 2017, that figure will reach 15000. In 2018, A Le Coq Arena will host the UEFA Super Cup final, the first stadium in Estonia to host a major senior club final.
Action from Tallinn in 2001
Before 2001, Kadriorg Stadium was Estonia's primary football venue that seated 5000 people. Estonia needed a venue to host matches against the world's best nations - the first opportunity coming on June 2, 2001 as tickets sold out quickly for Estonia's match against the Netherlands in a 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifier.
The Netherlands needed a win to keep up with Portugal and Republic of Ireland and were expected to win at Estonia. Nevertheless, Estonia hung in the game for an hour, prompting Dutch coach Louis van Gaal to make two substitutions, the more notable being Ruud van Nistelrooy on for Patrick Paauwe. Estonia received its reward in the 65th minute, beginning with Raio Piiroja; his pass to Marko Kristal then found Andres Oper. Estonia’s all-time leading scorer, Oper broke free from two Dutch players and rifled a shot past Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Saar. The goal sparked celebrations in the stadium and players celebrated near a corner flag.
The lead lasted only three minutes: Piiroja was also responsible for allowing the tying goal. Dutch striker Frank de Boer launched a long left-footed shot at the middle of Estonia's half of the pitch, taking a slight deflection of Piiroja's head.That deflection struck the crossbar's underside and the ball crossed the white line.
But Indrek Zelinksi restored Estonia’s advantage with only 14 minutes remaining and Estonia seemed to have scalped a major victory. That was until van Nistelrooy and Patrick Kluivert added three goals late in the match, the latter scoring the game winning goal.
One thing came out of this match: Estonia had a home it was proud and its players would represent their country with pride and that began at A Le Coq Arena.
Did You Know?
Estonia's first match at A Le Coq Arena in 2001 was also the same match that Estonian center back Taavi Rähn earned his first international cap. Rähn achieved this feat after replacing midfielder Kert Haavistu in the 69th minute.
New Precedent: Bringing Opportunity
For 16 years, many elite nations have played matches at A Le Coq arena as part of their qualifying campaigns in Europe, notably: Spain, England, Portugal, Russia, Belgium and the Netherlands, some of several European nations having played major tournament qualifiers.
Many games did result in visitors winning, but Estonia recorded its first historic result on Mar. 27, 2002. Estonia hosted Russia in a friendly, the visitors preparing for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Vladimir Bestchastnykh's 18th minute goal cancelled out his goal in the 10th minute, but Andres Oper scored with four minutes remaining in regulation. The 2-1 victory was indeed a pivotal moment for Estonia, but in that match, Oper set a standard unprecedented in Estonia's history.
Estonia drew 1-1 to Russia when the teams met again at A Le Coq in qualifyling for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. It was in this period when Oper was Estonia's best scoring player, having recorded seven goals in qualifying, tied for second most in the group. Oper's total included four goals at A Le Coq Arena: Luxembourg (Sept. 4, 2004), Slovakia (Mar. 26, 2005), Liechtenstein (June 4, 2005) and Latvia (Sept. 3, 2005).
Oper earned 134 caps for Estonia, with his 100th coming in a Euro 2008 qualifying match: a 1-0 home loss to Israel. But when he played his final match, coming against Gibraltar, in a 1-1 home draw, Oper finished with 38 goals - the most by an Estonian player. That tally also included two goals scored against Canada in a 2-1 victory at A Le Coq Arena on Mar. 29, 2003.
Canada and Estonia met again at the same venue five years later. That meeting was more memorable for the wintry conditions than any other match in Estonia's history. The match was scoreless until nearly an hour in the match. Vjatseslav Zahovaiko sealed the game with his first goal for Estonia since 2004 in Estonia's 2-0 victory.
Wintry Wonderland in 2008
Rematch with the Dutch 12 Years Later
Scoring Establishments at Home - No Matter the Stakes
It was Estonia's match against New Zealand on May 31, 2006 that saw the debut of Estonia's best active goalscorer. He substituted for Zahovaiko in the 66th minute during the 1-1 draw; nearly 11 years later, Konstantin Vassiljev stands as his nation's third-highest goalscorer and also expected to reach 100 caps by the end of 2017.
Some of Vassiljev's goals at A Le Coq Arena have come regardless the stakes. His goal against Belgium in a 2010 FIFA World Cup capped off Estonia's campaign with a 2-0 victory on Oct. 14, 2009. One year later, Vassiljev had his two-goal game for Estonia, coming in a 3-3 draw against Uzbekistan, its opponents preparing for the 2011 Asian Cup.
Vassiljev, along with Zahovaiko, helped Estonia notch an even better result in 2011, the duo scoring four minutes apart to hand Estonia a 2-0 upset against Uruguay on Mar. 24, 2011. Uruguay was coming off a fourth-place finish at the 2010 World Cup. That win came four days before Vassiljev's tying goal against Serbia proved pivotal in Estonia's Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. In 2017, Vassiljev also scored in another major upset as Estonia defeated Croatia 3-0.
However, Vassiljev established himself to perhaps be Estonia's best goalscorer in 2013, when Estonia hosted the Netherlands once again as the teams met in a 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifier. After giving up an early goal, Estonia stayed focus and Vassiljev scored twice. Similar to 2001, Estonia hoped to notch a major dent in the Netherlands' qualification to the World Cup. However, Estonia allowed a penalty kick.
The game finished a 2-2 draw, but Vassiljev's goal earned the player the 2013 Estonia Silverball, a yearly award that Estonian Football Journalists' Club award to Estonia's best goal. In 2013, Vassiljev became the first four-time winner of the award. Three years later, Vassijlev won the award for a fifth time, thanks to his goal against Gibraltar in a 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifier that Estonia won 4-0.
It was not the first time Gibraltar visited A Le Coq Arena. In 2014, Gibraltar met Estonia at A Le Coq Arena as part of a home-and-home series since Gibraltar became UEFA's 54th member in 2013. That 1-1 draw is considered an unofficial match in FIFA, similar to another match three years earlier.If upsetting Uruguay was euphoria, then Estonia's match against the Basque Country was a low ebb. A 2-1 to the Basque Country started a string of six straight losses for Estonia across all matches.
More came for Estonia, especially come the end of 2011.
Spreading Longevity and Inspiration
There are 12 players who have earned over 100 caps for Estonia; Vassiljev is expected be the 13th player in 2017. The common factor among all these players was having represented Estonia at A Le Coq Arena; for some players, the journeys to 100 caps began on June 3, 1992: Estonia's first official FIFA match as it drew 1-1 draw.
When he reached 100 caps in a World Cup qualifier in Limassol, Cyprus, midlfielder Marko Kristal, who scored his ninth (and final) goal for Estonia, became Europe's youngest player to amass 100 caps. When he played his last game, Kristal amassed 143 caps, most for an Estonia player at the time. His final cap came in a friendly at A Le Coq Arena, but Norway won in Kristal's final game 2-1 on Apr. 20, 2005.
Kristal found success as a manager at club and in 2013, Kristal guided FC Levadia Tallinn to the league title with 30 victory. That tally included wins at A Le Coq Arena, also home to FC Flora Tallinn (on Apr. 13, a 3-0 victory and Aug. 9 a 2-1 victory). Kristal's assistant for that season was Zelinski.
Zelinski earned 103 total caps, but his last four came in a six-year span after 2003. On Mar. 31, 2004, Zelinski earned his 100th cap at home, but Estonia lost 1-0 to Northern Ireland. Three years later, on Aug. 22, 2007, Zelinski gave Estonia its first win in Euro 2008 qualifying at home. Despite scoring the winning goal in stoppage time. Zelinski celebrated by removing his shirt. Zelinski, already on a yellow card, would be shown a second yellow for the celebration and the subsequent red card.
The goal against Andorra in 2007 was Zelinski's 27th and final goal for Estonia, which ranks him second in his nation's scoring.
Farewell Match for Reim
2009 marked Estonia’s 100th anniversary of its footballing history. It was also the year that marked the ends of two notable players in a span of four days at A Le Coq Arena.
He played 34 minutes against Equatorial Guinea during the 3-0 victory. When Vassiljev replaced him, Martin Reim left the game as Estonia's all-time caps leader. Reim, whose 100th cap came in Estonia's 4-2 loss to the Netherlands in 2001, finished with 157 caps, the most for a European player at the time. of his retirement. Reim took over as Estonia's manager on Sept. 14, 2016 following Estonia's 5-0 loss at Bosnia-Herzegovina in Zenica. Reim's first two games as the new manager came at A Le Coq Arena: Estonia winning 4-0 against Gibraltar before losing 2-0 to Greece.
Days after Reim's last game, Estonia’s starting goalkeeper took his turn to call it a career. In 18 years, Mart Poom established the goalkeeper position for Estonia. Despite losing 56 percent of the games he appeared in, Poom helped Estonia rise following its independence, and in 2003 Poom was voted as Estonia's best player during the UEFA Jubilee Awards. Poom was a part of Estonia's early struggles as newcomers to becoming a fan favorite in Estonia and England, where he made a name at Derby County and Sunderland. Poom's 120th cap against the same nation he earned his 100th cap. Unlike the 4-0 loss in Leiria Portugal, Poom held Portugal to a goalless draw, earning the goalkeeper his first clean sheet since 2004.
Three years after appearing against Andorra, Zelinski earned his 103rd and final cap in 2010. A journey that started at Titan Stadium in Fullerton, Calif. in a 4-0 loss at the United States ended with Zelinski helping break a drought against one nation. The last time Estonia defeated Finland, Richard Kuremaa had his nation one game away from the 1938 FIFA World Cup. Oper's fifth minute goal, combined with Sander Post's first goal for Estonia in the 55th, gave Estonia its first victory against Finland since 1937.
Home: Where the Best Goal Can Come
Year (Date of Goal)
2001 (June 2)
2002 (August 21)
2005 (March 26)
2007 (August 22)
2008 (June 4)
Faeroe Islands (Friendly)
2012 (August 15)
2013 (September 6)
2014 (June 7)
2015 (November 17)
St. Kitts and Nevis (Friendly)
2016 (October 7)
Scoreless Stalemates Suffice
A Le Coq Arena has hosted only two matches in Europe's oldest organized tournament for European teams: Baltic Cup. Both matches, in 2003 & 2016, saw Estonia host Latvia. The visiting team's scoreless draws in both games saw Latvia clinch the Baltic Cup.
Youth Emergence in the Summer of 2012
In 2011,Tallinn, along with Turku, Finland, was a European Capital of Culture; the designation allowed Tallinn opportunities for numerous sporting events.
That experience also proved to be Tallinn's litmus test as n 2012, Estonia hosted its first UEFA tournament ever. The Under-19 Championships showcased rising young stars across four venues; that included A le Coq Arena, which hosted six matches total, including the two semifinals and the final.
Spain’s played four matches at A Le Coq Arena, its first match being against Portugal. Jese Rodriguez Ruiz emerged as a goal scoring threat as the player needed only 48 minutes to notch a hat trick. Portugal, for its part, responded after each goal, the third coming courtesy of a stoppage time goal from Joao Mario as Portugal salvaged a point.
That game was the middle of three group stages games, with Portugal kicking off the tournament with a 3-0 victory before Spain ended Estonia’s tournament with a 2-0 victory.
Portugal missed out on the semifinals, where both games needed extra time. Greece followed up a defeat of Greece by defeating England 2-1, with Charalambos Lykogiannis put Greece ahead and they were on their way to a final.
The first semifinal set the stage for a mouth-watering encounter featuring Spain and France. After France lead courtesy of a Samuel Utiti goal, Spain proved their mettle with two goals in 14 minutes, courtesy of Gerard Deulofeu and Paco Alcacer. A third successive final appearance was in the cards, only for Umtiti to force extra time with a stoppage time goal. Each team scored in the second half of extra time, the second goal seeing Paul Pogba equalize with three minutes remaining. Penalty kicks proved to be the cruel fate for France. Despite Jose Campaña missing Spain’s first attempt, Umtiti and Geoffrey Kondogbia had their attempts saved, setting up Delofeu's winning attempt and a rematch from the group stage.
The 2012 final would be a rematch of the opening game of the tournament in Haapsalu.
Spain defeated Greece 2-1 earlier in a group stage game in Happsalu and it would defeat Greece against by the odd goal in a tense final. Fittingly, Spain’s first goalscorer of the tournament, Jese, added to his hat trick against Portugal and his goal was his fifth of the tournament. Spain established itself as a world-power in European football at senior level; now at youth level, a dynasty continued with Spain winning for a second successive season and sixth overall in 11 seasons.
A Stroke of Brilliance
The Chance at History: Notable Club Qualifiers
To date, no Estonia club has participated in the group stage of a major UEFA club competition, although Estonian clubs were on the cusp of history in 2006 and 2013.
While Flora Tallinn managed scoreless draws against Lyn Oslo and Brondby in qualifiers, Levadia Tallinn managed an even bigger shock. On Aug. 24, 2006, Levadia Tallin was in a good situation against Dutch club FC Twente: a scoreless draw or victory would send the club to the UEFA Cup First Round and one step close to history. A former goal-scoring champion help notch the biggest upset in that year’s second qualifying round. Konstantin Nahk’s goal 35 minutes into the game proved decisive to send Levadia into the next round.
On paper, this was the biggest upset in that qualifying. The runners-up of the 2005 Meistriliga had the lowest coefficient (0.88) for a team to qualify for the UEFA Cup First Round after starting in the tournament first qualifying round; in contrast, FC Twente had the highest coefficient (19.640) for a team to be eliminated from the competition.
Levadia Tallinn’s reward came against Newcastle United. Levadia hoped to keep the run going, but an early goal from Antoine Sibierski set the tone for this two-legged encounter. The 1-0 loss would sign the end of Levadia Tallinn’s run and a chance at history for Estonia. It would be seven years later before another meaningful game at A Le Coq Arena.
This time, it was Nõmme Kalju, winners on the 2012 league title, that had the opportunity.
Nõmme Kalju plays its games at Hiiu Stadium. The venue seats only 650; according to UEFA regulations, Hiiu Stadium cannot host any matches in a European club competition compared to A Le Coq Arena has had more than just an opportunity to host qualifying matches but rather,
Nõmme Kalju began qualification in the second qualifying phase of the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League against Finnish champions HJK Helsinki. Against HJK (also a previous group stage participant in 1998), Nõmme Kalju won 2-1, setting up a match-up against Czech Republic’s champions Viktoria Plzen.
A Le Coq Arena hosted the first leg, wheren home advantage evaporated after only two minutes. Marian Cisovsky scoring his first goal two minutes into game; Cisovsky also had two more goals, including a stoppage time goal to complete his hat trick as Nõmme Kalju lost 4-0 with Plzen.
Despite the loss, Nõmme Kalju still had one more match in an attempt to play European football come September; however, Ukrainian club Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk would win at A Le Coq and deny the Estonia club a piece of history.
Winning in Dramatic Style
Kicking Off Europe's Road - Not Once, But Twice and Soon Three Times!
A Le Coq Arena will kick off Europe's club competition in 2018; it is a role that is actually familiar. A Le Coq Arena also kick-started Europe's journeys to Austria and Switzerland for the 2008 edition as well as Europe's journey to Poland and Ukraine for the 2012 edition. This stadium was where the first goals of qualifying occurred in both European qualifying campaigns.
On Aug. 16, 2006, Estonia hosted FYR Macedonia to kick off the 2008 edition; the host nation had the first opportunity thanks to Joel Lindpere and Viikmäe, only for Macedonia’s Igor Mitreski to half the attack with a sliding challenge. Macedonia ended up dominating the opportunities for the rest of the first half, especially nearly opening the scoring but not before Ilce Naumoski has his goal disallowed for offside in the 33rd minute.
With 74 mintues elapsed, Goce Sedloski scored the first of what would be 839 goals in qualifying for the 2008 European Championships.
However, Estonia nearly salvaged a draw after Nikolovski stopped Andrei Stepanov’s shot. With the ensuing corner, Estonia attempted to capitalize with a key player: goalkeeper Poom, who three years earlier, scored a tying goal for Sunderland against his former club Derby County. Poom hoped to do the same; however, his attempt went wide and Macedonia secured the three points.
Lilleküla Stadium was one of three venues to kick off Euro 2008 in 2006. On Aug. 11, 2010, Lilleküla Stadium was the sole venue to kick off Euro 2012.
As in 2006, the visiting team scored the first goal of qualifying, courtesy of Joan Simon Edmunsson, the 26th minute strike was his first ever goal for the Faeroe Islands. It seemed that the Faeroe Islands, also considered minnows in Europe, were on their way to a shock result. Estonia, for its part, turned the game on its head with Kaimar Saag and Piiroja scoring stoppage time goals.
Little did people imagine that a year after that 2-1 victory, Estonia was at the apex of its footballing history. That run also featured an impressive 4-1 victory over Northern Ireland in another qualifier. Although it lost 2-0 to Ukraine in a home friendly, Estonia would get a chance to host its biggest match to date: a Euro 2012 playoff. That was in part to Slovenia's 1-0 victory over Serbia, as Estonia held off Serbia for the playoff sport. heights Estonia anyone imagine that the 2-1 victory. Estonia on a path that few experts saw coming for the next 15 months. A year after that win, Estonia But one thing is certain, Lilleküla Stadium will undergo a major expansion and Estonia, a at long last, will reap the rewards for a stadium that has given an opportunity for a city and nation that many though would never be possible.
© 2017 Antonio Martinez