What started as a group of Erasmus students going to football matches in Tartu, soon grew into a close-knit community. Throw a bunch of flares and a drummer playing with some heart and soul into the mix, and it's easy to see how things can be taken to a whole new level, writes Michael Cole.
A drum beats loudly as plumes of blue and white smoke rise up from the ground, engulfing me to the point where I can no longer see anything. As I choke my way through the dense haze of artificial fog, I make out a canopy of flags waving above my head. It's November in Tallinn, with weather to match and a call of "sha la la la la la la la la" goes out into the freezing cold night. I catch my breath, look up and add my own voice to the untrained choir as we all shout back in unison: "Tar–tu Tamm-e-ka."
"I would definitely call this a phenomenon," says Mika, as we sit in a café a couple of days later. He's been watching live football in Estonia since the early 1990s and was also there amongst that crowd on Saturday. But he's never experienced anything like that before. "Sometimes when the national team is playing, you can feel the atmosphere, but in a club game of Tartu, nothing like that, never."
And he's not the only one who has noticed a difference recently. In a post-match interview, midfielder Sander Kapper tells football outlet Soccernet, that support over the last few months for the only top-flight club in Estonia's second city has been fantastic. "As a player, it warms my heart, it's a joy to see and it's what we need in football."
It's hard to disagree with him. I've been coming to Tartu Tammeka games on and off for the last four years and, simply put, matchdays have never been this enjoyable. "Something just happened," smiles Mika, clicking his fingers to show how quickly things can change. "And I want to tell you how it all started."
Mika teaches Estonian at a local university, and many of his students come to Tartu on the Erasmus exchange program, for just a single semester. "It's really all thanks to the German, Czech, Dutch and Portuguese students, who were keen to see football," he begins. With language and culture so heavily intertwined, it was almost inevitable that the topic of football would come up at some point during his course. "Some of them were asking about my Tammeka scarf, and were interested in watching a game here, so I thought, wouldn't it be great if we could somehow go to the stadium," he tells me.
Mika has some good friends who work for Tammeka, and the club is always keen to attract more students, of which Tartu has over 14,000, 1,300 of whom from outside Estonia, to come along and support the team. In fact, those with an ESN student card can get in for free. Things were starting to come together. Before long, his whole class had been invited to the next home game as special guests, with the club laying on food and drinks for them in the stadium's VIP section.
However, while Richard from Germany and his Czech flat mate Matouš, both core members of what Mika now refers to as Tartu Tammeka's "Erasmus family," were amazed at the club's generosity, the VIP treatment was not entirely what they were used to. "It was so nice for the club to do that, but to be honest, we felt a little uncomfortable watching the game inside," Richard says. "So, we just took the snacks and beers outside (into the stands), so that we weren't behind the glass."
And, from the moment they emerged onto the tribune, a whole new fan culture was born. Well, almost. "The first time (we went), all of the students from our Estonian course were there, but just for the experience. The next time we asked other guys to join us, and it got bigger," he continues.
While Richard and Matouš go to the Estonian University of Life Sciences (Eesti Maaülikool), Sven, also from Germany, studies at the University of Tartu. He tells me he joined Tammeka's "Erasmus family" after meeting the other two on a student trip to Estonia's biggest island, Saaremaa. "They told me about their experience of going to a game. They liked it, and so I said, 'let's try it with all the guys from Raatuse' (one of the largest student dormitories in Tartu – ed.), because we have a WhatsApp group with 300 people."
The reaction was positive and as the number of interested people continued to grow, a new WhatsApp group was set up specifically to share information about matches and arrange meetups. In the stands at Tamme Stadium, however, things weren't quite so well-orchestrated, at least at first. "In the beginning, there was a drum, and the kids were playing it, so there definitely were these supporters," says Richard. "I'd say the main problem was the organization (of the fans) because people came there, but there was absolutely no organization or any way of planning."
But where there's a will, there's a way, and while fan culture in Estonia is less developed than in their home countries, Richard, Matouš, Sven and a few others, were determined to make it work. "There's so much potential to do something bigger, everything around the club is so professional," Richard says. "Somebody just had to take it into their hands and start doing something. Just start it."
"We also knew," says Matouš, "that we needed to get hold of the drum." So, after talking with Monica, Tammeka's community liaison officer, who everyone describes as the most important person at the club, they did just that.
From then on, Richard took over the role of matchday drummer, dictating the rhythm of the crowd, with Matouš stood beside him, leading the chants. "Richard's drumming is the right way," says Mika. "He's not just making noise, but thinking what to do next and he's the soul of our group right now."
Richard and Matouš both laugh when I tell them I've heard rumors of mid-week songwriting sessions taking place in the dorms and various bars around the city. "It's not like we just sit there and try really hard to learn those songs, it's more like someone comes up with an idea on the way to the stadium or something," says Matouš. "The first song was an Estonian one: 'Ainult Tartu, ainult Tammeka,'(Only Tartu, only Tammeka), which our teacher told us," Richard explains. "Then we just went on with songs we already knew and tried to fit some new lyrics to them."
One of the more intricate chants is a tribute to Tammeka's Estonian international defender Taijo Teniste set to the tune of "Following the Sun" by Super-Hi and Neeka. "That's the best," Richard says. "There's a version for (Portuguese right-back) Diogo Dalot, who plays for Manchester United, and I heard that a few days before, so I thought 'I know a right-back' and changed the words a bit. In that version it was something like 'Make the United boys sing,' so we just changed it to 'make the Tammeka fans sing'. There are a lot of (places we get) inspiration."
Richard's Taijo Teniste song was debuted during that game in Tallinn, an away fixture against JK Legion. He only shared the lyrics with the others in the WhatsApp group at 11 o'clock the night before. But, with a two-hour plus coach trip to the capital organized specially by the club, he knew there would be plenty of time for everyone to learn it on the way to the game.
"We'd been looking forward to that trip for maybe three weeks," says Matouš. "We knew that on the way there the atmosphere on the bus would be great," but surely, they didn't expect photos of the journey to be shared by the Estonian Football Association on its social media channels before they'd even arrived at the stadium. "It's great that they appreciate it, but maybe it's not such a surprise because what we're doing is not really that common," they tell me.
After all, football attendances in the Estonian Meistriliiga tend to be low. In 2021, Tammeka averaged just 254 fans per home game, with only Pärnu Vaprus boasting regular crowds of over 500. So, while the Erasmus "family" might not appear so large compared with the "20 to 25,000 on the tribune in Dortmund," that Sven tells me about, they are certainly big enough, not to mention loud enough, to make a difference.
If you then throw a bunch of flares and a drummer playing with some heart and soul into the mix, it's easy to see how things can be taken to a whole new level. "When you see the videos of the live stream, with the smoke bombs and all those flags waving, it looks really good, especially considering how many of us there were." Matouš says. "It's something you can't describe," agrees Laurens from the Netherlands, who even brought a friend from back home who was only in Estonia for a couple of days to the Legion game instead of going for a hike. "It was so worth it, we definitely made the right decision," he says. "When Taijo Teniste was playing in front of us, really close to where we were standing and we started singing his song," he says, "well, that was a really special moment."
And it's not just international students who are involved. "I'm also glad that a few of Tartu Tammeka's Estonian fans have approached us too," Mika says. "There is one guy, who has been a real fan of Tammeka for ages, and now he's also a part of our 'family.' This is fan culture and this group of Erasmus students has really had an influence on Tartu fans.
Mika's excitement about the next home game against Paide this weekend, the last of the season, is infectious. "I'm waiting and observing, for all the people in Tamme Stadium to join in and sing along. I'm sure it will happen and I wouldn't be surprised if it happens on Saturday," he says. "Maybe they'll start to realize, that the football can also be a singing festival," he says.
But as I talk to Sven, Laurens, Matouš and Richard at various points the next day, something starts to dawn on me. Because not only is winter on its way and the Estonian football season, which runs from late February to early November, drawing to a close, but this too is also coming to an end. As luck would have it, most of the "Erasmus Family" won't make it to the Paide game, and will be long gone by the time Tammeka are in action again. "It's kind of over now," says Matouš. "It's going to be weird I guess. Of course, everyone will get used to it, but I think the next few games will be weird, even for the players." Will you still watch the games online, I ask? "Of course, I'll follow the team on Instagram," answers Richard, "but our group will never come together like this again."
And sadly, he's right. Because watching on YouTube can never come close to that feeling we all had at Legion away, and this story was never really about football. "I'm not sure you can explain, just by showing videos or pictures, what it's like being there in a crew all chanting together, being like a community," says Laurens. "There are even some people who come that don't really like football. They just came for the atmosphere." "You know," says Richard, "Before I came here, I knew nothing about Estonian football and we've only known each other for seven weeks, but through this football experience, we became (like) a family. Isn't that great, what football can do?"
"But, what can we do now?" I ask Mika. "The ones who are left behind." We have to enjoy it while it lasts, he says, but he's an optimist and certainly not willing to give up hope that something this good could happen again. "I have a cunning plan," he smiles. "We're going to organize a welcome party for new Erasmus students at the start of next season and I hope there are enough already here who will spread the word," All we need is for there to be some from Portugal, Germany, Poland, or somewhere like that, who grew up with this fan culture and are interested in going to games, he says. "And that will be the spark for next season."
Editor: Marcus Turovski, Michael Cole