New Year photo scandal raises questions throughout Estonian football

The Estonian men's national football team
The Estonian men's national football team Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Over the New Year's holiday, members of the Estonian men's national football team were pictured socializing with Russian head coach Valeri Karpin. The meeting caused controversy, which resonated throughout Estonian football and beyond. Football journalist Ott Järvela believes, that the meeting and the subsequent public apology from some of those involved, provides more questions than answers.

Controversy arose after former Estonian national team defender Andrei Stepanov posted a photo on his social media account the day before New Year's Eve. The picture showed Stepanov, who made a single appearance for Watford in 2009, alongside current national team captain Konstantin Vassiljev and striker Sergei Zenjov (both Flora Tallinn), assistant coach Andres Oper and several other ex-players who have represented Estonia in the past, sat enjoying drinks with Russian national team head coach Valeri Karpin.

The photo has attracted a large number of reactions on social media and internet forums. Many, including Estonian Minister of Culture Piret Hartman (SDE), believe, that representatives of the national team socializing with the Russian head coach and sharing pictures of their meeting is highly inappropriate in light of Russia's ongoing aggression against Ukraine.

On Wednesday afternoon, Konstantin Vassiljev, Andres Oper and Sergei Zenjov issued a joint statement through the Estonian Football Association (EJL) expressing regret for the situation and apologizing to all those who were hurt by the dinner and the photo's publication on social media.

According to the statement, the only topic discussed during the meal with Karpin was football, not politics or war. "Our position on the war (in Ukraine) has always been the same - there is no justification for it. We have always stood up for Estonia on and off the pitch and we will continue to do so," the joint statement from Vassiljev, Zenjov and Oper, who are currently at a national team training camp in Portugal, said.

However, according to Soccernet journalist Ott Järvela, who was speaking on Vikerraadio's "Uudis+" program, the apology raises more questions than answers.

"It doesn't look like it's all over by any means. Or that the tensions have been defused or questions answered," Järvela told Vikerraadio. "In some ways, (Wednesday's) statements raised even more questions."

Estonian men's national football team captain Konstantin Vassiljev. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

"It's a foolish situation for sure. Based on all the information available, the Estonian (national team) players Konstantin Vassiljev and Sergei Zenjov and assistant coach Andres Oper did not plan for the event to happen like this," said Järvela.

"Perhaps, as the photo, which has been circulating was posted by Andrei Stepanov, it was he who organized the gathering," Järvela said.

"He and Jevgeni Novikov, who is also a former Estonian national team player, work as football agents and have a joint company, which does most of its business in Russia. Undoubtedly, it is very good business for Stepanov and Novikov to be (seen) sitting at the same table as the head coach of the Russian national team, because it means that they have the opportunity to find (new) clients in the Russian football market, where, understandably, times are now hard. I think that's why Stepanov posted the picture and why he still hasn't taken it down from his social media."

"The situation, which has now become very heated, could have largely been avoided, had the photo been followed immediately with the right reactions from the parties involved. However, they didn't come immediately, they took a long time." Järvela continued.

"And, when they did arrive (on Wednesday), they were ambiguous and unconvincing. In fact, the comment Vassiljev gave to ERR yesterday rather left the impression that it was a pity they were caught, and that they shouldn't do this (kind of thing) in the future."

"The position of the head coach of the Russian football team in Russia is clearly also a political position. For several decades, there has been evidence about the way in which major sporting bodies in Russia, of which the football team is a part, have been exploited in the interests of national propaganda.

"It seems to me that those involved do not understand that this is not (just) a football issue or a political issue, but an existential issue, because it is about values. And these, as we know, are the foundation of everything."

Järvela went on to say, that as far as he was aware, Karpin's appearance had come as a surprise to the other attendees of the informal gathering. He also added, that the issue had little to do with how football players choose to socialize with their friends.

Järvela said, that the case had resonated deeply with the Estonian public, not only because of the situation itself, but also as a result of the subsequent reactions from those involved.

"While there has been a lot of talk about the reactions of the athletes who were in the picture, a separate issue relates to (the role of) sporting officials. In my view, athletes have made misjudgments on value-related issues in the past and will do so again in the future. It is absolutely inevitable. However, one of the most important roles played by sporting officials is to provide athletes with support in these kinds of situations (if and) when they arise. Sporting officials must work to ensure that the right and most appropriate value systems are in place (in their sports). Up to now, the Estonian Football Association (EJL) does not (appear to) feel that this case concerns them in any way."

In a comment provided to news outlet Delfi, Estonian Football Association chief Aivar Pohlak said that it was important to respect the views of those who think differently.

"On a human level, it is our duty not only to show compassion and help those who are suffering, but also not to infringe on important human rights, including the right to know and meet with people who think differently. Communication, friendship and love between human beings, regardless of the circumstances, are essential if the world is to return to normality," said Pohlak.

Aivar Pohlak Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Järvela's initial response to Pohlak's statement was a sigh. "You can't tell another person what they can or can't think. However, I believe that the president of the Football Association should have taken a very clear, values-based stance and made it plain where the Estonian Football Association stands (on this)," Järvela said.

"I would hope that the Estonian Football Association not only stands behind the ambiguous statement that they are against the war, but rather that they very clearly oppose Russian aggression, that they consider Putin to be a war criminal and everything else that goes with that. However, the Estonian Football Association has not taken that position," Järvela said.

"It's a problem for the whole of Estonian football, everything that has come as a result of this photo. As are the reactions from different people involved in Estonian football. These important inconsistencies have resonated deeply in Estonian football," Järvela said.

In Järvela's view, an additional challenge going forward will be ensuring men's national team coach Thomas Häberli, who comes from Switzerland, is able to fully understand the rather complex identity issues, which the case has brought to the fore.

"Good luck to all those who have to explain the nature of the problem to the head coach of the Estonian national team, Thomas Häberli, who is Swiss. He is a very intelligent man, but it will obviously difficult for him to grasp all these subtleties. However, it's important, because he needs to have a clear understanding of how these interpersonal relationships work in different situations in order to make the team gel," said Järvela.

"Certain supporter groups play a really important role in the Estonian football scene, and they too have reacted very strongly (to this). I think the conclusion to be drawn is that this is not just a problem which concerns these players, but it has become a problem for Estonian football as a whole," Järvela added.

"Over the years, football has, quite rightly, been able to promote itself as a successful integration tool (bringing together Estonia's titular majority and Russian-speaking minority – ed.), though questions will now inevitably arise regarding this too. After all, all these unpleasant facts are now out in the open and need to be looked at and dealt with. In the current situation, this is the Estonian Football Association's primary task. However, whether the Football Association is willing and able to do this, is a major question in and of itself," said Järvela.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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