Estonia's men's national football team may have only ended up with one measly point at the end of its Euro 2024 qualification campaign, but by dint of a curious detail of regulations, the team can in theory still qualify for next summer's finals in Germany, via the play-offs.
ERR's Sport portal caught up with team manager Thomas Häberli, a Swiss national and former player, who has been at the helm since 2021.
The interview asked why Häberli is not worried about his own position despite the results, ways in which these results can be improved upon, and the need to remain focused on the play-off match fixture set for March, against either Poland or Croatia at the time the interview was conducted.
Aet Suvari: Our figures are pretty poor at the end of this qualification campaign – one point, last place in the group and a goal difference of minus20. What do you think are the main reasons we did so poorly this time?
Thomas Häberli: The question relates to expectations – what do we expect. Are they that we beat stronger teams in the group, like Sweden, Austria or Belgium? Naturally what we cannot be satisfied with right now is finishing Azerbaijan. We really desired to be better than them, that is true.
But we need to accept that if we are missing so many key players, things will be very hard for us. September was particularly bad; unfortunately we couldn't fight back and achieve anything historic. And I believe it would have been a historic thing if we had won one of those games. But we weren't able to pull that off, and now we have to keep working and try to improve.
Suvari: For sure. One of the main issues is what you yourself have pointed out many times – we don't have reams and reams of players to choose from. There is also the question of what to do if one of them gets injured. Anyway, how do you think this problem could be solved in the future, so that it is not always the case that we never have a deep roster of players? While this gaping hole remains, where should we focus on in the work of finding more players?
Häberli: Certainly they will come. We don't have many players in the 25-30 age-group. We have an older generation, and then young players, but not many in between. Players born in 2003 and 2004 are already in the national team; we already have four or five of these and they play for the national side more than they start for their clubs. This is a positive thing, and there will be more of these. But at national team level, an 18-year-old player is still too young, they need one or two more years to mature. After that we also have the players.
Until then, there will be international fixtures where things will be difficult because if we are missing too many players, quality will also drop. I'm not going to complain about that, but it will show.
Today (Sunday – ed.) Oliver Jürgens made his first team debut and has now played more for the national team than he has played for his club (Hungarian side Újpest – ed.). It shows a lot and, it also hints at why we didn't score, you have to take things like that into account a bit more, when people ask post-match.
The players are of course all too aware of their critics too. How much of it hits home, to your mind? Do you also feel personally under pressure?
No, our job is to play football. Let's go out on to the pitch; the pressure is always there. We want to put in perfect performances, but it doesn't always work out that way. Achieving success is a separate issue. But pressure is part of the game, and it's a normal thing.
Have you ever regretted taking on this job?
What now, going forward? What are your immediate future plans?
We have a great opportunity to play one big game in March (the Euro 2024 play-off round one match, either against Poland or Croatia – ed.). We intend to prepare for this so that we are ready to bring a tough battle. Of course, we don't know yet who we will be playing against; there are major differences between the two. But we will prepare and take on this game.
How is work to shape up in the intervening four months? You will communicate with the players as usual, and go to watch their club games? The Estonian league season is over now, but will you continue your job as best as possible, in a situation where the players are not together?
Yes, we will certainly be undertaking separate training programs for them. Some players need extra training to get physically fit for the match. Of course, the players abroad should be able to make the starting lineup, this would be very beneficial. With the game in March in mind, the most important thing is that the players get pitch time and not be stuck on the bench. I will provide support to them, I will monitor their match form, and will prepare additional training programs.
It was also mentioned at the press conference that the board of the EJK, the Estonian FA, is due to make a decision. Does this worry you?
This is not a cause for concern. The board analyzes the [qualification] cycle and makes its decision. This is a normal process at the end of each qualification cycle and each season.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Kristjan Kallaste