Time for Estonia’s sleeper cells to show their colours

I HEARD the great American sports writer Jerry Izenberg blow the dust of some great tales this week on Newstalk’s Off the Ball programme.

Izenberg is, of course, one of the well-worn faces etched onto boxing journalism’s Mount Rushmore along with — to paraphrase Jamie Redknapp — your Mailers, your Hausers, your Lieblings.

He’s trotted out those great yarns earned at the feet of Ali, Frazier and the rest, you suspect, a few times throughout the years. They bare a little repeating.

Jerry Seinfeld often said the reason so many of us were drawn to the old James Bond films is the fact you couldn’t help but like both the eponymous hero and the villain. If you marvelled at Sean Connolly escaping from Goldfinger’s state-of-the-art laser table, you also silently cursed the baddie’s luck when the plan failed.

And maybe that was the case too in Ali and Frazier’s often bitter — but gripping — two-hander. Households were often split on whom played the role of villain though.

Whatever about the abstract battle between the two, Izenberg with the doors of a thousand sweat-filled gyms swinging behind him, insisted a couple of times on Wednesday night that a technical consideration made the duo’s famous trilogy of meetings so enthralling: styles make fights, he said.

Tonight, Ireland face into their seventh qualification play-off, this time in Estonia. You may have heard there’s a game on.

This week, the hosts’ goalkeeper explained to the media that the one-dimensional Irish — like the Egyptian Mummy, to which Ali compared George Foreman — couldn’t handle the small, butterfly-like forwards in Tallinn.

Put some of the Estonian media’s press coverage through Google Translate — as I sadly have — and loaded terms like functional, battling and hard-working flash on the screen mockingly.

John Delaney might have been laughing into his sleeve when the draw was made all those weeks ago in Zurich. But the Estonians were texting their buddies under the table too, it seems. And they used a few happy emoticons.

Whatever about the perceived disparity of styles on the pitch, however, those in the terraces seem a mere helix or two short of the Irish gene pool. They’re not so unlike us, the Estonians.

One of their number in this country, stands in front of the bleachers each week on Irish hardwood with Dublin accents and the screeching of basketball shoes ringing around the hall.

Meet Toomas Ilves, coach of Liffey Celtic women’s basketball team in the Superleague.

After 11 happy years here, the map of Europe tilted last month with that draw and the 46-year-old found himself behind enemy lines for the first time. This will be fun, he thought.

“This is an historic moment,” says Ilves this week, “because we got through the group for the first time. Accounting for the size of the country — 1.3 million is the population — it is limited. But once you get so far, you want to get further.

“And I have to say, Ireland is a good draw — the English style of the players is suitable for us. I think if Ireland don’t come away a win from Estonia — and they have to win at the Aviva — it will very interesting.”

Tonight Estonians will gather in houses and bars in a little act of quiet resistance to watch the action from back home. In Dublin they’ll gather — maybe 50 or 60 of them, I’m told — in Slattery’s pub on Capel Street.

And tomorrow, those 50 or 60 Estonians throughout Dublin will roll out airbeds, make airport runs or meet friends off the train. Ilves insists every Estonian in western Europe who can afford it will be within one postcode of Dublin for the night. And they’re getting here early.

“I’ll be at the stadium on Tuesday. Lots of Estonians are coming over from around Europe and back home. The population is small and there is no tradition of following the team away.

“But expectations are high. Soccer hasn’t ever been the leading sport. Basketball, athletics, cross-country skiing have always been more popular. But it’s turning around the last five or six years. For me, soccer was my first love, but basketball is what I do now. This week through — it’s football for all Estonians.”

So it seems, with thousands planning on filing into the new Lansdowne Road ground on Tuesday, no matter the result tonight.

“There’s plenty of friends coming over and we have good few nights out planned before the game day even. Ireland is very popular in Estonia — people know there’s lots of us here and some of us have gone back, and mostly we have good memories. They want to see the landscape and go to Irish pubs.

It’s going to be an interesting few days.”

* adrianjrussell@gmail.com; Twitter: @adrianrussell

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