You would be surprised that a match is even going on, let alone a derby. Only the beat of a few lonely drums breaks the silence around Kadriorg Park, probably the most beautiful space in Tallinn. Some of the trees have begun to take on the gold of fall, while others retain the ever-green of summer and northern Europe. It’s a relaxing spot, one of those rare spots that I feel I could spend days in. The wooden houses surrounding the park remind me of back home in New England, and I am completely at peace as I pay my five Euros for admission to the top of the table clash between FC Levadia Tallinn and Nomme JK Kalju Tallinn, both level on 71 points.
Upon entering the stadium grounds I grab a beer and sit down in one of the many empty seats. After all, Estonia boasts the lowest average attendance for first division matches in all of Europe, a paltry 2013 at last count (http://theballisround.co.uk/2012/06/01/the-worst-supported-leagues-in-europe/). I put my beer down and pull my hands into my jacket cuffs. It is only the first of October, but the cold Baltic wind tells me that winter has arrived in Northern Europe. For a moment I am transplanted back to high school—a lonely wind-swept pitch, a few fans, the golden trees in the distance. The only difference is the fact that the few females in attendance are stunningly beautiful. I look back at them, one smiles at me as she brings her hands to her face in a bid to warm them.
I turn my eyes to the field. Levadia are having the better of the first few minutes, spurred on by their seven (7!) fans in the opposite bleachers—literally bleachers, there are only a few rows of seating. In the 19th minute Sergei Terehhov—the elder statesmen of the pitch at 38 according to the program (the next youngest player is 31)—sends in a good cross for Kalju that is put out for a corner. The support behind me—15 men and women, some waving flags—is galvanized by the attack. The keeper makes a mess of the ensuing corner and a dubious foul is called, setting up a Kalju free-kick just outside the box. A few girls shriek for joy, their shrill voices dissipating in the cold air. Children below me join them, and it takes me back the to the low-attendance Ivy League football games I braved the cold for back in Provindence when I was one of those children.
In the 32nd minute Kalju have another half chance, courtesy of the amateur defending. Welcome to Estonian football. Three minutes later Levadia pull off a beautiful one-two, but the chance goes begging. A minute later the Kalju keeper makes an error but Levadia still can’t capitalize, as the shot goes bounces off the keeper, a defender, and then harmlessly out of bounds. The first half ends as it started, 0-0, and I get up to throw my empty beer cup away. Its time for some tea as I take refuge beneath the stands from the cold.
At the beginning of the second half someone behind me yells something and everyone around me bursts into laughter. It is these moments that I love, the reason that I travel—it is something else to be innocently unaware of everything going on around you. Back on the pitch Nomme Kalju have had a good start to the second half, and fifteen minutes in the manager brings a striker on, number 99 Tarmo Neemelo, in a bid to keep the pressure on. Four minutes later, however, it’s a chance for Levadia Tallinn, but the nervous striker botches it. No matter, a minute later a clean finish by striker Rimo Hunt puts Levadia up 1-0. The seven fans in the opposite stand go wild, lighting seven—count ‘em, seven—flares for the occasion, one for each. Seven minutes later, in the 72nd minute, Levadia calls for a penalty are denied and the “ultras” envelope their stand in a green mist, courtesy of a second set of flares. I’m surprised they even came with so many, to be honest.
Eleven minutes from time Nomme Kalju get a reward for their attacking play as Kimbaloula, a twenty-one year old Frenchman, puts the ball in from a goal mouth scrum following a corner kick. The match is level at 1-1, just like the teams in the table. The sky is getting darker and darker as night sets in, and I’m worrying about how to make it across town for the second match of my day-night double header. The last ten minutes are uneventful and I start edging towards the exit.
I walk slowly, conscious of the old adage “Never leave until the final whistle blows”. My eyes are glued to the pitch as I make way behind the Kalju goal when the unbelievable happens. Well, its quite believable, but a little hyperbole can be forgiven when it is the Estonian league in question. A Levadia counter-attack has resulted in a clean finish into the side netting during stoppage time. 2-1. And just like that, the referee ends it. Levadia Tallinn move three points clear. I’m surprised, and I ask a young lady who has been standing next to me during this improbable stoppage time goal.
“Is it over?”
She just looks at me and turns away, without even deigning to respond. I guess she is wary of the Don Juan soccer fan. I don’t have much time to waste on her anyway—I have twenty minutes to make it to the Le Coq Arena, at the other end of town.
The stands weren’t full, but they were still pretty:
Levadia Tallinn Fans celebrating a hard earned victory in the top of the table clash, more pictures of the action are here: