It is never easy when the football crowd has to greet one of his heroes.
Especially in a small country as Estonia, where the acknowledged heroes have been few.
I remember the A.LeCoq Arena greeting Mart Poom in a goalless draw against Portugal. I mean, even myself, an Italian-born, felt the historical moment unfolding in the national arena. I had seen the Estonian national team of the 90’s playing on TV against Italy and, even though our collective unconscious associates Estonian football to Risto Kallaste, Mart Poom was also well-known.
I couldn’t imagine one day I would have attended his farewell. But this is another story.
Poom was and is an authentic legend of this game in this country.
His biography hit 9,000 copies sell-out at release back in December.
Obviously, if you want to say one fine day that you have achieved something in football here, you ought to beat that.
The other way, it would be to score more than 38 goals with the national team jersey. It is the amount of goals scored by Andres Oper in 134 caps.
This is not easy if you play for Estonia, because most of the time your game is to sit back and strike in counter.
Oper was surgical, something a lot of fans nowadays say the present-day strikers are missing. With Zelinski (27 goals) they have bagged more than ¼ of the entire tally of the Estonian national team since independence (253).
However, if you’re not ought to repeat Mart’s career or Andres’ feats in the box, you have to find another way.
And that is the Raio’s way.
THE RAIO’S WAY
There is an expression in Estonia to address unskilled football players: puujalg.
It literally means ‘wooden leg’ and I’d say it well describe the lack of touch and skill a foot might be endowed with.
When I started to play football in Estonian system (in the lowest league possible ca va sans dire) I have heard it a lot.
However, you would not expect it to be used for a player who reached the Estonian national team player status.
‘To be honest, we shall mention that his technical skills were not so good,’ said Raio’s first coach, Raimo Paulberg ‘in football you would usually say ‘puujalg’.’
Raio was and is a puujalg.
This is not meant to be offensive, because he knows and I think, at a certain rate, he is glad of being that.
Because he really represents the average Estonian football player who dreams of representing the national team one day but doesn’t have the skills to even play in Estonian IV.Liiga.
How could that be possible?
How could Raio reach 113 (114 tonight) caps without being skilled?
The reason lies in two words I'll willfully bold: hard work.
‘He had a tough fighting spirit,’ reminds the same Paulberg in a short interview to ‘Jalka’s April issue out now in shops. ‘He was not the most talented of his age group,’ admits Paulberg ‘however he was the one with the biggest will to work.’
This is a key to read through Raio’s career and success, not to mention his popularity among the Estonian fans. The latters, know very well that Raio is not the most-talented of the lot. However, they would clone his fighting spirit on the pitch and install in the rest of the XI.
Raio earned people’s respect (and also my own) through a dedicate attitude on the pitch, no matter who the opponent was.
I remember his transfigured face when the referee took a decision he didn’t like. He almost never accepted that.
Last time a referee made Raio seriously mad, it was in October 2013 when Van Persie snatched a penalty in the box to bring Holland back home with at least a point. Piiroja had allegedly committed a foul on the Man United striker. Van Persie had somehow got away with it. Raio’s face was the sum of all the faces Estonian fans have seen him doing during the past years.
Probably, the many broken noses have helped him getting this twisted expression that reminds ‘The Scream’ painting by Edvard Munch.
His possessed goal celebrations are still remembered in Norway.
RAIO IS A WORKING CLASS HERO
Piiroja represents the working class of football.
If you have no skills, you have to work hard to make it, there is really no compromise here. Even if it’s Estonia (1.3 million people) and the competition is not as hard as in bigger football countries.
Raio’s an example for the younger generations of Estonian footballers infatuated with the likes of superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and needless to mention, Messi. Let’s be clear, all of the abovementioned have also worked hard to reach their positions, however the glittering lights of the football stardom make everyone forget that.
Piiroja is what most could be far from a football star.
Just see how he went on tv today at morning show ‘Terevisioon’ (right pane). A jumper of the Estonian national team on, a pair of dark trousers and a pair of the most unfashionable Nike trainers.
It’s not an hipsteric attitude, this is how he is.
The same Raio Piiroja who was mimicking the fisherman act of pulling a rod when explaining the journalists he was going to prepare a fisherman’s celebration if he’d score tonight. All this during an official press conference and under the eyes of an amused Magnus Pehrsson who could hardly hold a smile (see picture below).
Piiroja is like his football attitude, no compromise. Take him as he is, either love him for his dedication or hate him for his clumsiness.
There’s no third way because he is the third way.
BEATING PIIROJA IS BEATING ESTONIA
My best memory of Raio Piiroja is from the Estonia-Italy game in 2010 (1-2). However it's not his best memory.
Italy came from a difficult summer.
We were World Champions and were kicked out from South Africa at group stage, a shame that has happened few times in the history (5) and it happened twice to us (1950 to be included as holders of 1938). Enough to walk to A.LeCoq Arena a bit concerned.
What overall seemed an apparently easy task, could instead have turned into nightmare start for Cesare Prandelli’s era.
At half-time Estonia was leading 1-0 thanks to a Zenjov goal on rebound from Vassiljev’s set-piece. That was a warning of Estonia’s exploit in the Euro2012 qualifiers, but we didn’t know yet. As we didn’t know that Italy would have reached the final in Kiev two years later.
Italy overturned the result and saved my day at the office the next morning.
However, I remember not being particularly glad at winning the game itself, but having seen my local hero, Antonio Cassano from Barivecchia (Bari Old Town) tricking Raio ‘The Fisherman’ Piiroja.
Antonio was like one of the smartest fishes of the many Estonian ponds that might have once tricked the Estonian captain.
A divine combination embarrassed Raio and earned Italy three points and safe restart.
Pirlo took a short corner for Cassano who invented a back-heel pass for Bonucci who tapped past Pareiko. The back-heel pass nutmegged the Estonian captain who was left at nose length watching the ball rolling into the back of the net.
The class had won once again and re-affirmed itself over the simple hard work.
Years after, you realize that only talent and class (Cassano) are not enough in this game if not matched with hard work and discipline (Piiroja). It's a football dicotomy we will always live with.
Besides being a hard worker, Raio was a real leader.
Ragnar Klavan himself admitted he is sorry Raio won’t play his last game in defence, because he really would have liked to partner with him in the back line.
Ragnar is the heir of Piiroja, a kind of Raio 2.0.
Same hard work, better skills (we have to admit ‘Raku’ can control a ball better than him) and so far a career at higher level reaching the top in Bundesliga.
Ragnar’s respect for Raio is such that yesterday, a usually composed Klavan let himself go and impersonated the most emotional Estonian fan by singing Piiroja’s chant at the end of the press conference. It’s something you don’t witness everyday in Estonian football.
‘Raio is this man you can always trust 100%,’ tells Piiroja’s old defence partner, Andrei Stepanov ‘you can count on him in every situation, both on the pitch and in real life.’
Stepanov concludes with an agreeable sentence: ‘he has become one of the best Estonian footballers of all times.’
Whether we will see him playing more after tonight (he is registered with Pärnu Linnameeskond in Estonian Premium Liiga) it is hard to say.
For sure it will be an unreleased version of Raio Piiroja since he will play as a striker.
Sometimes the fisherman gets a swim in the pond with the fishes.
Head aega Raio! (Good bye Raio!)