Whenever someone asks me how the Estonian football pyramid is organized, I answered there are 6 tiers. And then there’s Rahvaliiga.
What is ‘Rahvaliiga’ (from now onwards RL)?
First, we shall start from the name.
‘The People League’.
Despite a hint at a communist heritage (much despised among locals, to say the least), the concept is that this league is open to any kind of people. And when I mean any, I really mean it.
We go from those guys who think football is a form of athleticism (check my previous comment piece and why I think it’s not) till those who have been playing in IV.League (the 6th and last tier). The latter are those who usually cannot bother themselves with the amateur level training plans (at least twice a week) and the financial engagements coming from the costs involved (Estonian FA licence, pitch rental for a certain period of time and all the other clubs’ costs).
Rahvaliiga allows mixed teams giving a chance to boys and girls to mingle in an unusual way.
There are no costs involved except from the pitch rental for the single game. However, considering the rules allow down to 7 players on the field, it is quite common the clubs will opt for half a pitch, cutting the renting costs.
The rules also waive a few exceptions considering we are talking about a total amateur level of football. The most remarkable one is the absence of the notorious ‘offside rule’. Players can occupy the oppositions’ halves for all the duration of the game unpunished. A circumstance that shall discourage clubs to resort to the maximum size allowed (11-a-side in a regular pitch).
Referees are directing the games and the home team appoints them.
This lengthy introduction was due to give you a clear picture what is Rahvaliiga like: an amateur tournament with laid-back rules.
However, do not think that games are that laid-back too.
In fact a calendar is set (each team plays the other only once) and also a table is filled with points and the usual data as in any official competition. The winners of each group (there are several scattered around the country) go into a knock-out stage.
A final is played and, if you are lucky, you can have the honour of having as a referee no less than the Estonian FA President, Aivar Pohlak, himself an active referee (last season he also directed a game of the Estonian Cup).
Why the Estonian FA invented ‘Rahvaliiga’?
The aim of the project kicked off in 2010, which is encountering a lot of great feedback especially in the corners of Estonia where football facilities are hard to be implemented, it is to evangelize the country and bring football as far as possible.
Suddenly football ‘clubs’ have flourished everywhere with the most improbable names: FC Ramcelona (blinking an eye to Catalunya), FC Ajax United (a mix of Ajax Amsterdam and Manchester United fans?) FC Teisipäeva Jalkakutid (literally: FC Tuesday Football Lads) and many others.
After the 2013 first season, the success was such that the Estonian FA has decided to divide the club into two tiers: A and B. Each club was assigned to a tier according to self-assessment. Obviously common sense would suggest that if you classified bottom of the table, the A-tier is definitely not for you. A wise decision taken by your editor’s Rahvaliiga club (Wiiking FK) to avoid further meagre displays in the upcoming season.
The girls have also been divided and grouped into a separate competition.
The interest into Rahvaliiga is growing and it is generally the ‘waiting room’ to take the next step: enter the pyramid by applying for a IV.League licence.
In fact, it must be said, all players of the RL are unregistered. If football accounts for 16,000 registered people practicing, the figure goes definitely bigger if we consider the RL amateurs.
The rules allow the RL clubs to use two registered players per games. Failing to comply with this rule costs the club a technical loss.
As we said, laid-back attitude but not much.
And if you think that the protocols filled up by the clubs and forwarded by the referees to the Estonian FA are not thoroughly checked, we are going to prove you wrong with few examples, including one that hit the headlines last season for having involved a Premium Liiga player. Yes, you are reading well: a Premium Liiga player had a try at a RL game.
The already much-troubledTammeka had to face an unprecedented situation.
One of his players, striker Martin Jõgi (still at the club after few trials in Latvia and at FC Lokomotiv Jõhvi) was found out to have played under a false name in a Rahvaliiga club (FC Dominaator). Due to the cheat, Jõgi was suspended for three months until September.
It was obviously an enormous damage for a club fighting in the drop zone and with constant squad issues giving headaches to former coach Uwe Erkenbrecher.
The RL club was fined with 100€ (quite one considering the low-budget characteristics we have talked about). Jõgi apologized immediately after the punishment suffered being aware of the embarrass brought to his club let alone the difficulties.
Why Jõgi had to lie and play under a false name?
The very basic rule of RL is that Premium Liiga and Esiliiga A and B (second and third tier) registered players are not allowed to participate into this competition. Failing to comply with this rule, results in suspension and fine for the club fielding the not-allowed player.
Exactly Jõgi’s circumstance.
Just a couple of weeks later, another young footballer, Flora double team (Esiliiga, second tier) member and international at yout level, Sten Sinisalu, was found playing for another RL side (FC Võimas Rühm – literally, FC Powerful Group). In his case the punishment was milder (2 months ban) as he did not play under false name but his name was fully written in the protocol.
A similar destiny expected several others players belonging to Esiliiga B (from Flora third team and Ararat TTÜ) who were fielded by FC Täna Teeb in two games (the clubs suffered two technical losses and 200€ fine let alone the two-month ban).
Was it enough to make players understand how EJL seriously take this totally amateur competition?
It seems not as a recent case involved a futsal top-flight player being caught playing in a futsal RL challenge (the indoor competition was kicked off last autumn as corollary of the outdoor tournament).
What lesson shall we learn from this?
First, despite the amateurish level of the challenge, clubs shall read rules thoroughly.
If rules are read howeve,r there is an attempt to go round of them, the sign from the Estonian FA was clear: we will not tolerate any violation from whoever will come.
It is obviously fair for the football authority to keep the credibility of the tournament safe as it represents grassroots football at his best: people almost spontaneously (already few clubs are resembling IV.League ones) getting closer to The Game.
At the same time, we shall break down other details to assess whether these punishments are in proportion to the real thing.
In this sense, it comes to help what I am trying to explain an episode occurred to me in one of the many games played with my RL club last season. It is obviously just one episode, however it could give a good picture of that ‘laid-back attitude’ I was referring too.
Tallinn’s suburban pitch. A regular summer sunny day with the typical Estonian touch of chill.
Two clubs facing on a gymnasium pitch, mine and the other one with few hopes to create us any trouble considering we were already leading a 6-1 advantage after 15 minutes.
For us almost like a training game. However the young kids on the other side, probably all still in their schooling age, were doing the best to honour the challenge without thinking about the – metaphorical – scoreboard.
Being a goalkeeper can be a relaxing or stressing job. That day I must admit it was quite a relaxing one. If I did not watch the game from my own box, we were close to it. However, during few occasions I had to show my wits to prevent them from scoring a second pride goal after they shocked us opening the score following a defensive blunder.
In one of the rare situations when they managed to bring danger around my zone, I had to go on a one on one against one of their men.
I was much quicker in reaching the ball and making it mine with the hands. However, the young kid, either frustrated at the missed chance or in the silly attempt to make the ball his when wasn’t feasible any longer, stretched his leg and kicked my shin where the protection didn’t give adequate cover. Nothing new, it happens also at pro level: sometimes attacking players are not very considerate with goalkeepers.
Not the first time and not the last.
However, the guy was already booked and a second yellow was more than legitimate in my eyes. Any claim was turned down by the referee, a guy who I happen to know very well and he is a licensed referee by the Estonian FA. I was not convinced about it.
At the end of the game I approached and asked: ‘look, I know it seems silly to bring this forward, however I think another yellow was fair there, and the guy was already booked’. I was expecting an explanation about why, according to him, it was rather not. Instead, the referee, with a bit of patronizing tone, addressed me as such: ‘Angelo? So what? Even if he gets a red card, he will not be suspended according to the rules’
After this ‘official explanation’ I was rather speechless. My first reaction was to try to understand what he meant by that considering that a red card would have put the opposition in numerical inferiority. Not a big deal considering our large advantage, however a rule is to implemented no matter what and no matter who.
At least this is the lesson that the Estonian FA made pass few weeks later when punishing Martin Jõgi and several others.
Disproportioned punishment considering what Rahvaliiga is really about.
Do not misunderstand me. I do not endorse players playing under false name to escape a regularity check. According to the existing rules, Jõgi received what he deserved. However, if I think back to the referee of my game back in the summer, I wonder how important the respect of rules was for him when going to whistle a RL game. I still remember he was wearing his uniform with the Estonian FA badge on it. It’s a like a police uniform and police usually enforce rules within the powers given.
No matter what and no matter who.
Who is wrong here? The referee or the Estonian FA in enforcing such punishments?
The referee shall take his job seriously no matter at which level he officiates. In my opinion, this is the golden rule for any game judge. There is no excuse to that.
However, the reality can probably prove us that many refs are not taking these games as seriously as the FA is.
Therefore, we shall conclude that a mitigation is needed.
Three months away from ‘the real football’ (please bear with this definition) can be quite a punishment for a young footballer. In the case of Martin Jõgi, he missed on helping his side saving from relegation (eventually achieved). The other young guys have missed on keeping pace with peers at their clubs.
Can we really punish these young footballers on the basis of participating into a competition that assumingly is not taken into serious account by some match officials?
I think not. Mind, a punishment is needed, however we need to think about something else. Something smarter. Something educational.
As I said back then and I maintain today, we can have them investing their spare time into voluntary activities connected with football.
We all know on what football in Estonia is founded: on the good-will work of many volunteers at clubs, FA and other institutions connected.
If the young footballer thinks he can spend his free time playing at amateur level, then we can simply compel them to use that free time do some voluntary work in the football community in order to help their local clubs free of charge.
It shall be like one of those educational programs for inmates who are slowly re-introduced into society. Obviously we’re not talking about criminals, but young footballers who got carried away and decided to play where they were not allowed.
As also Rahvaliiga is based on volunteers, I think this would be the best way to make them understand we are really dealing with a special realm they shall respect and not invade.
In conclusion, Rahvaliiga is important.
However cannot be taken as a benchmark to punish strictly those who decide to have a ‘day off’ from regular football and join their mates on a 7-a-side pitch.
The rule is obviously aimed at keeping the competition on fair levels, and it shall be kept, however a mitigation in punishing the players involved is required and can be provided by educational scopes.