Friday 28 April 2017, 09:07

Estonia's Reim daring to dream

  • Martin Reim became Estonia’s head coach in September 2016

  • Set a record for most international appearances for a European during his playing days

  • His side recently beat a strong Croatia team 3-0 in a friendly

For Martin Reim, it’s all in the preparation. Before turning 30, the Estonia head coach had already taken his first coaching badges and earned a degree in material technology from the Tallinn University of Technology. This studious foresight from a footballer in the prime of a playing career is all the more remarkable for a man who set a continent-wide record for international appearances.

Before hanging up his boots as a professional, the midfielder also set up the Martin Reim Football Academy, which has grown in the decade since its inception to 24 teams, involving over 400 children. He then took charge of varying Estonia youth teams before getting the call to take over the senior side in 2016 – with the Estonian Football Association (EJL) no doubt seeing Reim’s forward thinking as one of the more impressive factors on his CV.

“I thought that after my playing career I still wanted to be involved with football, and that was the perfect time to do something else besides playing,” the 45-year-old told in an exclusive interview.

Reim represented Estonia 157 times, which at the time of his final appearance, was a record for a European player. Latvia’s Vitalijs Astafjevs is the only outfield European to surpass him, with feted custodians Gianluigi Buffon and Iker Casillas also striding ahead in recent years.

“I managed to play a very long time without a major injury,” Reim said. “Of course, in Estonia, the number of players was not so big. It was easier to play in the national team than in Germany or England.”

Record international appearances for a European: *(figures correct as of 28/04/17):*

167: Vitalijs Astafjevs (LVA), Gianluigi Buffon (ITA), Iker Casillas (ESP) 157: Martin Reim (EST) 150: Lothar Matthaus (GER. FRG) 148: Anders Svensson (SWE) 146: Robbie Keane (IRL)

Whatever Reim says, reaching such a lofty number of appearances is no mean feat. The modest coach can call upon plenty of experience in his own national team squad, with a number of players having surpassed a century of caps. One such individual is Liverpool’s Ragnar Klavan.

“It gives confidence to the whole of the defence if he’s in the team,” Reim said of his captain. “For Estonian players, the coaches and fans it’s a big thing for him to be playing for Liverpool.”

The coach’s own background would perhaps infer that the next generation of Estonian talent will get more than a fair chance of stepping up to the senior team. Indeed, 18-year-old Mattias Kait, currently at Fulham in England’s second tier, has already made the leap – scoring twice against Gibraltar in Reim’s first FIFA World Cup™ qualifying game in charge.

“Kait is one player who is not just important for the future of the national team, but for the present,” Reim said. “He is one who we hope could be the next Klavan. I hope we will have a few more good players coming through."

The next generation That focus on youth and the future is certainly important for a side who have yet to reach a World Cup or UEFA European Championship. Currently sitting fifth in Group H, with some mixed results in qualifying including an 8-1 hammering at the hands of Belgium in November, there are however some glimmers of improvement under Reim’s tutelage. A 0-0 qualifying draw in Cyprus, coupled with a recent 3-0 friendly win against a Croatia team with Mateo Kovacic, Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric in their line-up, have shown signs that Reim’s preparation is paying off.

“It’s a different world for me,” Reim said. “I was the U-21 coach but there’s no comparison in terms of pressure and expectation. The team was also in a difficult situation. We still have the same players as before but there was something a little missing. We have played two qualification games at home and this friendly win at home too. I think that we’re playing quite good football at home. We can’t play below our level but it’s possible to be the team who can take points from bigger countries.”

Next up? A return game against Belgium in Tallinn. It is likely the diminutive midfielder-turned-coach would love to turn out against Lukaku, De Bruyne, Hazard and Co. and, remarkably, he still laces up his boots for a club side linked to his academy.

“I played this year!” Reim laughed. “Only 15 minutes at the end though. Even then, it’s not the first team but the second team in the fourth division. Now, because we have so many young players who need this game-time, it’s time for me to step out.”

The transition that has been meticulously prepared for almost two decades is close to full fruition. Whatever comes next, Reim is ready.

Estonia's WCQ record under Reim: Estonia 4-0 Gibraltar (Kait (2), Vassiljev, Mosnikov) Estonia 0-2 Greece Belgium 8-1 Estonia (Anier) Cyprus 0-0 Estonia