I meet Risto on a Sunny end-of-April morning when Spring is still timidly advancing into Estonia.
He´s bringing his 13-years-old son, Rio Rando, to ‘Kotka’ football facilities (a few km´s away from Tallinn city centre) and he has agreed to spend some time with ´Rumori di Spogliatoio´ while his son attends the Flora kids training.
As soon as he reaches the training camp on his SUV, his son goes past me to join his team mates and he comes to shake my hand I realize that yes, this 42-years-old guy in leather coat and jeans, wearing his hair in a pony-tail a-la´ Steven Seagal, he is indeed the same curly haired guy that wrote his name in the history of football for performing the most crazy and imitated thrown-in ever.
However, I manage to discover more things about his career, ended prematurely due to an injury, like that he has played once as ´trequartista´ (he was a full-back) with good results in terms of goal tally.
THE FLIP THROW-IN
Risto, this is the question that a generation of Italian football supporters and not, my generation probably, wanted to ask you: why the flip throw-in (in Estonian is called ‘saltoaut’)?
Because this was the best way to throw in the ball very far. The opponent didn´t expect the ball to go that far with a flip throw-in. It was a way to bring some unpredictability into the game and maybe some important result.
Were you practicing the flip throw-in in trainings?
Yes, we tried the flip throw-in a bit during trainings. It was something we did prepare, was not done on the spot. The idea came from the Estonian coach back then, Roman Ubakivi (second Estonian coach after regained independence in 1991; it might be that Risto confuses memories as when he first performed the flip throw-in against Italy, the coach was Uno Piir, the first after independence). He asked if any of us was able to do that. Many of us tried, I don´t remember who now, however I was the one showing the best results thanks to my acrobatic qualities, so Roman said ´Ok! You´ll do it!´. It was just a standard flip while holding the ball in my hands.
Did anyone inspire this special execution of a throw-in?
There was actually no one doing that before to get inspiration from, we just considered this situation as such and we implemented it.
Can you remind the first game with Italy during which you performed the throw-in? What were the reactions?
They were a bit surprised: ´What is going on? Why performed like that?´ I could read in their faces.
Do you remember reactions from Italian players at your throw-in?
I don´t remember whether the Italian players talked to the referee or not asking whether that was allowed or not. Even later on, no one came to me to ask any explanation in the tunnel. For us it was just our way to throw the ball as far as we could.
What was the reaction of the referee instead?
Initially he didn´t say anything, however, the second time I tried to do that, he didn’t let me to. He didn’t know whether that was allowed or not by the rules so in the doubt he decided to forbid. I did it also during other games however later on Roman came to me and said that I couldn’t perform it anymore, it had been forbidden by football authorities.
However, if you look at the way it was performed, I don´t understand why it was forbidden: when the ball was thrown back onto the pitch, both feet were on the floor and the ball was thrown from the back of the head, exactly like in any normal throw-in and I know some other players around the World have done this after me (a Brazilian female National team player, Leah Lynn Fortune and Iceland National team player Steinthor Thorsteinsson)
What we´re talking about happened exactly 20 years ago, in Trieste, Italy. It was then that we Italians saw your throw-in for the first time on TV as Italy played Estonia for a World Cup 1994 qualification game. What memories do you have of that game?
It was very difficult to play against Italy of course but at the same time very exciting. Italy had a lot of very skilful players and was very strong also in defence. There were also big stars like Roberto Baggio, Dino Baggio, Ravanelli and playing against them was very interesting.
When reminding about Ravanelli, Risto refers to another game in which Ravanelli played against Estonia as he didn’t feature in Trieste’s starting XI when Italy clashed with Estonia for the first time.
I read you the formation of Italy in Trieste: Pagliuca; Porrini, Di Chiara, Dino Baggio, Vierchowod, Baresi; Fuser, Albertini, Melli; Roberto Baggio, Signori …which player impressed you most?
It is hard to say who was the hardest to mark and control, there were really many. Zola was very good (he again refers to another game, Italy and Estonia clashed 4 times in 3 years between 1993 and 1995), very skilled and quick. Italy forward line was very rich: some were quick, some skilled, some strong, a lot of variety.
Did you exchange your shirt with one Italian player? Which one? Do you still have it?
I don´t remember exactly with whom I exchanged my shirt….(he takes a bit of time to think then I read him Italy squad in Trieste once again)…Signori! It was him! He was very quick and skilled footballer, it was really hard for me to mark him all the time and he really impressed me as a player. I am not sure whether or not I still have his shirt at home, however I also have a nr.2 shirt which probably I got after the return game in Tallinn at Kadriorg Stadium (the nr.2 jersey belonged to AC Parma´s right full back Antonio Benarrivo )
Before asking him the next question regarding our National Team, we recount him about the football scandal Signori was involved in the past years however he says he didn´t know anything about it and asks us more information.We tell him that Signori went under a sport justice proceeding and was condemned to 5 years expulsion from any activity within Italian football institutions.
In the return at Kadriorg stadium, Italy won 3-0, Roberto Baggio scored other 2 goals and Mancini one. That national team would have reached the World Cup final at USA´94 and lost it at penalties against Brazil. Did you have the impression when playing Italy that they could have gone that far?
Well, when I was playing, there were many teams that were favourites for the first 3 places. Italy and also Croatia at time when Boksic was playing. Certainly the immediate feeling about Italy was that could have reached the final. We can´t forget Italy had Arrigo Sacchi as a coach. I don´t have any memory about him, obviously while I was playing I was very much focused on the game, there was no time to keep an eye on what he was doing there on the bench and no time to think like ´wow! We´re playing such famous players´. Of course we were scared to play such a big national team, we were a young side from a young country, and it was not an easy task. Their footballing experience was very strong: they were all playing in a top league club, compared to us playing in Estonia…we knew that their level was very difficult to compete with and yes, in the end they won.
When we started playing the qualification games, the Estonian national team was very young indeed.
Compared to nowadays football, tactics was really little for us. Today they get more tactics training compared to our times: it is just enough to see how the game in 2010 was: Estonia was much more tactically disciplined and ready and for Italy it was very hard to score those 2 goals (Italy won 2-1 in Euro Cup 2012 qualification game in Tallinn). Maybe we would have managed to play the same way as they play today, however the knowledge then was simply much smaller.
NATIONAL TEAM AND CLUB CAREER
You played 36 games with Estonian national team, what is the best game you remember for yourself?
I think they are 42 or 39 if we include the Baltic tournament (this regional tournament is not counted by FIFA as official one).
(Thinks a bit about what could could have been is best game) At that time this was very difficult, because our game was basically sitting back in defence during all the match. Tasting the joy of winning was almost none as the only positive result was the 1-1 draw vs. Slovenia ( his coach back then, Roman Ubakivi, holds the sad record for being the only Estonian coach with no wins: 22 games, 21 losses 1 draw). This was our game. In the end thinking we lost only 2-0 to Italy in Trieste makes me realize that it was a very good effort from us. We played also against Portugal and we lost 3-0; it was generally very interesting to play against those players.
I cannot remember any other achievement as for us already letting few goals in or maybe even reaching a draw was a big thing.
We have a laugh at the different corner views: for Italy winning only 2-0 with the small Estonia was object of fierce criticism back home from local press…
You didn´t manage to score a goal with the blue shirt, is this a regret? When did you get close to?
No, not really. I was a defender and my task was more to avoid the goals than pushing forward to score one. This all depended upon the way we played: as sitting back in defence with the rest of the team, I didn´t really have good chances to score a goal. Of course I would have liked to if that situation had come, however I have no regret….but maybe, thinking back, the time I got closer to it was when we played in Kadriorg against Italy, I came in second half and there was a chance however the goal didn´t happen.
Has ever a goal been scored assisted by your flip throw-in? Which one?
No, it didn´t happen either. We usually implemented that to just throw in the ball very far in the middle of the pitch.
You played abroad in Sweden (Gunnilse IS) and Denmark (Viborg FF), tell me about your experience in Scandinavia and if you performed the flip throw-in there also.
In Denmark I told the coach I was able to do this so we tried to do it in one game and if I am not wrong we almost scored from that however my team mate didn´t read the situation and the goalkeeper caught the ball before anything could happen. In general my player´s career hasn´t been very long. I picked up a bad injury to my hip and this compelled me to retire earlier. Danish football that time was very good, they also became European Champions in 1992 and playing in their top flight back then was quite a considerable experience. In Sweden instead I played in the second tier. I have to say that comparing the two experiences, the one in Denmark was definitely more interesting for me.
Your highest goal tally at a club was 7 goals scored at Viborg FF in the only season there (1995-1996), why you left the season after?
In Viborg I was not playing in defense but on the midfield line. We lost a game and the coach noticed we didn´t have any upper midfielder so he asked me if I wanted to play there and after that change, we equalized a game. He realized that I could have scored goals, therefore he decided to move me further forward and I basically played as nr.10 behind the forwards and this explains my 7 goals that season. I really liked to play there, I could exploit my long runs, which was my ace in the hole. I was sprinting forward, getting the ball and then score once closer in front of the goal. I never tried this position in the national team, my last game was against Turkey, a friendly we equalized 0-0. After this, I ended my career due to the hip injury as I didn´t want to go to surgery because of that.
This is the reason why I didn´t play from 1996 to 1999.
Indeed. After this break though, in 1999, you joined FC Kuressaare however you didn´t play any game in the first season, why?
Yes, I joined FC Kuressaare, they were in Esiliiga (Estonian second tier of football) when I returned to play a bit and basically the idea was that I would have played just the Sunday games and that was it, but this only happened in second season. I did go to Kuressaare for the games however I think trainings were taking place in Tallinn (as it happens nowadays) but I didn´t go. I cannot say really this was my professional career last step, it was more of a hobby. I really did it just for fun as I was playing in front as a striker and I scored some goals (he smiles when I tell him that our blog, Tere Italia, supports FC Kuressaare as I do being the first Italian supporter ever)
Your last club was ´Eesti koondis´ a team of National Team veterans playing in amateur league. How was the atmosphere there?
Very friendly, all the senior players were there gathering together. We had also the oldest Estonian midfield engine, Tarmo Rüütli (nowadays Estonian National Team coach), Jaanus Vensalu (6 caps with Estonia after independence, retired in 1997) and most of the players I have grown up playing with, it was very positive experience.
Are you still sometimes playing football?
No, I am a coach in the Flora second team which plays in Esiliiga.
Your career started at ´Tallinna Lõvid – Tallinn Lions a legendary youth club that among others starred future stars of Estonian football like Mart Poom and Martin Reim. Most of them reached the national team. Your coach back then, Roman Ubakivi, said: ‘the most important thing is this: each of them got started in their own lives and each of them is a good man’. Do you think the same spirit is kept nowadays in youth academies in Estonia or are they more willing to create players ready for the football market?
My opinion is that sports, in general and regardless any profit perspective, they help growing up the individuals. If done for several years in a row, they define your character and this is important for all your life. I see it with my younger son, he enjoys to come to trainings and playing football and this is good even though it´s not a priority. He knows what I have done in football and he has his own love for this sport.
I read you the Estonia line-up from Trieste game: Poom; you, Lemsalu, Prins, Kaljend, your brother Toomas; Borisov, Kristal, Reim; Ratnikov, Pustov …most of them have become coaches, do you think any of these can become the future National Team coach? Who?
Of course, why not? Martin Reim has good chances; he´s got a very good experience. He is the U-21 coach right now and it might be a natural step in future so I would bet on him as future coach. Mart Poom has also chances, he is learning for this purpose now (Mart Poom is the National Team goalkeepers coach)
He smiles when I hint at him as future National Team coach however he says it takes time to get there and eventually he has started to be a coach just about a year ago as the main purpose was to update his football knowledge in order to transmit it to his 12-years-old son.
Estonian football has tremendously improved since your times. When Italy came to A.LeCoq Arena in 2010, Estonia was winning 1-0 in first half and would have reached the play-off´s vs. Ireland later on. What else can be improved? Can Estonia ever reach a final tournament?
Yes, that was a great achievement and I think there is still room for improvement. The more our players can go abroad playing, the more they can try and feel football at World level. And this is only beneficial for the Estonian National Team as it´s really of key importance for us if our players can prove themselves in different leagues of different countries. The higher, the best. For sure our improvement comes from there. Estonian football can also grow up, the wider the players choice will be, the more the competition and the best ones will get to the top flight. The level of Premium Liiga has already improved, I see every year there are more youngsters and this we can also notice from the many youth academies across the country which have done a great job. I would say that also the foreigners coming to play in Estonia bring variety. Take for instance Nõmme Kalju (where his older son, Ken, plays) there are so many foreigners from many countries, Japan, Italy…each of them have their own style of playing and skills, speed, technique etc. this is certainly a plus.
His last thought it´s a clear hint at the fact that Nõmme Kalju, with his foreign legion, have certainly brought something new into Estonian football and they have also broken the classic Flora-Levadia duopoly existing since independence, therefore we asked him whether another club could rise to compete with the ´3 sisters´ now.
I think first of all Sillamäe Kalev should be considered. Paide is also a very incisive side even though they haven´t managed to win anything yet.
Your son, Ken (pictured above), plays in Kalju and he is a fundamental player there. Has he ever asked you advices during his career? What kind of?
No, he actually never asked me directly any advice. Usually after I followed his game I was the one telling him something: you played well, you could have done this in a better way or I asked him how did he feel after the game or how did it go in general…now he is an adult already, he just needs to preserve himself and collect experience, this will be beneficial for him.
I crack a joke at if Ken ever tried the flip throw-in and he laughs however confirms me that not only he has never tried but, quite surprisingly, they never talked about it. When I ask him about Ken´s future in the National Team in terms of caps and compared to those collected by himself and his brother Toomas, he reveals me that actually Toomas – contrary to what many Italian football commentators had served up for years – is not his brother, they just have the same family name.
Do you think he will manage to reach you in terms of Estonian national team caps? He has one so far and he is 24.
I hope. What I think is valid for any player: if one manages to play and prove himself abroad and things go well, why not? As I said the experience abroad is very important for any Estonian player, so this applies to Ken as well. I cannot say exactly where he could go playing, he is strong both technically and physically…maybe in Scandinavia…wherever he can get accustomed, also in Italy I think.
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Read more parts of this interview at ´Rumori di Spogliatoio´