Estonia punching above weight, embracing fans in their corner
MILAN (Italy) - Word has it that 2,000 impassioned, boisterous Estonian fans travelled to Milan to cheer on their team as they compete in FIBA EuroBasket 2022 Group C. “Look around, I think there’s double that,” smiles young Estonian guard Kerr Kriisa.
A healthy cluster from a country of just 1.1 million people whose humble basketball accomplishments have been overshadowed by neighboring Latvia and the hoops hotbed that completes the Baltic troika: Lithuania.
"With a crowd like this, it's almost like playing at home. That's why it especially hurts if you lose. Because you want to give something back to them." - Siim-Sander Vene
“Obviously, they have had more success,” Estonia’s captain Siim-Sander Vene concedes.
“And they've had better players lately and better results in all kinds of competitions.
“But this year Latvia didn't make it. We're here. So we're happy. But we are all competing with each other and kind of cheering for each other too. It's hard to explain that relationship but at the same time, it's nice.”
The Baltic trio share the bonds of punching above their weight, minnows in size but not in ambition. Estonia, as a state, could fit in the pocket of Great Britain or Italy. Yet on Tuesday, they diminished Great Britain (population: 67 million) 94-62. On Thursday, as the group stages conclude, Eesti will not shirk in challenging Italy (59 million). Nothing to lose.
Sport has a rich and fascinating history of giving the underdog its day. It is one reason we tune in, no matter the length of the odds or the improbability of the outcome. With their dogged performances here, Estonia have offered much more than a punchers’ chance, spurred by with the hordes decked in the national colors of blue, black and white.
“There’s an energy, a feeling, an atmosphere,” Vene says. “With a crowd like this, it's almost like playing at home. That's why it especially hurts if you lose. Because you want to give something back to them.”
It was painful, he admits, to fall to defeats to Ukraine and Croatia by a combined total of four points. More giants, so nearly slain.
“We just missed one something,” he reflects. “One little detail, one defense, one steal, one good offense. It's just a little bit lack of experience of winning the games in the end. But we're right there.”
And amid the moments of pain, weeks of joy. Summer competitions are intense, unforgiving at times. A grind too, to pass up vacation, time with friends and family, weddings and births witnessed from afar.
The upside of international basketball? The bonds forged, not just from a shared patriotism but of memories carved.
“I have to learn how to enjoy it more sometimes,” Vene, now 31, signals. “You get too serious in trying to be too focused.”
Vene had good teachers: parents who were both professional basketballers, from his mother Lea, who took a babe-in-arms to her practices when he was just four months old.
“Since day one, it's been a gym and the ball bouncing,” he recounts. “I don't know any other noise.”
By necessity, some of the volume must be blocked out here, Behind the scenes, he has tried to muffle any tensions nearing a young roster on which six of the 12 are aged 25 or under, including the impressive Kriisa and Henri Drell.
As the vet, as the captain, there is a responsibility to lift any pressure brought from within or from those who have come in support.
“You keep guys loose or their minds off the pressure, just by doing some regular things,” he reveals. “Especially in tournaments like this, you watch all the other games with some guys.
“You just talk around the lunch or dinner table. Sometimes you play cards or you get together in a therapy room. Simple things.
“You're just trying to keep a good vibe. Not fooling around - you have to give that certain line to stay relaxed.
“But at the same time, you’ve got to keep the tension and the bad thinking away.”