Martti Pukk is arguably the finest footballing export from the Estonian island of Hiiumaa but it is his exploits for Island Games Association members Saaremaa which have made him a well-known non-FIFA player. Pukk was born on Hiiumaa, population 9,000, and started his footballing career there before making a national name for himself at top-flight FC Kuressaare which is Saaremaa’s biggest club.
After joining in 2004 Pukk helped them get promoted to the Meistriliiga on 3 occasions and now, at the age of 36, is still playing for the island side. He had a short spell with Estonian giants Flora Tallinn last year but is back with the club he loves as they look to stave off another relegation to the 2nd tier.
Until this year’s finals in Bermuda Saaremaa have been contested every Island Games football tournament since 1999 with Pukk playing in each tournament from 2005. The early days of Saaremaa’s participation were blighted by some poor defeats – their 1999 loss to Hitra and a 2003 1-0 defeat to Alderney represent the only games these 2 islands have ever won at the competition.
Performances picked up in the later part of the 00’s with a veritable Saaremaa ‘golden generation’ finishing a best-ever 6th in 2005. Viktor Alonen, with 71 caps for Estonia, was part of that side which Pukk top-scored in with 4 goals. In 2011 Saaremaa matched their record finish by coming 6th again but only after a penalty shootout had seen them miss out on a place in the semi-finals.
A re-launch of inter-county matches by the Estonian Football Association has meant that, as of 2011, Saaremaa have met their smaller neighbours Hiiumaa in an annual summer friendly. Hiiumaa’s largest club Kärdla Linnameeskond play in the 4th-tier with FC Kuressaare’s B team Sörve JK and unsurprisingly Saaremaa have won each match in the last 3 years.
Pukk chooses to represent his island of birth in these games and the 1-0 win this summer was a close affair. Hiiumaa also managed to score away from home in 2012, Pukk inevitably getting the goal. With Kuressaare once again struggling at the foot of the Meistriliiga and the 2015 Island Games in Jersey likely to feature a Saaremaa football team we caught up with Pukk to hear his thoughts.
NFFU: After representing Saaremaa for so many years at the Island Games how did it feel to play against them for the island of your birth Hiiumaa these last 3 summers?
MP: It felt great because I was playing together again with some of my old teammates and with some young talents from my birth island. The only bad thing is that we have lost all these 3 games, but soon we will win.
NFFU: You grew up in Hiiumaa but have played much of your career on Saaremaa. Would you say there is a big difference in the quality of the 2 teams?
MP: I’ve played half of my career with clubs from Hiiumaa but in the lower leagues and one of the reasons I joined FC Kuressaare was that they’re stronger and gave me a chance to play in the Estonian highest level. I’ve never regretted this choice I made because last year I got my first (unfortunately also last) professional contract with Flora Tallinn and I now have a bronze medal from the Estonian championship!
NFFU: Do you think Hiiumaa would be able to sustain a semi-professional Meistriliiga club like Saaremaa does?
MP: Yes it is possible, but it takes time, maybe in 5 or even 10 more years.
NFFU: You have played in 4 Island Games tournaments, how does it feel to be representing Saaremaa against teams from all over the world?
MP: I am very happy that officials gave me the chance to represent Saaremaa and I have done it very proudly.
NFFU: You were joint top goal-scorer in 2005 – would you say this was your best Island Games performance individually?
MP: Yes. That year we had a very good and experienced team, we played good matches and I scored some nice goals.
NFFU: Saaremaa came 6th that year and also in 2011 when you missed out on making the semi-finals only on penalties. Which side would you say was better, 2005 or 2011?
MP: In 2005 we had a good and experienced team as well as a very strong group where we managed a draw against later winners Shetland, but we finished 6th. In 2011 we should have got to the semi-finals without having to go to penalties but we had new and young team. With the 2005 team we would have done it.
NFFU: You lost 4-0 to Gibraltar in 2011 who have now joined UEFA. Do you think they will be competitive in European Championship qualification next year?
MP: Congratulations to them, but I think they will not get good results in international games.
NFFU: Did you play in the 1-0 loss to Alderney in 2003? This must be one of your worst Island Games memories if so?
MP: No, 2005 were my first games, but I have heard from older players that the Saaremaa team has got even worse losses than against Alderney in the past.
NFFU: Do you think you will still be playing for Saaremaa at the 2015 games in Jersey?
NFFU: What would you say your best memory playing for Saaremaa and Kuressaare have been?
MP: For Saaremaa my first games in Shetland in 2005 and for FC Kuressaare my goal against Flora Tallinn which was our first victory against them in club history.
NFFU: After the strong performance in the 2011 Island Games would you say that the future is good for Saaremaa and FC Kuressaare?
MP: Yes, Saaremaa and FC Kuressaare have a real chance to get good placements in the future. But it is not easy; everything comes with hard work and commitment.
NFFU: Who would you say the best young players from the island are at the moment? Who do you think has a good future?
MP: At the moment the best Saaremaa player is probably Kuressaare captain Sander Viira but there are a lot of new and young players coming who can get to the top, only if they want to get there themselves.
NFFU: Do you think Kuressaare can avoid relegation and stay in the Meistriliiga this year?
MP: Yes, we can, I have faith in my team!