Jalgpalli populaarsus Eesti Vabariigi spordielus 1920–40 [Abstract: The Popularity of Football in the Sporting Life of the Republic of Estonia in 1920–1940]


  • Indrek Schwede University of Tartu




Football, Number of enthusiasts, Number of spectators, Representation in media, Popularity of branches of sports


Attention has not hitherto been turned intently to the popularity of particular branches of sports in the research of the history of Estonian sports. It has more intuitively been believed that the most popular branch of sports in the pre-war Republic of Estonia (1918–1940) was football. The conspicuously extensive coverage of football in the periodical press has provided grounds for this belief. Compared to other sports games and the more major individual branches, football had the most international matches at the level of national teams, which attracted thousands of spectators. Estonian clubs annually hosted squads from neighbouring countries. Professional clubs mainly from Central Europe brought thousands of spectators to the stadiums in the latter half of the 1920s and in the early 1930s. Rivalries between squads at home were also of great interest to the public and the media. The other primary ball games, basketball and volleyball, started being played in Estonia some ten years after football, and their position was weaker internationally as well: contacts between countries were infrequent. The international basketball association was established in 1932 and its analogue in volleyball was founded in 1947. Track and field, the largest branch of individual athletics, also could not compete with football in terms of matches and international contacts.

This article is the first more serious attempt to compare the popularity of branches of sports in Estonia in the 1920s and 1930s. I compared the more major branches of sports in four categories: the number of participants in the particular branch of sports, the sizes of audiences, their ability to cope economically (balance sheets and revenue reports), and their position in the print media.

The fact that there are gaps in the data in both the archives and in periodicals, and that the information for different years does not always match, made comparison of the numbers of participants difficult. The methodology used for ascertaining the number of participants was also not necessarily the same. An adequate comparison to the more important individualsports branches is complicated to arrive at because until 1933, the Eesti Kerge-, Raske- ja Veespordiliit (Estonian Association of Track and Field, Heavy Athletics and Aquatic Sports) was the umbrella organisation for major branches of sports such as track and field, wrestling, weightlifting, boxing, swimming, diving, gymnastics and cycling, whereas the last two sports branches are not even mentioned in the association’s name. Conclusions can nevertheless be drawn concerning the number and proportions of persons active in different branches of sports based on indirect data. I compared the size of the membership of the separate sports associations and the number of participants in the Estonian championships of the three largest sports games (football, basketball, volleyball).

Periodicals proved to be the most reliable in ascertaining the numbers of spectators since they unfailingly noted the larger attendance numbers based on spectator ticket information or visual observation. The sketchy information on attendance at competitions in individual sports is a problem, but from the standpoint of this article’s research problem, the fact that before World War II there was not a single large sports arena in Estonia is important. The gymnasiums that were in use accommodated slightly over 500 spectators in total. This means that a thousand and more spectators could gather only at stadiums, where primarily football matches and track and field competitions were held. The print media reported the numbers of spectators at those competitions. I compared the attendance numbers for football and track and field competitions, and calculated the average number of spectators.

There are gaps in the balance sheets and revenue reports of the separate sports associations for the period under consideration, yet the Eesti Spordi Keskliit (Central Association of Estonian Sports) published them in its yearbooks for 1935–1939, which makes it possible to draw correct conclusions concerning the economic viability of the separate sports associations.

While I used the method of source criticism for the preceding three categories, I studied the representation of branches of sports in print media together with Kristjan Remmelkoor using content analysis. We focused exclusively on print media because that was the primary means of mass communication at that time, and it covered the entire period under consideration, unlike radio, which began broadcasting for the first time in 1926. On the basis of circulation numbers, we selected two dailies with nationwide circulation that were published in Tallinn (Vaba Maa was published only until 1938, thus it was replaced for final comparison with another Tallinn daily paper Uus Eesti) and one daily from southern Estonia for content analysis. We studied the newspaper issues from the years 1921, 1925, 1930, 1935 and 1939. Based on the pilot project, we identified the branches of sports that were reported the most and worked out a methodology on the basis of which to search for and categorise branches of sports. After six months, I carried out a repeat analysis for one month of each year that was under consideration. The repeat analysis covered all four dailies. The results differed by 3.97%. Thereat in comparing the two branches of sports that were reported on most, the difference in football was 0.69% and 0.43% in track and field.

It became evident as a result of the study that compared to basketball and volleyball, there were almost four times more football enthusiasts. Compared to the other more popular individual sports, we can indirectly conclude that football was the branch of sports with the largest number of enthusiasts. Football had the most spectators in Estonia in the interwar period because branches of sports practiced in indoor conditions could not fit more than 500 spectators into gymnasiums, since there was no large sports arena. Football had the largest audiences when considering the track and field competitions and football matches held at stadiums. In 1935–1939, the Eesti Jalgpalli Liit (Estonian Football Association) was Estonia’s most prosperous separate sports association. It became evident on the basis of content analysis that the two most widely reported branches of sports in print media were football, and track and field. Thereat the number of reports on track and field grew in the latter half of the 1930s and surpassed the figures for football. At the same time, the number of texts on Estonian football was the largest over the entire period that has been studied. The greatest number of texts on football were in journalistic genres that required absorbed reading, which stood out better in newspapers.

Due to these circumstances, football became the most popular branch of sports in Estonia in the interwar period. The Estonian national squad’s international match against Latvia held on 18 June 1940 characterises football’s symbolic capital. This match that took place at Kadriorg stadium at a turning point in history evolved into a nationalist demonstration against the Soviet Union’s occupying regime. The crowd went from the stadium to Kadriorg Palace, where President Konstantin Päts was under the guard of the foreign regime. This match and the events that followed it are etched in the people’s collective memory. They have made their way into many published memoirs and also into belles-lettres, and have been echoed in both poetry and prose.


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Author Biography

Indrek Schwede, University of Tartu

Indrek Schwede is a PhD students at the Institute of History and Archaeology, University of Tartu.





Artiklid / Articles