Original interview in Estonian: http://jalgpall.ee/koondis/2/uudised/saage-tuttavaks-karl-jakob-heina-teekond-inglismaa-tippklubisse-n17176
During the COVID-19 outbreak, many footballers who earn their daily bread abroad have returned to their homeland, where they train according to the training plans provided by their club. The goalkeeper of the Estonian U-21 team Karl Jakob Hein, who plays for the Arsenal football club in London, also temporarily returned to Estonia. The goalkeeper continues to be happy about his choice of joining the London club.
Born in the small town of Põlva (Pop: 5 458 as of 2018) but raised in the Kalamaja district of Tallinn, the goalkeeper officially entered the pitch for the first time at the age of 8, playing in the Estonian Youth Championship, belonging to the ranks of JK Loo. “If I remember correctly, the team was officially JK Loo, but that was the name of the men’s team. The young players played under the name FC Tigers. We trained in Tallinn, at the Schnell and Wismar stadiums,” he recalls. Hein started playing in goal by his second or third tournament.
At 18 years old, Hein takes a look back on his career and claims that he started dreaming about playing for big foreign clubs in the 2nd grade. “I remember that we once put the teams of FC Tigers and JK Tabasalu together, went to a tournament in Latvia and I got the title of the best goalkeeper, because I saved multiple penalties.”
Hein changed clubs in 2015 on his own initiative. “It was also the year when I went from playing on a small sized pitch to a bigger one. I also considered joining JK Tabasalu, because I had good synergy with them based on different tournaments, but in the end I decided in favor of Nõmme United, because Mart Poom was waiting there,” he explains. Hein remembered Poom from his farewell game against Portugal in 2009. At that time, Hein was only 7 years old. Over the years, in addition to Poom, his heroes included Sergei Pareiko, Manuel Neuer, Edwin van der Sar and Iker Casillas.
The trump card: playing with feet
Hein, who joined FC Nõmme United in 2015, remembers that he went to the stadium with his brother a lot, and playing with his feet, which he practiced both individually and in FC Tigers’ trainings, turned out well for him as a goalkeeper. “We had to beat the mannequins during training in Nõmme and I was completely satisfied with my results,” he recalls. “I was strong at playing with my feet since the time at FC Tigers, because I played as an outfield player there also and even scored some goals. At that time, kicking balls from the halfway line wasn’t an exception for me, some of them even landed in goal.”
Hein enjoyed Nõmme United’s trainings, but at first he was a bit insecure in actual games, even at playing with his feet. “I remember how I once stumbled after a back-pass and Mark Anders Lepik scored a goal against us because of that. Such moments of uncertainty definitely come up in a goalkeeper’s life, and even if the games don’t always go the way you wanted, you can still make the most of your training.”
By 2016, he was part of the U-15 team, playing in the second division of the U-17 Elite League and a year later he was the starting goalkeeper in FC Nõmme United, playing in the highest division of the U-17 Elite League.
Men’s league and testing abroad
Hein made his adult debut on the 5th of March, a month before his 16th birthday, when he came on against Kohtla-Järve JK Järve, in the second half, in an Esiliiga B (Third highest division of the Estonian Football Association) match. Both the team’s starting goalkeeper Oliver Ani and Hein were able to keep a clean sheet. The last 90 minutes for Hein at the Estonian Championship also stem from 2018, at May 22, when he was in goal against FC Flora in the U-17 Elite League. Then, in the following weeks, in three Esiliiga B matches, Hein was on the reserve bench, which was followed by him joining the London Arsenal. Just a year earlier, according to Hein, Mart Poom had talked to him about a potential move abroad.
Hein says that while his testing period in England has been covered by media before, the interest of foreign clubs started from FC Kaiserslautern in Germany, where he didn’t even actually make it to on-site testing. The English club Brighton & Hove Albion showed interested in signing Hein shortly after the first training. Then Arsenal and Manchester United joined the list of suitors. “Manchester United’s offer was a shock, because it is such a big club and I admired Edwin van der Sar and Manchester United’s 2008 team, whose videos I watched on YouTube when I was young. Van der Sar was also usually in goal for my FIFA 08 team and my brother liked Manchester United as well. Therefore, at first, it seemed a little unbelievable that I would have the opportunity to go to that club.”
So then why did Hein decide in favor of Arsenal? “I went to every club to display my skills. I was in Manchester for three days, at other clubs a little longer. First impressions may be deceptive, but it seemed to me that discipline and the organizational side, as well as other details, were at a higher level at Arsenal than at Manchester United. For example, transportation was late in Manchester, which is the reason why I was late for training. The reception in Arsenal was very friendly and the club left a very good impression. Because let’s be honest, there was no difference in terms of level, because both Arsenal and United are among the top in the world. I also tried imagining the journey to the first team in my head, and in Arsenal it seemed somehow more logical. Looking at the present, the Arsenal team is one of the strongest in the highest division of the U-23 league, while United is a step below. It’s also easier to travel back home from London.”
Representing Estonia gives spiritual strength
In the U-17 team, Hein was capped 14 times, including the European Championship qualifying tournament, where Hein played with players who were a year older. The tournament proved to be very successful for Hein. Today, Hein, who still belongs to the U-19 age group, has defended the goal of the U-19 team three times, and last year he also made his debut for the U-21 team, where he played two matches. In the U-21 debut game against Latvia in October, Hein’s excellent save at a crucial moment clinched Estonia a 2:1 victory.
Hein always looks forward to representing the youth team and finds that it also has a certain connection with routine tolerance during the club season. According to Hein, one of the foundations of his success has been his good tolerance of routine. “I like to train, the routine also supports it and seems to speed up the time until I get home again to represent the nation and see my family and friends.”
Arsenal has trusted the young Estonian man and during various injury breaks Hein has been able to train in Estonia. “My wrist was broken, before that the shoulder. The club also understands that mentally it is difficult for a young person in this situation to be in another country. Therefore, they were very forthcoming and during these periods I was able to visit Estonia, train here according to an individual training plan and spend time with family and friends.” Hein claims that during injury breaks, the body tends to go out of shape a bit, but he has given his maximum to keep all figures within the allowed range and has made a big leap regarding his diet over the years.
Every year brings something new to Hein’s life. For example, who would have expected that in the April of 2020 he is temporarily training in Võhma (Pop: 1287 in 2017) in Central Estonia? But as an alumnus of Kalamaja Primary School, Hein also talks about the potential opportunity to acquire secondary education virtually in Estonia. “The school system there is a little different. I am currently taking a two-year course in psychology and anatomy. We’ll see how completing it this spring will look like – but at some point I am planning to start negotiations with some Estonian school who would offer e-learning at the secondary school level.”
After the emergency, when returning to England, many things are certainly different, but for Hein, at least in part, in a positive way – he recently passed his driving exam. From now on, Hein, who celebrated his 18th birthday in April, has a driver’s license in his pocket and in the future he will be able to drive to training with his own car. When it comes to going back to London, only time will tell.