THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Latvia may be the least expected qualifiers for any major tournament, but Daunis Auers believes they travel with a realistic aim: to overcome indifference to football at home

In November, Latvia, a tiny nation of 2.4 million wedged at the northern end of the Baltic, trampled all over World Cup semi-finalists Turkey, home and away, to win a lucrative place (worth eight mil­lion Swiss francs, apparently, £3.6m or 3.4m Latvian lati) at Euro 2004. This is all too much for the small band of long-suffering Latvian football fans, accustomed to years of tediously predictable underachievement. Success has usually been measured by the odd victory over neighbours Estonia. Just a few years ago there were a half-dozen Latvians plying their trade on the substitute benches and reserve teams of English professional football. Now only Marians Pahars (in the cosy South­ampton treatment room) and Andrejs Stolcers (Ful­ham reserves) remain. Yet Latvia have suddenly started playing well, winning and attracting sell-out crowds.

In November, Latvia, a tiny nation of 2.4 million wedged at the northern end of the Baltic, trampled all over World Cup semi-finalists Turkey, home and away, to win a lucrative place (worth eight mil­lion Swiss francs, apparently, £3.6m or 3.4m Latvian lati) at Euro 2004. This is all too much for the small band of long-suffering Latvian football fans, accustomed to years of tediously predictable underachievement. Success has usually been measured by the odd victory over neighbours Estonia. Just a few years ago there were a half-dozen Latvians plying their trade on the substitute benches and reserve teams of English professional football. Now only Marians Pahars (in the cosy South­ampton treatment room) and Andrejs Stolcers (Ful­ham reserves) remain. Yet Latvia have suddenly started playing well, winning and attracting sell-out crowds.

Crucially, the team now have a manager the players know and respect. The era of the inexperienced Gary Johnson has been banished from memory. While Johnson, now at Yeovil Town, has attempted to claim some of the credit (apparently switching to the long-ball game and the longest losing run in Latvia’s football history set the groundwork for the Euro 2004 achievement), Latvians look back on his time in charge as an unmitigated disaster. In truth, Alexander Star­kovs, whose day job is managing Skonto, has performed a minor miracle since he took over.

Starkovs has, at one time or another, coached practically all the players in the squad at club level. He knows them well and has them playing as a real team unit, rather than a collection of individuals. This means that the magnificently mulleted sweeper Mihails Zemlinskis combines smoothly with the eternally confused Igors Stepanovs to form a surprisingly firm defence. In midfield the sum is again greater than the parts – from the wing play of Crystal Palace reject Andrejs Rubins (“a shocking waste of money” – Simon Jordan) and Southampton discard Imants Bleidelis, to the play­making of captain Vitalijs Astafjevs (who spent three seasons hacking around the Second and Third Divisions with Bristol Rovers) and the increasingly influential Juris Laizans (CSKA Moscow).

However, most important has been the emergence of a goalscoring striker, something Pahars has never been at international level. Step forward baby-faced Maris Verpakovskis, scorer of five goals in the past four games. Over the past couple of years fans had become accustomed to seeing his frighteningly fast pace take him into one-on-one situations with opposing goalkeepers… and then watching him mysteriously morph into a skinny Emile Heskey. However, in October against Hungary and Swe­den he managed to put away three goals, including two stunning solo efforts. Judging by his celebrations, he was more surprised than the crowd. Then he scored the only goal in the 1-0 home win against Turkey and another in the 2-2 draw in Istanbul. There is no doubt that his individual performances pushed Latvia into Euro 2004 and him into the Arsenal re­serves.

It seems that the large financial investment of  the Latvian Football Federation (LFF) president and  Skon­to FC chairman, the terrifyingly shady ex-KGB man Guntis Indriksons, is finally paying off. The football-obsessed businessman has plunged huge amounts of murky money into the sport, first at club level, developing a small but neat stad­ium, first-class training facilities as well as an extensive scouting and academy system. He’s a sort of poor man’s Roman Abramovich. Over recent years he has been applying this professional approach to the national team, too. Players are now flown to games on charter flights and stay in nice hotels allowing them to concentrate on the game. Just ask Roy Keane about the importance of proper preparation.

What of the future? Realistically, Latvia will struggle to gain a single point in Euro 2004, against the Czech Republic, Germany and Holland. But just being there is a major achievement. The money earned will be useful, as will the media attention for a country that still suffers from an acute inferiority complex. But perhaps the biggest potential victory is that Latvian sports fans are now planning to travel en masse to  Portugal, rather have than their traditional sporting holiday at the world ice hockey championships in the spring (held in Prague this year). Replacing ice hockey and basketball in the nation’s affections? Now that really would be an achievement.

From WSC 203 January 2004. What was happening this month

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