Dancing on ice

Aleksander Goryunov is concerned about Skonto Riga, struggling against economic downturn and a huge sporting rival

The end of April saw the reigning Latvian champions Skonto Riga, managed by the former Southampton striker Marians Pahars, host leaders Metalurgs. Over 800 fans turned up at the 10,000-capacity Skonto Stadium to witness a dominant performance by the visitors. With the home team 2-0 down we were treated to the surreal sight of the 30-odd Skonto ultras behind the goal “doing the Poznan” in the near-empty ground. It will take much more than this to inject some life into Latvia’s most successful club.

In March, just before the start of the season, a Cyprus-registered company called Tremova Ltd bought 99 per cent of Skonto for 210,000 lats (£260,000). The new owners made the right noises about investing in youth, securing sponsorship deals and the club operating on a €1 million (£900,000) budget. Should this be taken at face value?

Latvia’s Mr Football, the ex-KGB officer Guntis Indriksons, former owner and current president of the club, struggled during the economic crisis. He sold Skonto last summer. The timing was interesting, given that he was being dragged through the courts by a former business associate over an alleged non-payment for a stake in a hotel chain. Indriksons’s fixed assets, including the football club, were in danger of being seized. Suddenly, he no longer owned them. Thus, the latest “sale” probably means very little.

On the pitch, Skonto opened their title defence amid farcical scenes. To give the grass at their home ground a chance to grow following a long winter, Skonto expected to play the first two games at the indoor Riga Olympic Centre. This venue had been used in previous years but local journalists discovered that its pitch, officially described as 92 metres long, is actually three metres short of FIFA’s 91m minimum.

The Skonto Hall was being used for an international trade fair, so the team had to play their first two matches on the bumpy pitch at the decaying Daugava stadium. Just 100 people turned up for Pahars’ victorious managerial debut against FB Gulbene. Aleksandrs Starkovs, the national team manager who returned last year to lead the team to their first title since 2004, had left in January to manage Azerbaijan’s FK Baku, no doubt under better economic conditions than at home. Against Gulbene Skonto elected not to pay the extra 50 lats to switch on the scoreboard.

Last season Indriksons decided that he wanted to see more people in the stands. Andrejs Baharevs, a Skonto director, concentrated on bringing in families and distributing free tickets to schools and youth clubs. After three games of four-figure crowds Indriksons threw up his hands – the club were losing the equivalent of £6,000 per match. Nevertheless the scheme was continued this season. For the game against FK Ventspils in mid-May 2,000 turned up but the ultras were not there, having been banned following a post-match punch up with the dozen away fans after the Baltic League semi-final against Metalurgs.

As Skonto dawdled, an old rival has re-emerged – ice hockey. In 2006 Riga hosted the Ice Hockey World Championships with the new 10,000-capacity Arena Riga going up half a mile from Skonto’s ground. This venue soon hosted a reborn Dinamo Riga (the original club were unable to stay afloat in the Latvian Hockey League and disbanded in 1995), who joined the Continental Hockey League, an expanding, Russian-dominated super league. In three seasons the club have been lauded for their marketing nous and the great efforts made to build up a fanbase. Average attendances have risen from six to almost 8,000 (regular season-ticket prices are 7-14 lats). Dinamo are loss-making, earning back only a sixth of their £10.5m budget, but investors and sponsors are queuing up to be associated with Latvia’s sporting flagship.

Given the traditional Latvian preference for ice hockey and what is on offer – high-level international competition versus a sponsorless local league that lost a club because they couldn’t raise the £13,000 entry fee – there is only going to be one winner. So, to keep going, Skonto have to hope that their youth academy produces someone. The latest prospect, the midfielder Aleksandrs Cauna, is coming to the end of his injury-hit loan spell with CSKA Moscow. It is unclear whether the deal will become permanent and bring in sorely needed funds. In the meantime, Skonto will struggle on, more dead than alive.

From WSC 293 July 2011