There are more Latvians than you might think in English football – it's just that very few are actually appearing on the pitch. Daunis Auers numbers them off
Rather unexpectedly, the late 1990s saw an exodus of the best Latvian footballers to England. It was actively encouraged by the spectacularly unsuccessful (yet annoyingly optimistic) former manager of the national side, Gary Johnson. It all seemed a bit odd because, despite a promising start to Euro 2004 qualifying, the national side is essentially crap and the eternal champions, Skonto FC, have never set Europe alight. Indeed, Latvian football in general has a Venables-like tradition of glorious failure: Skonto 2-1 up at Barcelona with a few minutes to go in qualifying for the 1997-98 Champions League, only to lose 3-2; outplaying Scotland in the first 2002 World Cup qualifier only to lose to a last-minute Don Hutchison goal; having an 86th-minute winner against Sweden in the first Euro 2004 qualifier wrongly disallowed for offside. I could go on. But I won’t.
Despite this marked lack of success, in March 1999 Southampton’s Dave Jones was somehow tempted to take a punt on Marians Pahars, the “Latvian Michael Owen”. Pahars, of course, has proved to be a bargain at £800,000 as his goals kept Southampton in the Premiership that season. Despite having renewed his contract twice Pahars displays a striking lack of loyalty by openly discussing his hopes of joining a bigger club soon (Man Utd and Spurs are most often mentioned). Nevertheless, his instant success meant that a swarm of bargain-hunting English managers descended on Latvia. Even Arsène Wenger was spotted at one particularly dull league game.
The next 12 months saw five more Latvians travel to England, all of whom, like Pahars, played in that memorable Skonto performance against Barcelona. However, none has had the impact of Pahars. The right-sided midfielder Imants Bleidelis followed him to Southampton in December 1999 but has yet to start a league game. He has even failed to be a regular substitute, coming off the bench just four times in his Southampton career.
The captain of the national team, Vitalijs Astafjevs, moved to Bristol Rovers in January 2000. He seemed to see it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, but he has become bogged down there. The physical nature of the English lower divisions means he hasn’t had the chance to show off his silky technical and passing skills. He seems to hate it at Bristol and constantly moans to the Latvian press about the poor quality of play and the nasty big defenders.
The early months of the 2000-01 season saw Crystal Palace snap up two of the most promising Latvian footballers, young left-winger Andrejs Rubins and Aleksandrs Kolinko, the national team’s goalkeeper. They started brightly, Rubins scoring a 25-yard goal in the Worthington Cup quarter-final against Liverpool, while Kolinko settled in as club No 1. However, both players slipped from favour towards the end of the season and have appeared only intermittently since.
Kolinko recently made headlines after Trevor Francis “clipped him around the ear” for allegedly laughing on the bench as Palace conceded a goal. He seemed certain to leave the club after posing for pictures in the Latvian press indicating that it was more of a punch than a “clip” and claiming that he could not play for a man who abuses him. However, he has recently forced his way back into the first team.
Two other Latvians are reserve team stalwarts in England. Igors Stepanovs has claimed the distinction of being possibly the only Arsenal player to have been booed during a double-winning year, while the striker Andrejs Stolcers moved to Fulham from Spartak Moscow and has since made a comfortable space for himself on the bench, despite the team’s lack of goals.
What does the future hold? All these players seem likely to stay in England for the full extent of their contracts. Their lack of appearances in the first team mean they are unlikely to get transfers to other clubs or work permits from the government. But they make a hell of a lot more money in England than in Latvia and even reserve team crowds are bigger in England than those attracted by Latvian club sides.
So is that all there is? Well, probably. Football comes a poor fourth after ice-hockey, basketball and volleyball in Latvian sporting affections. Even cross-country skiing claims more column inches. There are no more private Premiership jets zipping into Riga airport. Also, quite frankly, there aren’t any more decent young players left in the Latvian league.
From WSC 190 December 2002. What was happening this month