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Group D: Latvia Qualified as winner of play-off ties against Turkey
Latvia head for Portugal with nothing to lose

Latvia shocked everyone, including themselves, by qualifying for the Euro 2004 finals and they will need a second sporting miracle if they are to make any impact in Portugal next month.

However, as no-one expects them to do anything but lose to the three former European champions they will face in their opening group matches -- Germany, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands -- the Latvians can go to Portugal with no pressure on themselves and enjoy the experience.

Of course, they do not want to lose, but just getting to the finals represents a major achievement for the small Baltic state. In every way, they have already done the hard part.

Sporting heroes in Latvia are usually to be found on the ice rink and the soccer team's qualification for their first major finals, a tournament which ranks them among the best 16 teams in Europe, defied the odds.

"It's a miracle that we are in this tournament," coach Aleksandrs Starkovs told Reuters. "We will try to prove ourselves worthy of this opportunity."

It was surprise enough that the Latvians reached the playoffs for Euro 2004 after finishing runners-up behind Sweden in Group Four, but beating 2002 World Cup semi-finalists Turkey 3-2 over two legs astonished the soccer world.

The president of Latvia's Football Federation Guntis Indriksons hailed it as "the greatest achievement in Latvian football history", although the Euro 2004 finals are likely to bring the nation of 2.3 million back down to earth.

But anything Latvia achieve in Portugal will be considered a success.

Starkovs is realistic but adamant that his team will not give any of their illustrious opponents an easy ride.

"We are definitely not rated among the favourites," Starkovs said. "We are going to play some very strong teams, probably some of the best teams in the tournament."

The Latvia team, by contrast, consists largely of semi-professional and amateur players from a country with an eight-team top division that plays during the European summer to avoid the biting cold of the Baltic winter.

Starkovs has built a side which sticks to a rigid formula of dogged defending and swift counter-attacks, with quick-footed striker Maris Verpakovskis playing alone up front.

Verpakovskis not only hit the net six times in the qualifying campaign but he scored when it mattered and is now firmly established as a national hero.

He scored Latvia's second goal against Turkey to give them the 2-2 draw in Istanbul which secured their passage to Portugal and also got the goal that won them the playoff place with a 1-0 victory away to Sweden.

His emergence was a godsend as Latvia had been denied the services of their most talented player, striker Marian Pahars.

Pahars, who plays in the English premier league with Southampton, was sidelined for more than a year with a series of injuries and has only just returned to fitness.

Now he is back in the squad and is expected to join Verpakovskis in forming a fleet-footed duo who Latvia hope can challenge some of Europe's best defences.

Their success in reaching the finals is all the more remarkable when Latvia's short history as a footballing nation is considered.

Latvia played as an independent country between 1922 and 1940, almost exclusively against their Baltic neighbours Estonia and Lithuania and nearby Finland and Sweden.

Their autonomy ended when they became part of the Soviet Union in 1940 and the Latvia team were revived again only in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Their appearance in Portugal coincides with an important time for the nation with NATO and EU entry this year signalling a return to mainstream European politics.

Latvia is a country where ice hockey is king, and soccer, until now, has been a distant second.

But the whole nation will be watching when their new heroes open their campaign against the Czech Republic at Aveiro on June 15.

Both Cameroon and Senegal, who won opening World Cup matches against Argentina (1990) and France (2002) when the odds were stacked against them, are proof that nothing can be taken for granted. Latvia could yet add their name to that select list.
- Erik Brynhildsbakken

 « Star Player »

Name Maris Verpakovskis
Dinamo Kiev

Verpakovskis hopes for more goal magic

Maris Verpakovskis became a national hero when his goals secured Latvia a ticket to the Euro 2004 finals and he now hopes to take the Baltic nation to new footballing heights in Portugal.
In the absence of the injured Marian Pahars, the 24-year-old Verpakovskis took on the role of lone striker in the Latvia team to great effect, scoring six times in the qualifying campaign.
His goals helped Latvia into the playoffs by finishing runners-up behind Sweden in their qualifying group and he was on target again as they sensationally beat 2002 World Cup semi-finalists Turkey over two legs last November...   [more]


 « The Coach »
Latvia coach Starkovs keeps sense of reality
Coach Aleksandrs Starkovs's selection of Slovenia, Iceland and Azerbaijan for warm-up matches ahead of Latvia's first appearance at a major tournament betrays a sense of realism about how good his team are.
Latvia astonished the soccer world by qualifying for Portugal via a two-legged victory over 2002 World Cup semi-finalists Turkey.
But the finals next month will be a giant leap on the learning curve and Starkovs was honest enough to admit that Iceland and Slovenia were more his squad's level and they would learn little from friendlies against the likes of Italy or France.
Unfortunately, an unforgiving draw has placed Latvia in Group D with three former winners of the European Championship -- Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.
"Nobody is expecting anything from us in Portugal but we will try to create a few goals and we hope to at least get away with draws," Starkovs told Reuters.
Starkovs, 48, took over the team in 2001 after working as an assistant to his British predecessor Gary Johnson and made the most of meagre resources to gradually build a team able to compete with Europe's finest.
The stern-faced coach is known for his no-nonsense approach to the game, never allowing his players to get carried away.
A skilled tactician, Starkovs has built success with Latvia by using a 4-5-1 line-up that defends doggedly and launches swift counter-attacks.
The tactics served him well in a Euro 2004 qualifying group that included Sweden, Hungary and Poland and Starkovs will be looking to use them again in Portugal.
"Every team, including the three in our group, have weaknesses," Starkovs said.
The astonishing achievement in reaching the finals has been a great boost to a country which until 1991 was part of the Soviet Union and Starkovs is not averse to summoning up Latvian pride and honour in his dressing-room speeches.
"It's true I use patriotism to psyche up players before the games," he said. "I try to explain to the players that they have a responsibility to go out on the pitch and do a job worthy of both team and country."
Starkovs, who was schooled as a coach in Moscow during the Soviet era after 15 years as a player that included a stint at Dynamo Moscow, is still in charge of perennial Latvian champions Skonto Riga and their players form the backbone of the national squad.

 « The Squad »


Players DOB Club Cap Goal
Aleksandrs Starkovs C 26.07.1955
1. Aleksandrs Kolinko G 18.06.1975 Rostov
12. Andrejs Piedels G 17.09.1970 Skonto
20. Andrejs Pavlovs G Skonto
2. Igors Stepanovs D 21.01.1976 Beveren
4. Mihails Zemlinskis D 21.12.1969 Skonto
6. Olegs Blagonadezdins D 16.05.1973 Skonto
22. Arturs Zakresevskis D 07.08.1971 Skonto
7. Aleksandrs Isakovs D 16.09.1973 Skonto
16. Dzintars Zirnis D 25.04.1977 Liepajas
18. Igors Korablovs D 23.11.1974 Ventspils
15. Maris Smirnovs D 02.06.1976 Ventspils
3. Vitalijs Astafjevs M 03.04.1971 Admira
8. Imants Bleidelis M 16.08.1975 Viborg
10. Andrejs Rubins M 26.11.1978 Yaroslavl
5. Juris Laizans M 06.01.1979 CSKA
14. Valentins Lobanovs M 23.10.1971 Zaporizhya
13. Jurgis Pucinsks M 01.03.1973 Vladivostock
19. Andrejs Štolcers F 08.07.1974 Fulham
17. Marian Pahars F 05.08.1976 Southampton
23. Vits Rimkus F 21.06.1973 Ventspils
9. Maris Verpakovskis F 15.10.1979 Dinamo
11. Andrejs Prohorenkovs F 05.02.1977 Maccabi
21. Mihails Miholaps F 24.08.1974 Skonto



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 « Profile »

Latvijas Futbola Federacija (1921)
Augsiela 1 - 1009 Riga
Guntis Indrikson
Best Performance in Finals Never qualified
Recent record in Finals
1980 DNP
1984 DNP
1988 DNP
1992 DNP
1996 DNQ
2000 DNQ 


 « Road to Portugal »


v Sweden
v Poland
v San Marino
v San Marino
v Hungary
v Poland
v Hungary
v Sweden
v Turkey (Play-off)
v Turkey (Play-off)


 « Final Tournament »

D v Czech Republic

   2045 CET 15 June 2004

D v Germany

   1800 CET 19 June 2004

D v Netherlands

   2045 CET 23 June 2004


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