Underdogs. Minnows. Outsiders. A 250-1 or, even worse, a 500-1 long shot. That’s how Latvia’s football (soccer) team is being described in world media as the Euro 2004 championship gets underway in Portugal. Latvia is in the tournament for the first time.
Perhaps Latvia shouldn’t even be in the championship. It’s not a country really known for football. Hockey, yes. But football? Sure, a few domestic players have made it to the big time, most notably Marians Pahars, a midfielder for the Southhampton Football Club in England. But Latvian football doesn’t have quite the same name recognition as Latvian hockey: Irbe, Ozoliņš, Žoltoks, Salt Lake City, Prague. Want to know more about Latvian hockey? Easy! Visit
www.hockey.lv on the Web. Want to know more about Latvian football? Visit…umm…
However, Latvia did make it to the championship in two key November matches, defeating Turkey 1-0 in one game and then battling to a 2-2 tie in a second. Euro 2004 starts June 12 and runs through July 4.
Latvia is in Group D and will see its first round of games against the Czech Republic (at 17:00 hours local time June 15), Germany (at 17:00 hours local time June 19) and the Netherlands (at 19:45 hours local time June 23). An estimated 3,000 Latvian fans are expected in Portugal, according to media reports.
Group A includes Greece, Portugal, Spain and Russia. Group B has Croatia, England, France and Switzerland. Group C includes Bulgaria, Denmark, Italy and Sweden. France is seen by many sports writers as the favorite to win the tournament.
Games will be played in eight different locations around Portugal: Aveiro, Braga, Coimbra, Faro-Loulé, Guimaraes, Leiria, Lisbon and Porto.
Sports writers and others are having plenty of fun at Latvia’s expense. Latvia, according to Clive Tyldesley of London’s Daily Telegraph, “arrive at Euro 2004 with a 500-1 chance of following in Marie N’s soundtracks and graduating from the Continent’s football fame academy with honours.” The Baltic nation “will be among the first to go home,” says Jack Bell of The New York Times. The Web site Football365.com offers a tongue-in-cheek “Miss Euro 2004” poll asking readers to name the nation “represented by the most comely lady.” The site’s choice for Latvia is Pahars: “Not essentially a woman, but he’s Latvian and has a girl’s name.”
Yet there’s also an allure to the Latvian team. Writer Tom Humphries of The Irish Times described Latvia’s presence in the tournament as “a welcome touch of romance.” In Scotland, where soccer fans don’t have a hometown Euro 2004 team to root for, some have adopted Latvia as their cause.
A total of 23 players were selected by Coach Aleksandrs Starkovs to be on the national team competing in Euro 2004, according to the Latvian Football Federation (Latvijas Futbola federācija, or LFF). They include goalkeepers Aleksandrs Koliņko, Andrejs Pavlovs and Andrejs Piedels; forwards Mihails Miholaps, Marians Pahars, Andrejs Prohorenkovs, Vits Rimkus, Andrejs Štolcers and Māris Verpakovskis; midfielders Vitālijs Astafjevs, Imants Bleidelis, Juris Laizāns, Jurģis Pučinskis and Andrejs Rubins; and defenders Oļegs Blagonadeždins, Aleksandrs Isakovs, Igors Korobļovs, Valentīns Lobaņovs, Māris Smirnovs, Igors Stepanovs, Mihails Zemļinskis Artūrs Zakreševskis and Dzintars Zirnis.
Of those, perhaps the best known is Pahars, who joined Southhampton in 1999 with a GBP 800,000 contract, according to the team’s official Web site. He previously played for Skonto Rīga. Others point to forward Verpakovskis, who has played for Skonto Rīga but now is with Dynamo Kiev, and midfielder Astafjevs, who plays for Austria’s Admira Wacker, as key members of the Latvian squad.
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