By Bradley Hughes
On June 15th 2004, the Czech Republic were lining up to play Group D’s opening match of the European Championships. Far from the average team that graces the pitch today, the Czechs had cultivated a golden generation of talent that could arguably have lifted the trophy for the first time since 1976. Petr Čech, Tomáš Ujfaluši, Jan Koller and a young Tomáš Rosický were just some of the excellent players in the queue behind their captain, 2003’s Ballon D’or recipient and Juventus’ maestro Pavel Nedvěd. For the Euro ’96 finalists hoping to go one step further, the focus was on setting a winning precedent. For their opponents, however, this opener meant much more. Latvia took to the Estádio Municipal de Aveiro pitch relishing their first appearance at a major international tournament, having faced a journey both arduous and unlikely that would shock the world of football.
In the early 1990s, Latvia were trying to re-establish themselves as an independent republic following their breakaway from the Soviet Union. The national football team were once again an independent side, having spent the past fifty years enveloped by a Soviet Union team that rarely afforded Latvian-born players game time. As Simon Kuper points out in his book Football Against The Enemy, even after independence Russian-born players were still being fielded for the new Latvia side, causing friction and apathy from the fans. This was worsened by ticket prices for games, which although not particularly high still proved a luxury few could afford given the economic turmoil across Eastern Europe at the time. Latvia’s footballing scene looked gloomy at this point, and the next decade would bring little for fans to cheer about either.
Latvia failed to qualify for any major international tournament in the 1990s and early 2000s. There were occasional glimmers of hope, notably a shock 3-1 win against Norway in 1998, but for the small Baltic nation, these victories were few and far between. More often than not, the ‘11 Wolves’ put in sheepish performances and failed to upset the status quo of European football. The team’s lowest point, however, would be reached in their miserable attempt to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.
Latvia, under head coach Gary Johnson, were not expected to reach Japan and South Korea by any means, but few Latvians could have predicted how dire this campaign would turn out. Defeats both home and away were dished out by Scotland, Belgium and Croatia, while the biggest source of embarrassment was saved up for their return game against San Marino, a team that have quite deservedly cultivated a joke status.
In April 2001, Latvia became just the second name on a small but stark list of teams that have failed to beat the microstate, as they somehow managed to throw away a first-minute lead and slump to a 1-1 draw, on their own turf no less. The 4000 fans in Riga that day could not have known that unprecedented success would follow just two years after such a humbling result.
In September 2002, two months after Brazil lifted the World Cup in Yokohama, FIFA published its new rankings. Latvia had fallen all the way to 97th place, leaving them behind the likes of Macedonia, Uzbekistan and Cyprus. If this wasn’t disheartening enough, the draw for the European Championships would really hammer home the difference between them and their adversaries.
Latvia were drawn into Group 4, not alongside genuine contenders for the finals but certainly teams expected to trounce the Baltic side. They would meet Sweden and Poland, both coming from their adventures in the Far East that summer, and Hungary, a talented side featuring Bundesliga-winner Krisztián Lisztes and a young Zoltán Gera amongst their ranks. Last and almost certainly least, the group would be completed by the familiar face of San Marino.
Most pundits would have predicted a second-from-last finish identical to their previous World Cup failure. Latvia at this point were destined to be another ‘also-ran’ in the eyes of Europe’s elite, as they had been for every tournament prior. The man that would lead them this time had other ideas.
Aleksandrs Starkovs, the stern-faced manager of the now-defunct Skonto FC, received the offer for one of the least desirable management jobs in Europe. It was a sensible appointment; Starkovs had worked with many of the players, including Mihails Zemļinskis and Latvian captain Vitālijs Astafjevs, and had led Skonto to win the Latvian Higher League every season during his twelve-year tenure. Questions may have been raised about him taking the job whilst retaining his domestic job, but the former Daugava Riga forward’s achievements left few arguing against the decision. Besides, given what preceded him, perhaps fans felt things couldn’t get any worse.
Having spent the last twelve years managing a big fish in a small pond, Starkovs would now have to work with a side far weaker than their contemporaries. With a population of roughly two million, Starkovs acknowledged “there are not many players I can choose from. It’s a small country.” He inherited a squad of players already well versed, if not successful, in the international game, and he would have to settle on coaching his side to be more resolute against superior opposition. With many of his players either past or soon approaching 30, Starkovs did have some younger talent that hadn’t yet reached their potential, such as CSKA Moscow midfielder Juris Laizāns and Māris Verpakovskis, whose goalscoring in the Latvian Higher League would earn him a move to Ukrainian giants Dynamo Kyiv in 2003.
In the following months, Starkovs’ appointment would almost immediately be vindicated as he coached Latvia into a dogged unit that performed far greater than the sum of its parts. In their opening game, Lars Lagerback’s attack-minded Sweden made the short flight over to Riga. Just a short walk away from the Daugava River, Sweden left the modest Skonto Stadium disappointed. On paper, three points seemed a safe bet, but Ibrahimovic and co were unable to break down the no-frills 4-4-2 deployed by Latvia. Centre-back partners Mihails Zemļinskis and Igors Stepanovs, the latter of which played a bit-part role in Arsenal’s Premier League triumph just a few months prior, both performed well to hold the Scandinavians to a goalless stalemate.
A fluke result this was not. Latvia showed a substantial improvement that would carry through to matchday two. The Wolves next travelled to Warsaw, and managed a shock win through Juris Laizāns’ impressive 20-yard strike. The 23-year-old’s celebration seemed to show a mixture of delight and genuine surprise as he ran to the travelling supporters. Next up: home and away fixtures against old foes San Marino. This time, Latvia got their six points, albeit needing a late own goal to spare their blushes in the first match. Ten points from their first four games saw them briefly top the group, which went a long way to inspire hope that maybe Latvia were onto a winning formula.
However, defeats to Hungary and Poland soon restored the order of hierarchy as Latvia tumbled down the table. Some positives could still be found, such as 23-year-old striker Māris Verpakovskis opening his scoring account through an exquisite team goal in Budapest, but with two games left Latvia knew they would need a solid finish to regain top two status. The real test of their character was about to begin.
Hungary, far from their glory days of the 1950s but still challenging for second place, arrived in Riga confident they could outclass their opponents for a second time. As the teams performed the usual pre-match pageantry, the few thousand fans that filled the compact stadium made their voices heard in a clear contrast to the dark days of the nineties. Latvia looked to atone for their defeat in Budapest, and would have a chance shortly before half time through Verpakovskis.
He latched on to a clearance from Stepanovs and raced down the field. Still maintaining a tremendous pace, Verpakovskis cut inside the box and delicately finished past Hertha Berlin’s Gábor Király. It was a beautiful counterattack that warranted passionate celebrations in the tiny stand sitting adjacent to Király’s net. Imants Bleidelis would soon add a second from a well-worked corner, before providing a defence-splitting pass and allowing Verpakovskis to seal a thoroughly deserved win. Latvia’s phenomenal performance gave them reason to be optimistic, especially as their final opponents Sweden had already managed to secure top spot by beating Poland. A win in Sweden would guarantee second prize; a two-legged playoff.
An undefeated Sweden with nothing to play for turned up just north of Stockholm, and predictably put in a lethargic effort, mirrored by Lagerback’s decision to not start key man Ibrahimovic. The young Ajax prodigy would start on the bench while his counterpart Verpakovskis would again prove the difference. Partnering upfront with Vits Rimkus, the two caused plenty of problems for the Blågult and made it count in the 22nd minute as Verpakovskis left two Swedish defenders on the deck by driving into the centre of the box and finishing on his left foot. Latvia defended their lead with relative comfort for the majority of the match but would face a curveball following defender Dzintars Zirnis’ red card with twenty minutes left to play. Down to ten men and having to cope with substitutes Ibrahimovic and Andreas Johansson, Latvia defended well and denied Sweden the chance to finish the group unbeaten.
The performance earned praise from Starkovs, who simply branded his defence’s effort that night as “top class”. Latvia exceeded all expectations to reach the playoffs in 2003, but their reward was a daunting tie against one of Europe’s largest nations. In their group standings alone, Latvia and Turkey were equals, but in reality, Turkey were a much more established side with a plethora of players to pick from. This was also a Turkish side that had finished in third at the World Cup just a year prior. The difference between Turkey’s best-ever tournament finish and Latvia’s failure to qualify could not have been much greater, leaving the Turks understandably confident that they would brush past the minnows in front of them.
The stage was set for Latvia to sink or swim with Europe’s elite. The first leg, taking place on a November night in Riga where temperatures can plummet well into the minuses, was perhaps the perfect setting to unsettle their Meditteranean opponents. Heavily unfavoured but self-aware of how far they had come, Latvia remained positive and played into their underdog ethos. Turkey’s players “underestimated us a bit, while we had nothing to lose” recalled defender Igors Korabļovs. Indeed, Latvia fully intended to play on the front foot and make the most of their home advantage.
With the Skonto Stadium packed full of proud fans, Latvia drew first blood on the stroke of the half-hour mark, with their top scorer in qualifying taking centre stage yet again. Verpakovskis broke through the Turkish defence, cutting inside and cooly finishing past ‘keeper Rüştü Reçber. The entire team encircled their star player and lapped up the fervent support of the home faithful. Even the more reserved Starkovs let out a passionate cry from the touchline, visibly delighted at his side’s flying start.
For the remaining two-thirds of the game, Latvia subdued their opponents’ attacking threat and held onto their one-goal advantage. Turkey, desperately chasing an away goal, made things worse for themselves through a lack of self-control. Emre Asik, a defender who was no stranger to a booking, received two yellow cards in just over ten minutes to signal his dismissal, while Reçber also ruled himself out of the second leg by picking up a booking in Riga. Despite their frantic efforts, Latvia’s solidarity secured a home upset. The side’s defensive discipline had been crucial to them making it this far, and all Latvia had to do was repress Turkey once more. This time, though, they would have to do it on Turkish soil.
The second leg in Istanbul would be attended by more than double the amount of spectators four days prior. Turkey’s fans epitomise passion, and it is no surprise that the home faithful would make themselves heard in this all-important tie. This was, after all, the same city in which Sir Alex Ferguson famously recalled his Manchester United side being treated to “as much hostility and harassment as I have ever known”.
Lining up in their standard 4-4-2 with all the usual suspects starting, Latvia walked out to an expectedly hostile crowd. There would be no respite, no winning the jingoistic fans over with a Rocky IV style triumph; Latvia were in for their toughest game in one of the toughest places to go to. Starkovs looked on, arms folded and focused as ever, as Anders Frisk blew his whistle to start a gruelling 90 minutes.
Straight from the kick-off, flying tackles came in from Latvian players determined to show their lack of fear. Turkey, not wanting to risk losing a man like they had done previously, needed to keep a cool head. Turkey’s fans remained characteristically vocal throughout the game, and their support was rewarded in the first half. It took a stunning volley from the edge of the box courtesy of İlhan Mansız to open the scoring, but Turkey had deservedly gone in front. Trailing on the night, Latvia had a good chance just a few minutes later to restore their advantage but were denied by backup goalkeeper Omer Catkic, who produced a convincing save.
With an even aggregate at half time, both teams pushed for the tie-breaking goal. In the 64th minute, it would be a misplaced pass from Stepanovs that proved Latvia’s undoing. Possession was recovered just inside Latvia’s third by Turkey and quickly played it forward, resulting in a cutback to Hakan Şükür who promptly converted. Latvia, now behind on aggregate and with just 25 minutes to recover, had to pull together and save their nation’s hopes. A quick reaction was needed, and what followed really is indicative of the fighting spirit this side possessed.
Almost immediately from the kick-off, Latvia drew a foul towards the left side of Turkey’s penalty area. The resulting free-kick, a half-shot and half-cross, deceived all in the box, including Catkic, whose weak attempt to palm the ball away proved fruitless. Latvia were back in it, and the Turkish crowd were stunned.
A series of long balls followed but to no avail. Turkey were denied a third goal minutes later by the crossbar. Latvian ‘keeper Aleksandrs Kolinko was well beaten, but fortune seemed to favour him both in this moment and ten minutes later, as his speculative punt upfield flew over the head of one Turkish defender and into the path of Verpakovskis. Once again proving decisive for Latvia, the diminutive forward raced onto the ball and chipped it over Catkic. As the ball sailed into the net, Latvia’s breakout star ran off into a sea of dark red shirts, seemingly unfazed by the chorus of Turkish boos.
For an agitating period of time, Latvia withstood. The end seemed an eternity away, with both the opposition and the home crowd unrelenting, but when it finally came Latvia’s players collapsed to their knees. They had completed the original Miracle of Istanbul, much to the chagrin of the locals. The turnaround from drawing against San Marino just two years prior to beating the World Cup semi-finalists was drastic and should not be unappreciated. Not all nations are on a level playing field, and for Latvia, even qualifying for the Euros represented a seismic achievement.
Gary Johnson, by this point settled into a new position at Yeovil Town, described the achievement as “Alice in Wonderland stuff” for the Baltic nation. Far from fairy tales though, Latvia’s reality was a spot at the table amongst the continent’s best. Having faced adversity and been an underdog ever since their independence, perhaps it was no surprise that they would be up against it once more by drawing into the tournament’s ‘group of death’.
Holland, Germany, and the Czech Republic completed the formidable group, but then Starkovs’ men hadn’t fought against the odds to compete against average sides.
AP archive footage captured the mood of jubilant Latvians that made the 2,000 mile trip to Portugal that summer. Amidst sprawling Meditteranean sunshine and hundreds of fans enjoying the local cafes, one woman summed up her hopes for Latvia at the tournament; “it doesn’t matter if we lose all games… if we lose it’s also a great success for our country”. Latvia’s fans may have been proud regardless, but Starkovs’ men were not going to roll over and accept that they had reached their summit. Latvia still had more history to make.
Their opening match would indeed lead to defeat, but Latvia gave the Czechs a scare by scoring on the stroke of half time through Verpakovskis. The Czechs would level through Milan Baros before Marek Heinz’s 85th-minute strike secured the win, but Latvia gave a good account of themselves in their first major tournament finals appearance. Four days later, they would yet again push one step further, this time against the mighty Germany.
Having narrowly lost to Euro 96’s runners up, Latvia now had to play the victorious side of that tournament, but eight years had passed, and this was a German side far from their best. Ageing stars made up a large portion of the team, with some notable youngsters including Philipp Lahm, Kevin Kuranyi and Bastian Schweinsteiger that were years away from their prime along for the journey. Nevertheless, Germany are always tournament favourites and had reason to believe their game against Latvia could spark their campaign into gear after a draw with Holland.
If the narrow defeat to the Czech Republic had replaced their playoff victory as Latvia’s biggest footballing moment, their second group game in Porto would soon overtake it. Germany manager Rudi Voller commented after the game; “You’re disappointed after a match like this, a match everyone expects you to win”. Germany dominated possession and had their chances, even changing formation to play two strikers up front in an effort to bolster their firepower, but Latvia’s rigid defence held out, even if they needed a little luck as Miroslav Klose spurned a last-minute chance with his wayward header. The final whistle brought loud cheers for Latvia’s heroes, who had earned global admiration for standing tall against one of Western Europe’s giants.
The final group game is where the joyous affair comes to a halt. A decisively less romantic 3-0 defeat courtesy of the Netherlands ended any hopes of a prolonged stay in the competition, and Latvia finished bottom of their group. The team headed home with their heads held high, though, and were welcomed by an adoring public.
Unfortunately, Latvia could not build on this success like Iceland would a decade later by qualifying for the following World Cup. Aleksandrs Starkovs made use of the public attention he had received for leading a nation of just 2 million to the Euros by taking the reins at sleeping giants Spartak Moscow. Just a few months after their adventure in Portugal and under a new head coach, Latvia’s fall to grace was signalled by some particularly worrying qualifier results, namely a hammering away to Slovakia and a 2-2 draw against Baltic rivals Estonia. Latvia would call on Starkovs twice more in the next decade in an attempt to turn around their flailing fortunes, but even he was unable to replicate that glorious summer.
Latvia’s achievement gained coverage at the time but would be overshadowed by events later in the competition. Greece’s victory in the final against Portugal would understandably go down as Euro 2004’s big underdog tale, in spite of the negative connotations thrown at Otto Rehhagel’s defensive tactics to overcome stronger opposition. Latvia, perhaps in part because they failed to eliminate anyone, garnered a more positive response than the ‘boring’ Greek side that lifted the Henri Delaunay trophy in Lisbon. More importantly, though, Latvian fans now had a team to be proud of themselves. The summer of 2004 is yet to be matched, with Latvia having recently finished bottom of Group G in the Euro 2021 qualification stage, but their iconic string of performances that took them from laughing stock to tournament debutants will live long in the hearts of