Latvia diary: The big day looms

June 14, 2004
By Dan Brennan
(Archive)

False hopes, shattered dreams, missed penalties, and defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. I'm leaving all that behind me - for the next 10 days, at least.

England are now a peripheral blur in my field of vision - Zidane's dastardly doublewhammy on Sunday caused me nothing more than minor anguish. That's because now, I have eyes only for Latvia.

Yes, I've signed up with Aleksandr Starkovs' 'Barmy Baltic Maroon and White Army' (Copyright Dan Brennan), to experience life with the tournament's underdogs, where failure is being widely touted, and every goal scored or point won will be hailed (by those who don't know better) as a miracle. All in all, a much better recipe for happiness. And who knows, if the Greeks can beat the hosts, maybe Latvia have got it in them to pull off a surprise or two.

I've got the shirt, I've got the flag, and I've put my money where my mouth is. 500-1. You're having a laugh? I've staked my tenner and I'm already picking out a new motor I'm going to buy with the proceeds.

My empathy levels towards my newly adopted team are riding high after my own odds-defying journey to Portugal. Doing it the cheap way, meant doing it the long way. A flight to Faro was the only thing I could find to fit my budget, and that meant a 500km shlep on the red-eye coach up north. And last night it was looking dodgy when the bus driver refused to believe that my ticket, booked on the internet, was genuine. Luckily, half the other passengers rallied to my cause and he submitted under the weight of a popular uprising.

Bleary-eyed it was that I stumbled off the bus in Coimbra this morning. Before making the final leg of my journey by taxi, I took time out to visit the local barber in Coimbra, and a haircut which I reckon will allow me to blend in with my new Baltic confreres (I opted for Igors Stepanovs summer 2002 look - which was bloody difficult to explain to a hard of hearing octogenarian Portuguese barber, given that I don't speak Portuguese).

Freshly shorn, I turfed up in the little resort complex of Curia - HQ for Team Latvia, who are installed in a grand old hotel which, from the outside at least, looks like it was once a lot grander.

Curia's a quaint little place - it looks like the set of Monsieur Hulot's Holiday, and somehow that seems vaguely appropriate. Lots of bandstands and men on bicycles on tree lined avenues. You only have to shuffle into the middle distance for some local folk ensemble, bedecked in traditional gear, to strike up an old favourite. And that was just for me - the Latvian team must get the full overture treatment whenever they venture out of their hotel.

They are a helpful bunch these Latvians. When I suggested to the general secretary of their FA, Janis Mezeckis that I'd like to shadow the team round in Portugal, generally making a journalistic nuisance of myself, he gave me a swift thumbs up; and - when he doubtless had 101 better things to do - he even went out of his way to help sort accommodation for me - I am now living amidst the Latvian press pack (there's about 25 of them, which by Baltic standards I'd imagine is what you'd call a media scrum).

Starkovs
Empics / AdamDavyStarkovs: Looking to last eight

Stationed strategically no further than the length of an Stepanovs clearance from the Latvian team's pad, I'm well placed to pick up guage the mood in the camp, tap into the local press pack gossip, and where possible catch some quality time with Mr Starkovs et al. The Latvian coach has thus far been incredibly obliging. He even responds to SMS messages - which never happens when I text Trappatoni or Sven.

First step in Curia was to take to the streets and gauge the mood of the nation. Only trouble is there didn't seem to be anyone to gauge. The travelling Latvian support is expected to be in the vicinity of 3,000, but many are leaving it late, and are due to arrive tomorrow on the day of the Czech opener.

At last I find one. Juris, from Riga, is pleased to be here but isn't exactly giving it large on the predictions front. 'What can Latvia achieve in Portugal?' I ask him. 'Have a good tournament,' comes the laconic response. 'So what does that mean exactly?' 'Well, we'd settle for three 1-0 defeats,' he smiles. Not sure I like this defeatism and feel he should be joining with me in bigging up the Latvian massive. But I suppose it's a case of aim low and you can't be disappointed. England, perhaps, should take note.

Today Mr Mezhetskis has even spared the time to help me cut through the baffling UEFA red tape and squeeze in a cheeky last minute accreditation request for tomorrow's game. Hard to imagine Sven and the Soho Square mob being quite so obliging. There's something to be said for being minnows.

I've got myself a ticket, but am keen to get in there amidst the press gang, so I can partake of the post-match presser and the vol-au-vents. To tell the truth, I've been shoved around so many corridors today, shunted from desk to desk, that I've started to feel like I'm trapped on the pages of a Kafka novel. It's enough to short-circuit the wiring of my sun-fried brain. But, touch wood, things are looking good.

I didn't make the mistake of referring to Latvia as minnows in Igors Stepanovs company though. The Latvian Tony Adams is in tigerish mood as he weighs up the task ahead.

'I am feeling optimistic, and I think that goes for the rest of the squad too. We are all psychologically prepared, and ready to give 110% to the cause.

'The whole 'Group of Death' thing doesn't bother us. Sure, we have complete respect for our opponents, and are taking them seriously, but we don't fear them. The gap between big and small in international football is decreasing all of the time. I think we've already proven that on several occasions.

'I don't see a clear favourite in the group, but if I had to name one it would have to be the Czechs [neat bit of psychology there Igors - straight out of Monsieur Wenger's textbook, I'd say], as they went through the whole of qualifying unbeaten and looked very strong.

'They're also the only one of the four teams who qualified directly. Like us, Holland and Germany squeezed through via the play-offs. But then, to suggest that teams like Holland and Germany - with the players and experience that they have - are outsiders would also be ridiculous.

'So, yes, it's a strong group. But if you go out on the field worrying about your opponents, you are already preparing for defeat. There will be no danger of us doing that.

Empics / PhotographyAveiro Municipal Stadium: The venue for Latvia's historic first major tournament appearance.

'I'm proud that the team is doing so well. We've not been conceding many goals. But that is not just about the four defenders and the goalkeeper. That is about the whole team. Everything comes down to collective effort - that is what Latvia is about.'

And, while wary of predicting any upsets, Aleksandrs Starkovs was in high spirits too, on the eve of the Czech game. 'The main thing is that we do justice to the honour, the flag and the sporting ideals of the nation. And I'm confident the team will give maximum effort to do the country proud.

The final word for today - well almost - goes to Stepanovs: 'What can we realistically achieve in Portugal? Who knows? Anything can happen in 90 minutes. The main thing is to make sure that we give everything possible so that nobody can turn round and say that we let ourselves or the country down. And hopefully we'll win a few more fans in the process.'

You can count me in there, Igors.

Nedved... Kluivert... Ballack... bring it on.

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