RIGA, May 11 (Reuters) - In a country where ice hockey has long been king, die-hard soccer fans have traditionally been few and far between.
But Latvia's surprise participation in Euro 2004 next month has suddenly made the national soccer team a source of tremendous pride at home.
Coach Aleksandrs Starkovs is already being hailed as a genius for getting the side to their first major finals and striker Maris Verpakovskis, who scored six goals in the qualifying rounds, has shot to fame both as footballer and pin-up.
Never mind that the Baltic side are 500-1 underdogs to win the tournament, which starts on June 12; Latvian fans are looking forward to a big party in Portugal.
Fans going to the finals say they will do their best to showcase Latvian culture, including home-made 'shasliks' - kebab-style meats usually washed down with plenty of beer, and a passion for high-spirited song fuelled by vodka.
'I'm not personally bringing any shashlik or vodka but I will bring as much beer as I can carry from Latvia,' karaoke DJ Girts Zebolins, 22, said. 'We will have a great party with singing and dancing.'
'Of course there's a big interest in the national team now that we've qualified,' said Edvins Balodis, president of the Latvian fan club, adding that supporters saw the qualification as a feat in itself and anything to cheer in Portugal would be a bonus.
Latvia won a surprise place in the tournament last November after beating Euro 2000 quarter-finalists Turkey in a two-legged playoff everybody had expected them to lose.
Some 4,000 fans hope to follow the team to Portugal where Latvia, ranked 52nd in world soccer, will take on heavyweights Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic in Group D.
'We have nothing to lose apart from our pride,' said fan Martins Zarins, 26.
Zarins said the best coach Starkovs's side could realistically hope for was to 'get away with a couple of draws' by sticking to their tried-and-tested formula of tight defending and quick counter-attacks.
'Still, I don't think we'll make it past the group stage,' he admitted.
But Zarins, like most Latvians, said getting a ticket to Portugal was a dream come true for the tiny nation of 2.3 million where the top soccer division is made up of eight teams of mostly semi-professionals playing for crowds of a few hundred.
Latvia got an allocation of 18,000 tickets for the finals but about 3,000 remain unsold. Balodis said travel, hotels and other costs posed a serious challenge to the average Latvian worker, who takes home $250 a month.
A package comprising flights, hotel and tickets to see all the Latvian group stage games would cost around 1,000 lats ($1,834) though many fans are trying to arrange their own trips, bringing down the cost to between $1,100 and $1,280.
Balodis said fans who did make it to Portugal would give the team their full support whatever the outcome of their matches.
As Starkovs said after the team qualified: 'It's obvious that every team is going to be the favourites against us - but don't forget every team have their weaknesses and it is up to us to try and find them.'
Latvia's Euro 2004 warm-up campaign so far has resulted in a 1-0 away victory against Slovenia in March and a goalless draw against Iceland at home last month.
They will also play Azerbaijan at home on June 6 before heading to Portugal.