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Thursday, June 17, 2004
ESPNsoccernet: November 2, 7:07 PM UK
Latvia diary: So near, yet so far

Dan Brennan

Coach Alexandrs Starkovs will shave his hair off if Latvia qualify for the next stage, and Oliver Kahn's granny is Latvian ... These are just a couple of the startling revelations I've been privy to in the last 24 hours.

But, more than anything else, I've had my faith in team Latvia totally and utterly confirmed. OK, so the boys lost, but WHAT a performance! They put on a display of passion and guts, they were tactically astute and well organised. For 80-odd minutes, it seemed they would emerge with at least a point in the bank.

Yesterday, in the surreal setting of Aveiro's multicoloured lego-built stadium, I took my place in the heart of the Latvian support, wearing my maroon and white shirt with pride. I even joined in with around 3,000 Latvian fans and two blokes from Norwood (there to pay homage to ex-Palace goalie, Alexander Kolinko, who was absolute colossus for Latvia yesterday) when the national anthem was played.

Earlier in the day, I'd managed to blag a ride to the stadium on the Latvian press bus.

But half an hour after the scheduled departure time, there was still no sign of it. Nils, the Latvian press officer, is looking harassed. "That's Portuguese timings for you," he sighed. And to add to his headache, the phone and internet lines promised to the Latvian press corps in their hotel failed to materialise, and he was having to field complaints from grumbling hacks.

Finally, the bus turfed up. We made a detour out of Aveiro to a nearby beach resort to pick up the players' wives. When a group of portly, mustachioed types got on board, I sensed something was not quite right. It turned out these were a few of the local VIPs, most of whom were kitted out in Verpakovskis number nine shirts. The wives soon followed, suitably glamorous-looking, and all in high spirits, including one in a Fulham number 27 shirt, who I assumed to be Mrs Stolcers

It was a blisteringly hot day, and I wondered how Stepa and the boys would cope. A friend at Arsenal had told me recently that he'd never seen a player sweat in training as much as Stepanovs.

But my anxiety turned out to be misplaced. The boys worked their socks off, none more so than Stepa, who was simply immense. Six foot something in his socks, Stepa is not a small chap, but up against the man-giant Koller he was dwarfed. Nonetheless, he managed to completely close the Czech beanpole out of the game.

Time after time, he was there in the right place at the right time, throwing himself bravely in front of shots, rising majestically to head away the crosses, timing his tackles to perfection. And then came the coup de grace&.

On the stroke of half-time, after soaking up 45 minutes of relentless Nedved-orchestrated Czech pressure, Stepanovs won the ball outside the Latvian box with yet another superb tackle, and set a counter-attack in motion. The ball was played to Prohorenkovs down the left & he got to the byline, pinged in a slide-rule cross, and there was the Riga Rocket, little Maris Verpakovskis, to pop the ball home from close range. GOOOOAAAAAL!!! The Latvian fans erupted in joy and disbelief. Starkovs hadgot his tactics spot on.

Stepa, made surplus to requirements at Highbury the other day, might be entitled to ask: "Are you watching Arsenal?" Based on this performance, other English clubs surely will be. "They know where to find him if they want him," Starkov tells me today, saying he will be genuinely happy if any of his players are able to sort themselves out with new club deals during the tournament.

"I don't know exactly who is talking to who. Obviously the players can communicate with the outside world on their computers and mobiles. But as far as I'm concerned, if it happens, it's a good thing. This tournament is, among other things, a shop window. If agents and clubs are showing interest in my players, it means they are playing well, which makes me happy. And the chance to move to foreign clubs is always an extra motivation for them to advance professionally. I have no problem with that."

But back to the match: I can quite honestly say I've never experienced the kind of infectious collective joy that swept through Latvian fans after they took the lead yesterday - and I say this as an Arsenal fan who watched the Invincibles complete their perfect league campaign a few months back.

At half-time, everyone was hugging, and smiling, the wires were buzzing with calls and text messages to the folk back home, as everyone wanted to share the moment. For 15 minutes, at least, nothing could spoil this. As the second half clock ticked away & 60 minutes, 70 minutes, there is a feeling that just maybe we can do it.

The Czechs were utterly dominant, no doubt about that, but they were also starting to panic. And every effort that blazed wide was greeted with a rather restrained cry of "Ho Ho Ho" from the Latvians - it was like 3,000 Father Christmases piping up in unison. I'm still not up to speed on the Latvian chants, but am determined to master the lyrics before the Germany game. There's one which goes something like "Lai Slab a Dam, Lai Slab a Dam" that is especially catchy.

And, from first to last, the Latvians sang their hearts out, easily outdoing the Czechs, who must have outnumbered them at least three to one. And it was also incredibly good-natured. When one fan questioned the sexuality of the referee, after one of several dubious decisions went against the Latvians, other fans turned round to chastise him.

The Czechs' equaliser was unstoppable and inevitable, as the Latvian defence was starting to flag. A point, though, still looked likely, and would have been a fantastic result. But then, having tried 51 different varieties to breach the Latvians, Heinz finally got the clincher with variety 52, just five minutes from time. For once, the Latvian fans were stunned into silence, but it didn't last.

Despite the despondency of defeat in such cruel fashion, the Latvian fans remained upbeat as they left the stadium. "Just the fact that we are here at all is a minor miracle& a nation of under three million, with just 100 professional footballers & that says it all," says Alex, who has travelled three days overland from Riga to get here.

"Today, we've shown that we can compete with the big boys. The Czechs are one of the favourites for the tournament. We didn't look out of place against them, at all, did we? So, of course, we can beat the Germans and the Dutch."

"We've got a secret weopon for the German game," adds his mate. "Oliver Kahn is Latvian." This, it must be said, comes as something as a surprise."Actually, it's his grandma," explains Alex. "So I'm sure she'll have had a word with him."

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