||ESPNsoccernet: Euro 2004
Friday, June 18, 2004
ESPNsoccernet: November 2, 7:07 PM UK
Latvia diary: Accentuate the positive
It's Wednesday. Yesterday's starting eleven have been given a well-deserved day off to recover from their exertions against the Czechs. The second eleven, however, are being put through their paces at their training ground in Anadia.
Everyone seems in remarkably good spirits, none more so than the Latvian FA general secretary Janis Mezhetskis, who is wandering up and down the touchline in shorts and shades, chatting to journalists.
I've spoken to him several times, but this is the first time we've met in the flesh. 'Aah, so you're the English journalist,' he says. 'Call me Janis,' he adds, when I make the mistake of being too formal. He's philosophical about the Czech defeat, and keen to accentuate the positives.
'Obviously, we're disappointed that we lost. But I think we did so with honour. It's not a tragedy. War is a tragedy. This is football. Yesterday is history, and now we are looking ahead to the next game,' he says.
'When you consider that we've got just 6,000 registered players, and maybe 100 professionals, we have to be very pleased with what we've achieved. We've shown that football is a very democratic game & if you have a good coach, and 23 committed players who are well organised, you can be a match for anyone. Obviously this is a collective success, but we owe an awful lot to the skills of our coach, Starkovs.'
Behind us, Marian Pahars, who came on too late to make a real impact yesterday, is indulging in a spot of target practice against one of the Latvian physios who, I'm reliably informed by a Latvian colleague, is also one of his best mates.
'Obviously it is down to the coach to decide," says Mezhetskis, "but I'm pretty sure you'll see more of Pahars in the next game."
After training, I manage a quick word with midfielder Juris Laizans, who seems relieved to chat in Russian after an Italian journalist from one of the big TV networks had addled his brain with some impossibly difficult questions in cod English.
"We've showed yesterday that the gap between big nations and small nations is disappearing,' he says. 'We came very close against the Czechs, and it will give us a lot of confidence for the next two matches. The nerves have disappeared now. Our fans were immense yesterday, and we will continue doing our best to make them proud of us.'
Laizans was widely tipped to be a regular starter in the centre of midfield for the Latvians, but was ousted by Lobanovs and given just a late cameo against the Czechs. He also suffered the indignity of having his name spelt wrong by the team's shirt suppliers, and for several games had to train in a top bearing the legend Liazans.
Altogether, the people who sorted Latvia's kit have not exactly come up trumps, having previously sent shirts in both the wrong size and colour - 'Soviet Red', to be precise, which was guaranteed to offend local sensibilities - but thankfully, the team are now decked out in resplendent maroon numbers.
Alexandrs Starkovs also takes time out after training to chat to the journalists, and is in equally positive mood. The Latvian coach is an interviewer's dream: relaxed, smart and with dry sense of humour, he's not easily fazed by journalistic probing.
What lessons have been learnt from the Czech game?
'Yesterday showed that it doesn't matter how many stars you have, it is ultimately about collective effort and team spirit,' Starkovs says. 'Secondly, we saw that little details decide matches - we were convinced that the ball had gone out of touch before one of the Czech goals - but we can't blame the referee, as it all happened so fast. And finally, the main thing is that we learn from our mistakes and will go into the next match with more experience.
The final question comes from a bald Belgian hack. 'Is it true you're going to shave your hair off if you qualify for the second stage?' he asks.
'That's right,' smiles Starkovs. 'I think my players would like that - it would be a good motivation for them. Who is your hairdresser?'
It's a quality response, and I've come to expect no less. The same goes for the fans. A group of them have come to watch the training session, and are holding court in front of the German press. For the benefit of the Teutonic snappers, they unfurl their flag and begin a rendition of 'Latvia, Latvia, Latvia - the biggest nation in the world.'
And, right now, I'm inclined to agree.