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Tuesday, June 22, 2004
ESPNsoccernet: November 2, 7:07 PM UK
Oranje boom or bust

Dan Brennan

Just over 24 hours to go before the crunch match against Holland, and I've already got butterflies. By 9.30pm tomorrow, the adventure will either have come to an abrupt end, or the next stage of Latvia's mission impossible will have been accomplished. Either way, it's been a hell of a ride so far.

A victory for Latvia would surely represent THE biggest result in the history of the Euros. And to remind you, it would also have several other notable repercussions: coach Aleksandrs Starkovs will shave his head; the prime minister Indulis Emsis will dye his hair green; and I will have to fork out for a new plane ticket home. It'll be worth it.

The Dutch press pack have been gathering in numbers in Anadia to watch the Latvians train. They don't exactly seem to be brimming with optimism. 'Confident about Wednesday,' I ask a guy from a Dutch news agency. 'Not at all - the only thing we're confident about is that we'll be going home soon. Advocaat has got to be the worst coach ever.'

Aleksandrs Starkovs, meanwhile, has been receiving a few well-deserved plaudits. Jose Mourinho is apparently the latest to single out the Latvians and their coach for praise.

'Obviously, it's a big compliment to hear praise from such a fine trainer,' says the modest Latvian coach. 'But in that case, I need to thank my team for impressing on the pitch.'

Starkovs is generally refusing to get drawn by any of the hype. 'We've got a point; the Dutch have got a point. But they are the masters, and they are the favourites'.

Yesterday, Berti Vogts and Josef Venglos - both on UEFA's Euro2004 panel - swung by to watch the Latvians train.

Rumours are circling that Mike Riley, the English ref who was in charge of the Latvia v Germany game, won't be reffing any of the remaining games, after his failure to award a surefire penalty to Verpakovskis on Saturday.

Also at training are a group of Anglo-Latvians. The Latvian diaspora in the UK comprises around 4,000 people, and the team's exploits in Portugal are, they tell me, generating a lot of excitement back in Blighty.

'I've been saying to my kids since they were little that if Latvia ever made it to a big tournament, we'd be there,' Raimondas Dales tells me in broad Mancunian. 'As soon as they beat the Turks I was on the phone to book the flights. I've been waiting for this for years. And it's absolutely fantastic to be here.

Raimondas and his mate, Peter Peterssons from Surrey are also in a Latvian rock group back in Britain.

'We've been going for about 20 years - we're called Arvidsun Mursiteji [which is apparently a loose translation of Harvey and the Wallbangers!],' explains Peter. 'Our influences are pretty varied: The Clash, The Beatles, The Sex Pistols& but we write all our own material, and all the songs are in Latvian.

'We were going to write a song for the team, but we didn't get our act together in time. But we'll definitely have one ready for Germany 2006.'

Before that they're planning to take the band on tour to Latvia. 'We reckon we'll be a big hit in Riga,' adds Peter.

On the training ground touchline, Janis Mezhetskis is waxing eloquent as usual as he looks forward to the game:

'As Scolari said the other day: if you can't go into battle expecting to lose. We go into tomorrow's game planning to win. If the Dutch beat us we will say: 'well done, we hope to beat you the next time'. But tomorrow would be nicer!'

'All of our preparations are going well. The mood in the camp is great. This has been a fantastic journey for us, and for me personally. I've been involved in football since the 1960s. And when I started work for the federation in 1993, soon after independence, we had nothing. There was no fax machine, no photocopier, no money, nothing.

'And finding money is still a problem. But, as we've shown here, money isn't everything. If you want to do something enough, you can.'

Meanwhile, goalie Alex Kolinko, who celebrated his 29th birthday with the shut out against the Germans, indulges in a bit of Baltic kiddology when asked to assess the threat of Van Nistelrooy and his pals. 'Obviously, they are a team full of stars, and we're just little Latvia. But we'll just play our own game, like we have in the other matches, and see what happens.'

Kolinko is tickled to learn that there's a Crystal Palace contingent following his exploits in Portugal, and gets wistful on the possibility of a return to England at some stage. 'It was a wonderful experience for me. If a club comes in for me, I'd love to go back.'

Captain, Vitalijs Astafievs, once of Bristol Rovers, is equally nostalgic: 'After the German game, I had Rovers fans coming up to me asking for my autograph - it's great to see so much support for us from England.'

Marian Pahars, the one Latvian still in England, believes some of his colleagues already deserve the chance to move again.

'I hope we'll see more players coming to England and Europe. We've shown here that we can play at the top level. This is as tough as it gets. Even Thierry Henry can't do what he does in the premiership because he is up against the best defenders in Europe.

'If you prove yourself here, you can play in any league in Europe.'

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