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Surprises a speciality

Whatever the Latvians achieve in Portugal this summer, their journey to the finals has been the story of the tournament so far. Underdogs they might be, but anyone who bills them as the finals' whipping boys will do so at their peril.

'On the face of it, we're a paradox,' admits their head coach, Alexanders Starkovs. 'We don't have any big-name stars. But we didn't get to Portugal by winning the lottery - we're there on merit. We don't fear anyone now.

'When we started the campaign, qualification wasn't a target. We were underdogs, so we didn't feel any great pressure. But by the half way point in the qualifiers, we started to realise that we could compete on equal terms with the likes of Hungary or Poland.'

And to that list they can now add World Cup semi-finalists, Turkey. The man who scored in both legs of last year's play-offs against the Turks, Maris Verpakovskis has understandably been singled out by many as Latvia's main man.

In January, he was courted by both Wolves and Portsmouth, before Dynamo Kiev won the race to sign him, paying out £2.5million and even offering his dad a job on the coaching staff. And he has done so well there - scoring four goals in eight games - that he is now attracting renewed interest from the Premiership, this time from Chelsea, no less.

The man they call the Latvian Arrow is undoubtedly a key cog in the machine. But the truth is that the team's success is built primarily on collective endeavour. The Latvian camp is an ego-free zone.

'What we have is a strong collective spirit,' explains Starkovs, 'and we are blessed by good support from our federation. Teamwork is the key.'

Another key ingredient is the unifying role played by perpetual Latvian champions, Skonto Riga.

Starkovs, who continues to double up as Skonto's manager, places huge emphasis on the synergy between club and country.

'The fact that most of us have been together at Skonto at some point has been important. I don't just mean the players, but the backroom staff too.

'When I took over three years ago, the main proviso was that I could stay at Skonto, and I've brought other people from the club into the national set-up. We're a close-knit family.'

In the UK media, much has been made of the role played by current Yeovil boss Gary Johnson in Latvia's recent ascendancy. Johnson managed the Baltic country before Starkovs - previously his assistant - took over, and the Englishman has retained close links with the country's football federation.

However, according to Latvian football journalist, Mikhail Korolev, Johnson's contribution has been overplayed.

'Johnson - the hero? No way! His main task was to help find clubs for Latvian players in Britain.'

'As a trainer he was average. It took him almost a year to win his first match. And what gets forgotten is that he was sacked after we were held at home by San Marino - that was the first point [they had won] in their history. For the main part under Johnson it was tactical anarchy.'

According to Korolev, Starkovs deserves most of the credit for Latvia's transformation.

'He is very astute, both tactically and psychologically. He has taught the team how to play together and given them a hunger to win. He is also the one who helped Maris Verpakovskis blossom.'

Starkovs refuses to be singled out for praise, however. 'We've got a saying,' he muses. 'Success has many relatives, but failure is an orphan. I'm the one you see, but I can't give myself a medal.

'There is a whole collective working behind me. Credit has to go to our football federation for providing so much strong support; to the youth coaches who taught the players in their early days; and to their club trainers who get them ready for the national squad.'

Starkovs also takes issue with those who underestimate the role played by Johnson. 'The first thing I told the players when I took over was that we all had Johnson's sacking on our conscience. I was his assistant for 18 months, and I like to think we had a good relationship. He helped create a showcase for our players in Britain.'

This is true. But equally true is that, with the exception of Marian Pahars at Southampton, none of the players who won contracts in England have been notable successes.

At Southampton, Pahars running mate, Imants Bleidelis never made the grade, while Andrejs Stolcers has been a peripheral figure at Fulham for three years.

Goalkeeper Aleksandrs Kolinko and midfielder Andrejs Rubins - both once of Crystal Palace - are now plying their trade in the Russian provinces. Veteran team captain and record cap winner Vitalijs Astafievs spent several seasons with lowly Bristol Rovers.

Most though, are regular and consistent contributors for the national side.

If one player exemplifies the Latvian coach's ability to get his team to overachieve it is Stepanovs. In his sporadic appearances for Arsenal, the central defender generally endured a torrid time, most memorably in the 6-1 debacle at Old Trafford in 2002, and has this season been farmed out to Beveren in Belgium. When he dons the national colours, though, he is Latvia's answer to Tony Adams.

'He's very commanding, very assured and very rarely makes mistakes,' says Korolev.

Clean sheets in Latvia's two latest friendlies - against Slovenia and Iceland - seem to bear that out. And in the 0-0 draw against Iceland in April, Stepanovs was unlucky not to finish up as the match-winner, when a debatable refereeing decision saw his headed goal disallowed

Starkovs believes that even though Stepanovs barely figured for Arsenal, his time at Highbury was a huge boon for the national cause. 'He might not have been a first team regular, but just being there has been good for him and it has helped us. He is one of the leaders of our team. He benefited from training daily with world class players, and being coached by some of the best pros in the business.'

Drawn in the 'group of death' along side the Czechs, Germans and Dutch, the task ahead of Stepanovs et al looks nigh on impossible. But then, surprises are now their speciality - Turkey can vouch for that.