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Latvia diary: Living a dream

'A historic day for Latvian football,' is how Aleksandrs Starkovs described Saturday's heroic draw against Germany.

It's high time to ditch the 'Baltic minnows' tag - this team have shown they can match anyone on their day. And they go into Wednesday's crunch Holland game with confidence running high.

'What is happening is like a dream,' adds Starkovs. 'But we've shown that dreams can come true. So maybe another one will come true against the Dutch.'

For the Germans, the match at Boavista's ugly concrete Bessa stadium was, by contrast, a nightmare. Well-drilled and physically imposing, Rudi Voeller's team looked decidedly one-dimensional - with the exception of Ballack, who was restricted to long range efforts. They simply lacked the element of surprise needed to break through the Latvian defences.

That though should take nothing from the Latvians, who have shown yet again, that football is no respecter of reputations.

As against the Czechs, Stepanovs was once more majestic as he marshalled the back line, occasionally giving it the clenched fist routine Tony Adams stylie to pump up the crowd.

His central defensive partner Zemlinskis, was equally impressive, and you were left wondering why the 34-year-old had never himself been lured abroad. Meanwhile, Rubins and Bleidelis - two former bit-part part players in England - created havoc on the flanks.

And as for Kolinko...who cares if Oliver Kahn is Latvian (as one large banner mischievously pointed out) - he wouldn't get into the team anyway with the former Palace man between the sticks.

'The Germans gave us nothing like the problems we had against the Czechs. The Czechs were a lot faster and a lot more creative,' opined defender Olegs Blagonadezhins, in the mixed zone after the game.

In contrast to several of the Germans, who couldn't get on the team bus soon enough (a particularly grumpy looking Jens Lehman, the German reserve goalie, broke straight through the barrier to avoid the press altogether), all of the Latvians hung around for a good half hour to chat to the press. Even Stepanovs, who seems no great lover of interviews, was in expansive form. 'We're really pleased, of course, but we're not resting on our laurels. The main thing for us now is to concentrate on the Dutch match and make sure we get a result.'

Latvia, it seems to me, are due a bit of luck from the referees. Against the Czechs they'd conceded that debatable first goal, when the ball seemed to have gone out of play. And yesterday, Verpakovskis was denied what looked a certain penalty after being bundled over by two German defenders, unable to handle his pace. 'I'm 100% sure it was a penalty,' the striker tells me after the match.

It pains me to say it, but if they'd had a continental ref, and not our very own Mr Riley, I'm sure he'd have pointed straight to the spot.

Think about it: had those decisions gone for them, the Latvians could now have four points in the bag. But the main thing is that the boys go into Wednesday's match against Holland still with a big say in the final outcome of Group D.

If the Dutch camp is, predictably, seething with internal strife, the Latvians are completely the opposite. There is a close-knit family atmosphere throughout. You won't find any prima donna egos kicking around in Anadia.

Take Marian Pahars, for example - again a second half substitute, who almost combined with Verpakovskis for a late winner against the Germans.

'Obviously I want to play from the start,' he tells me on Sunday, 'but I totally respect the decision of our coach. I'm just ready to do what I can for the team. It's a great pleasure to be part of this. We've all grown up together - we went through the same football school at Skonto - we grew up under Starkovs - so we are very close.'

He is also generous in his praise of the man who has supplanted him as the country's goalscoring idol. England might have Rooney, but Latvia have got Maris Verpakovskis.

'I think Maris has shown in the last two matches just how good he is,' says Pahars. 'We're competing at the very highest level here. If you want a good indicator of how tough it is take a look at Thierry Henry - even he isn't able to do what he does in the Premiership.'

Starkovs too is full of compliments for Verpakovskis, who Rudi Voller described as 'a real rocket'. Reflecting on a wonderful piece of skill against the Germans, when Verpakovskis motored half the length of the pitch, before having a shot parried by the outstretched Kahn, the Latvian coach said: 'What Maris did yesterday was wonderful - I haven't seen anything else like that in the whole tournament.'

Igors Stepanovs, seen here dominating Fredi Bobic, continued his majestic form.
Igors Stepanovs, seen here dominating Fredi Bobic, continued his majestic form.

Verpakovskis is winning admirers by the truckload, and, inevitably, the rumour mill is now grinding into gear...Manchester United, Juventus, Arsenal, Chelsea have all been mentioned, as Europe's top clubs start to finalise their Euro 2004 shopping lists. But Verpakovskis doesn't look the sort to get distracted by such talk. When a Dutch journo tried to spice things up by asking Verpakovskis how much it would take to lure him from Dynamo Kiev to Holland, he just laughed: 'Ask my club much are you offering?' He won't come cheap that's for sure.

And he surely won't be the only Latvian name on the scouting reports being sent home from Portugal right now.

Before the match, I chat to Oksana Stolcers, wife of the ex-Fulham striker who hasn't yet featured in the tournament. Mrs S is hoping that he will play some kind of role. 'I can't say I'm a really big football fan, but I'm a big fan of my husband,' she smiles. 'But obviously, I'm as keen as everyone else to see Latvia do well. It's simply wonderful for the country. I was really nervous before the first match, but now we're much more relaxed.'

In the lift up to the press box, I find myself next to that old grandee of English football journalism, Brian Glanville. 'What chance a result for Latvia?' I quiz him. 'No hope at all,' is his considered opinion. How wrong he was.

After the match, Starkovs arrives for the press conference with applause from the floor. Glanville asks how he has managed to galvanise the various players who failed to thrive in England, into part of such an impressive collective.

Starkovs responds with typically dry wit: 'It's probably best if I say that this is my professional secret. That way I can guarantee myself work for life!'

He could probably earn a handy living running international coaching seminars, that's for sure. What he and his team are achieving here is nothing less than a miracle when you think that Latvia is just a country with just 100 professional players.

Not everyone among the English press pack was so quick to write the Latvians off. On the way back from Italy v Sweden the other night, I'd got chatting to a rookie journalist, out covering the tournament for Sporting Life. Equipped with a betting kitty to fund his stay, the better he does with his wagers the longer he gets to stay out in Portugal. So far it wasn't going too well and he was contemplating an early return home. I suggested he try a bet on Latvia not to lose vs the Germans at odds of 9-5. After the match, I get a text saying he has just netted himself £400.

Reflecting on Saturday's performance, Janis Mezhetskis, the Latvian federation's general secretary tells me: 'It's a great feeling. All of the players were simply fantastic yesterday.'

And that penalty incident? 'We think it was a penalty, yes, but we're not going to worry about it. If you worry about penalty decisions which aren't given you could fill a book'

'I've had literally hundreds of messages from Latvia since yesterday. Even our prime minister called last night to congratulate us.'

'Has he bought his green hair dye yet?' I wonder. 'I expect so,' says Mezhetskis. 'If we get through to the quarter-finals, I'll be dying my hair too - and I won't be the only one.'

'If someone had said 10 years ago that we'd be in the European Championship finals, we'd have said they were crazy.

'What the team is achieving here is very important for the country. It is uniting Russian speakers and Latvian speakers - it is bringing the whole nation together, and political divisions are being forgotten.

'On 23rd June is a national holiday in Latvia - Janis Day. Let's hope that we can really give them something to celebrate.'

'The fans have been just wonderful. They've been like a 12th man for us. But I'd also like to pay tribute to the German fans were great - they applauded our team off the pitch, just like the Turkish fans did in Istanbul.'

And Latvia are certainly winning more and more friends by the day. Yesterday's contingent was bolstered by a motley selection of Brits, Swedes, Russians and the odd Estonian.

Marian Pahars: Paying tribute to Verpakovskis - despite losing his place to him.
Marian Pahars: Paying tribute to Verpakovskis - despite losing his place to him.

As a reward for their heroics against the Germans, the squad are given a day off on Sunday. Eyes turn instead to another important match. No, not Portugal v's the Latvian press pack against the Latvian Football Federation. The latter are led by Jevgenijs Milevskis, assistant head of the Latvian delegation in Portugal, who also happens to be a former Latvian international, who played in Austria and is something of a local legend.

Granted honorary Latvian status for the day, I'd secured myself a place in the hacks' team. Stepanovs, Rubins and Prohorenkovs all turn up at the Anadia stadium for a bit of light entertainment, as does Aleksandrs Starkovs, so obviously we're keen to impress.

We've been kitted out in spare Latvia strips, blagged from the federation. Their generosity, though, ends as soon as the match kicks off. Their team play high tempo one-touch football, with Milevskis pulling the strings, and the journos are left chasing shadows, and looking altogether like a useless rabble. By half time it's 5-0, but we manage to salvage a bit of pride in the second half and pull it back to 6-2 (though by this stage we do have about three extra players on the pitch). 'Looks much easier from the press box doesn't it?' grins assistant coach Vladimirs Serbins, who spent the previous 40 minutes running rings round us.

I've clearly not made much of an impression. Back to the press box for me, then...and next stop Braga on Wednesday. Quarter-finals here we come?

The Latvian fans in Curia certainly think so. Cries of 'Latvia - Champions!' continue late into the night. And they've got a bit of a mutual appreciation society going with the local Portuguese fans, who are by now themselves celebrating after their win against the Spanish. 'Hope to see you in the semis,' shouts one local.

Now there's a thought.

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