Starkovs' return lifts Latvia
© AFP

Latvia have only appeared once at a major tournament, when the team coached by Aleksandrs Starkovs recorded a narrow play-off victory over Turkey to qualify for the 2004 UEFA European Championship in Portugal. The Latvians finished bottom of Group D at the finals, although their scoreless draw with Germany rated as a hugely creditable result.

Qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ was a less successful affair for this nation of two million people. Grouped with Portugal, Slovakia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and neighbouring Russia and Estonia, the Latvians finished a disappointing fifth in the section. Among a string of below-par results, only 1-1 draws at home to Russia and away to the Slovaks offered any kind of encouragement for the future.

Starkovs' successor Juris Andrejevs was simply unable to rekindle the spirit of the EURO 2004 qualifying campaign, prompting the 51-year-old to quit as national coach in late March 2007 in the wake of a 1-0 defeat to Liechtenstein in a EURO 2008 qualifier. Presumably thinking back to the heroics of the previous continental qualification campaign, the Latvian Football Association turned to a familiar face in their attempt to steady the ship, and re-hired Aleksandrs Starkovs as national coach.

While it was too late for the former Spartak Moscow boss to repair the damage already done in EURO 2008 qualifying, the team at least gave their fans a glimmer of hope with a 1-0 victory at home to Northern Ireland. The fact the three points were earned with an own goal failed to affect a new mood of optimism in the Baltic state, a situation confirmed by the team's respectable showing in a recent 2-0 defeat in Spain. Latvia then travelled to Iceland and won 4-2, taking both the home team and many commentators by surprise. Striker Maris Verpakovskis, on the books at Croatian club Hajduk Split, claimed the man of the match accolade with a brace in the away triumph.

Tough draw
The encouraging run-in to EURO 2008 qualifying could not alter Latvia's fifth-placed finish in UEFA Group 5, ahead only of Iceland and Liechtenstein. Starkovs's men managed four victories but lost on eight occasions, although a scoring record of 15 goals for and only 17 against suggests the East Europeans were a trifle hard done by in terms of their final points total.

In any case, results at the end of 2007 point to a much brighter future for Latvian football. Starkovs appears to have transformed a side which plumbed the depths in late March 2007, forming a revitalised and cohesive unit now determined to put up a good show in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. That said, last November's draw in Durban was hardly kind to the men from the Baltic. Latvia were drawn to face Greece, Israel, Switzerland, Moldova and Luxembourg in Group 2, and will certainly require a little luck in their quest for a debut appearance at football's premier competition.

Coach Starkovs has clearly made a good start, but the task now is to build on the foundation provided by star striker Verpakovskis and fashion a squad capable of competing in the challenging European qualifying competition. Latvia sent out a strong signal to their future opponents in early February with a morale-boosting 3-1 win away to Georgia.

The good result earned the Latvians 38 points in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, enough to improve their position by no less than 13 places to 72nd spot, leaving them ahead of nations such as China PR, Slovenia and Austria.

If coach Starkovs can maintain the momentum generated over the last eight months or so, Latvia could be poised for another star turn on the international stage. The diminutive nation needs to capitalise on the current upward trend, pooling energies and resources in the months remaining until the start of FIFA World Cup qualifying in September.