Love Letters to the European Union: Rigamaroo

On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. We’re heading back to the Baltics this week to profile one of the south-coast’s favourite strikers, and recall the night a team of minnows became eleven wolves and reached the European Championships. Dievs, svētī Latviju!

 

The Player: Marians Pahars

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Southampton fans might not know it, but they owe a lot of their matchday joy in the late-nineties to Jurijs Andrejevs. The Latvian journeyman, who represented six different teams in his home nation across a ten-year career, paid a visit to a school in Chornobai, Ukraine, during his time coaching at Skonto Riga, to give a talk to young pupils about life as a professional footballer. Among those in class that day was an eight year old Marians Pahars who, until that point, had no interest in football whatsoever. It took another decade before the diminutive son of Latvian immigrants finally made his professional debut for Pardaugava Riga, but from then on his star rose swiftly. A move to Skonto Reserves the following year further enhanced his reputation in his native country, before breaking through into the first team at Latvia’s dominant club side, who would go on to win fourteen league titles in a row. Having been moved from a wide midfield role to an out-and-out forward by Skonto head coach Aleksandrs Starkovs, Pahars’ natural instinct for goalscoring quickly emerged, as the youngster hit 44 goals in 85 appearances across four years in the capital.

A year after breaking into the Skonto first team, Pahars was awarded his first cap for the Latvian national side in a friendly against Cyprus, and soon became a permanent fixture for the Wolves. It was his importance to the national team that led head coach Gary Johnson to recommend the pacy sharpshooter to Dave Jones at Southampton. Clubs from Europe’s top leagues were already on high alert after Pahars’ 19 goals in the 1998 season, but after unsuccessful trials with Salernitana, Werder Bremen, and Casino Salzburg, a perfect hat-trick in a 7-1 win for Southampton’s reserve side sealed his move to The Dell.

Billed as ‘The Latvian Michael Owen’, back before Michael Owen was best known for running over rabbits, taunting pre-pubescents and rallying against the medium of film, Pahars had to wait until the April of the 98/99 season to make his Saints debut, thanks to wranglings over a work permit. Arriving off the bench for the final twenty minutes of a 1-0 defeat at Coventry on Easter Monday, it was clear that Pahars would have to inject something special into a team that went into the final five games of the season mired in a relegation scrap. On his home debut against Blackburn, Pahars came off the bench to score a vital equaliser in a thrilling 3-3 draw, and would go on to preserve the Saints Premier League status with a brace in the final day win over Everton.

Over the course of the next three seasons, Pahars’ goals would keep Southampton in the top flight time and time again, finishing his second season as top scorer on the south-coast despite new manager Glenn Hoddle using him in a deeper midfield role. Thirty-six goals in his first four seasons with the Saints was a decent return for a striker in a struggling side, but injuries would begin to blight his Premier League career. A hernia operation and ankle injury kiboshed the 2002/03 season, though he was able to get himself fit to represent Latvia at Euro 2004. The following year, however, would prove the beginning of the end of his Saints career. A heavy tackle in a pre-season friendly saw those same ankle problems flare up once again, and with Pahars sidelined for the season, Southampton dropped out of the top flight. Despite making a handful of appearances in the Championship, Pahars was unable to rediscover the form that had made him one of the deadliest strikers in the bottom half of  the Premier League, and in 2006 he bid farewell to the St Mary’s faithful.

Injury hit spells in Cyprus and Latvia saw Pahars call time on his playing career, but he was soon back in football when his former manager Starkovs recruited him as assistant manager at Skonto. A spell as manager followed in 2011/12, before his national team came calling once again, naming their former #9 as head coach in 2013. After four years in charge, Pahars stepped down to return to club management, taking up a role at FK Jelgava this summer.

Though he broke few records and won few trophies, Marians Pahars holds a place in the hearts of Latvia and Southampton fans, not only for his direct running, his frightening pace, and his eye for goal, but for his determination on the pitch and desire to win. Saints supporters will recall fondly how often Pahars saved their skin, and while he might not have the medals that Michael Owen does, he has one hundred times more heart than the former Liverpool striker. If only Owen had aspired to be ‘The English Marians Pahars’.

 

The Game: Turkey 2-2 Latvia, 2003

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Footballing success is a foreign concept in the Baltics, which partly explains the bi-annual Baltic Cup tournament where Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania play out a round-robin competition and, more often than not, Latvia win. The Baltic Cup harks back to the late 1920s, but was placed on hold for fifty years thanks to the Soviet occupation of the region. During that time, none of the Baltic states were permitted to compete as independent nations and, with the Soviet Union side largely made up of players from Russia and Ukraine, the development of football in that corner of Europe quickly slowed to a stop.

Naturally, that effective ban from international football put Latvia on the back-foot when they returned to the fold for the 1994 World Cup qualifiers. No wins from twelve games summed up their miserable maiden campaign, but the emergence of a talented group of players at the turn of the century saw Latvia’s international prospects improve. The Wolves finished midtable in their ’98 qualifying campaign, before missing out on a Euro 2000 playoff spot by four points. A dismal attempt at qualification for the 2002 World Cup suggested that order had been restored, but a decent looking draw for the following tournament had Latvian supporters dreaming of watching their team in Portugal.

Group Four of Euro 2004 qualifying had thrown up Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Latvia and San Marino. Immediately, the Sammarinese were written off as whipping boys, a fact that would come to pass as they lost eight from eight, scoring zero and conceding thirty. Hungary had managed to scrape themselves into Pot C ahead of Cyprus, and despite their illustrious history were deemed likely contenders for second bottom in the group. The Swedes were clear favourites for top spot, having become regular qualifiers, while Poland were earmarked for the playoffs – themselves living off past glories, though fresh from competing in South Korea and Japan. It was obvious to manager Aleksandrs Starkovs that the meetings with the legendary Zbigniew Boniek and his team would hold the key to an historic campaign.

Latvia flew out of the traps. An heroic shutout against the Swedes was followed by a famous win in Warsaw, with CSKA Moscow midfielder Juris Laizāns netting a first-half winner. Straightforward victories over San Marino followed to leave Starkovs’ team with ten points from their opening four games and top of the group. The inevitable slump, though, was round the corner, and a 3-1 defeat in Hungary was followed by Polish revenge in Riga – Mirosław Szymkowiak and Tomasz Kłos administering the blows that left Latvia on the canvas. By now Sweden had gone top, Hungary moved into second, Poland into third on goal difference. With two games to go, Latvia needed divine intervention.

Against Hungary, there were no acts of god, just a devastating display of attacking power. Three up in fifty minutes, a brace for Dynamo Kiev new boy Māris Verpakovskis had put the skids on the Hungarians’ Euro dreams. Meanwhile, in Chorzow, Sweden were securing their place at the tournament with a victory that left Poland relying on Scandinavian goodwill. With nothing to play for in the final game, it was no surprise to see an experimental Swedish side fail to match the intensity of Starkovs’ History Boys. Sweden 0-1 Latvia. The Baltics left bouncing into the playoffs.

That, surely, would be the end of the road. In a fiendish pool, World Cup bronze medalists Turkey represented a generous draw, with the Netherlands and Spain both avoided. On a tempestuous evening in the capital, Verpakovskis came up with the goods again, as a frustrated Turkey were left with ten men for the final quarter hour following Emre Aşık’s petulance. The return leg, in Besiktas’ İnönü Stadium, would prove an altogether more troubling prospect.

And so it proved. Caught in two minds between defending their precious lead and taking the game to their higher ranking opponents, Latvia were torn apart in Istanbul. lhan Mansiz struck first blood after twenty minutes, bringing the tie level, before Turkey’s trusty poacher Hakan Şükür looked to have landed the decisive blow with a little over twenty five minutes to go. Twenty thousand home supporters celebrated in wild relief. The Turkish team visibly relaxed. The Latvians posted their riposte. Ninety seconds later, Juris Laizans free-kick floated past Omer Catkic to edge the minnows ahead on away goals. Turkey’s nightmare was not yet over and, as if woken from a peaceful slumber, Şenol Güneş’ team threw themselves forwards in desperation. Twelve minutes from time, that boldness was proved reckless as, with acres of space behind the Turkish defence, Verpakovskis raced through and dinked the decisive shot over Catkic. Starkovs had bossed the Bosporus, and Latvia, unbelievably, were headed for Portugal.

Drawn in an unforgiving group, few gave the Baltic minnows a chance of even gaining a point at Euro 2004, though they were minutes away from a brilliant point against the Czech Republic in their opening game. Some trademark rearguard action against an abysmal Germany earned Latvia their first point at a major tournament, and though their Iberian sojourn was spoiled somewhat by a three goal spanking at the hands of the Netherlands,  nothing could be taken away from the most remarkable summer in the nation’s footballing history. Though they’re yet to reach the heights of 2004, the Wolves have at least managed to add another five Baltic Cups to their collection since.

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