Away Days: Skonto Riga v FK Jaunība Riga
Sunday, October 30th, 2005: Skonto Riga, fourteen times champions of Latvia with all of those titles won consecutively from 1991-2004 in order to create a world record, have finally been deposed from their number one position. Their opponents on this day are Liepājas Metalurgs who, only the week before, clinched their maiden Latvian league title with four matches left to play such was their domination in that season. It was fitting that my first ever match on my first ever visit to the beautiful Baltic state of Latvia involved the two aforementioned teams and it was this match, a 1-1 draw with much attacking play, that developed my interest in the game in this part of the world. Many people in my home town of Liverpool (and, no doubt, beyond) think that I’m mad for following Latvian football, and Skonto Riga FC in particular, but it is footballing world far removed from the hype and money obsessed world of the English Premier League and it makes a refreshing change to see football so laid-back as it is there.
Following Metalurgs’ 2005 title success came three-in-a-row for FK Ventspils between 2006-08 and then Metalurgs won their second crown in 2009. It was a painful period for Skonto as they saw their two main rivals win most of the silverware but that was now all in the past as there was no doubting the fact that Skonto Riga were the best team in the LMT Virslīga in 2010. After a five year wait I was finally going to see Skonto FC play a match with the status as champions of Latvia and as I went to the stadium with just twenty minutes to go before kick-off I noticed a familiar face outside the ground. It was none other than Latvian football legend Vitālijs Astafjevs, Europe’s most capped international footballer with 165 appearances for his country to date, who will be known to fans of English club Bristol Rovers for whom he graced the club colours for three years before heading back eastwards. If I was surprised to see and be able to talk to Astafjevs then I was more surprised to meet the Skonto FC and Latvia national coach Aleksandrs Starkovs. For anyone without any knowledge of Starkovs he is a true legend of the game both as a player and a coach. His exploits in the latter category have seen him win twelve league titles and six national cups, all with Skonto, and in 2010, his first season back in charge of Latvia’s record champions, he managed to end Skonto’s six year trophy drought.
Before their final home match of the season Skonto FC had scored the most goals in the league (80) and conceded only sixteen goals, which was the second best record in the league. After clinching the title last week Skonto put on a champions performance against FK Jaunība, who were already as good as relegated before the game began. Yesterday’s game showed the gulf in class between the league’s best and worst sides as Skonto completed dominated possession and territory hardly allowing the visitors to leave their own half of the pitch. Despite Skonto’s dominance they went in at half-time with only a two goal lead, Alans Siņelņikovs opened the scoring in the 23rd minute with left foot thunderbolt in the top left corner and Brazilian Nathan Junior doubled the lead with a headed goal on the half-hour mark.
At the half-time break I met some guys from South London who were all Crystal Palace fans except for one whose allegiances lay firmly with Millwall. Not only did we agree in our assumptions about the cozyness and laid-back attitude of Latvian football (they were particulary impressed at having met two ex-Crystal Palace players – Andrejs Rubins and Aleksandrs Koļinko – at the game) but also a mutual loathing at how English football seems to have lost its soul in its dire pursuit of all things financial. We even spoke about the Bundesliga and I was surprised to find out that one of the Palace fans was also a huge Eintracht Frankfurt, a bit like yours truly, so for me it was a great experience talking to them although they had to miss the second half of the game so I’ll let them know that they missed a pretty good last 45 minutes of the Latvian season.
After the chat it was back to the footie and the second half continued in much the same vein as the first with chance after chance for Skonto. It didn’t take them too long to score goal number three, Nathan Junior again found the net to keep up his impressive goalscoring record for the season. Following that it took until the final ten minutes of the match for the game to truly come alive as Skonto scored three more times thanks to David Janelidze, Igors Tarasovs and another from Junior whose hat-trick came from the penalty spot. For the Brazilian the match topped off a perfect season in which he was the Virsliga’s joint top-scorer with eighteen goals along with Liepājas Metalurgs’ Deniss Rakels. At the final whistle the small but boistorious Skonto hardcore following “H-Side” gave the team a great send-off showing their appreciation by setting off flares into the Riga sky. This culminates a season in which Skonto won the league with 69 points from 27 matches, six ahead of second place FK Ventspils, and will see Latvia’s finest enter the UEFA Champions League at the 2nd qualifying round next season. For FK Jaunība it’s back down to the Pirma Līga after just one season in Latvia’s top flight.