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Birth at the Bosphorus: Latvia's Miracle from Istanbul

Updated on August 9, 2017
Antonio Martinez1 profile image

Antonio Martinez graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in History and a double minor in Russian Area Studies and Journalism.

Players and other personnel celebrate by hoisting Latvian manager Aleksandrs Starkovs after Latvia secured a berth at Euro 2004 with a 2-2 draw on Nov. 19, 2003.
Players and other personnel celebrate by hoisting Latvian manager Aleksandrs Starkovs after Latvia secured a berth at Euro 2004 with a 2-2 draw on Nov. 19, 2003. | Source

At the qualifying stage of the European Championships, any qualifying match is relevant, no matter who the two countries are competing battle. A history can have two previous meetings or 100, but not matter how many games contested, one game has always proven to become a national triumph and a national agony simultaneously.

In 2003, that approach unfolded in Istanbul, Turkey. One result saw nation usher in a birth of a golden generation beyond the shadows of the Soviet Union. Latvia's first (and perhaps best) chance to participate in a major tournament had come before the Soviet Union annexed Latvia in 1940. In, 1938 Latvia finished second in a three-team group to qualify for the World Cup.

Latvia had only faced Turkey six times, including a recent 1-1 draw in Istanbul in a Euro 2016 qualifier on Sept. 3, 2015. However, the Baltic nation's previous trip to Turkey on Nov. 19, 2003, proved memorable.

On this date, Latvia qualified for Euro 2004 and a country came of age inside Istanbul's Inönü Stadium.

Nightmare at Riga

A Nadir that Begun the Revival

Latvia reaching the playoffs to qualify for Euro 2004 was an achievement unto itself, a feat that seemed unlikely before qualifying commenced in 2002. But Latvia's shock qualification became even more impressive considering where Latvia stood nearly 30 months earlier.

Latvia played in a difficult group that featured three European nations that played at the 1998 World Cup in Belgium, Croatia, and Scotland. Latvia also had to face European minnows San Marino in the group, and the Baltic country looked to win both meetings. Latvia did manage to win by the odd goal when the teams first met late in 2000. But on Apr. 25, 2001, Latvia suffered one of the most stunning results ever in qualifying as it hosted San Marino at Riga's Skonto Stadium.

Latvia began the game with Marians Pahars scoring a minute into the match, but Latvia failed to hold on to the victory. Latvia finished the game with a 1-1 draw to San Marino. The result was a major disappointment as Latvia's manager Gary Johnson resigned following the result.

His replacement would be Aleksandrs Starkovs.

The Cinderella in Qualifying

Latvia underwent growing pains throughout Starkovs’ first 12 months in charge as the Baltic nation had to face two 2002 World Cup participants in Poland and San Marino, as well as Hungary and San Marino once again. Few people expected Latvia to contend in such a group, but the Baltic nation defied all odds as Latvia impressed in qualifying, even if it did survive another scare against San Marino.

The qualifying campaign began with a scoreless draw against Sweden and an impressive 1-0 victory in Poland. One year after upsetting Poland on the road, Latvia did the same in Sweden, with its 1-0 victory securing a playoff berth as a runner-up. Latvia surprised people but had to battle against one of the emerging European nations to reach Euro 2004. Latvia had to face Turkey, looking to reach another major tournament to go along with its 2002 World Cup and 2003 Confederations Cup berths.

Both nations were having their best periods of football to date, but Turkey was heavily favored to advance to Euro 2004. Turkey hoped for an advantage going into the second leg, but Maris Verpakovskis scored 29 minutes in the first leg.

Turkey hope for an advantage going into the second leg –that would not be the case. Maris Verpakovskis scored 29 minutes in the first leg at Skonto Stadium. Things got much worse for Turkey in the second half, as three players received yellow cards that saw them be ineligible to play in the second leg. One player Emre Asik received a straight red card for his elbow on Vits Rimkus. That came nearly 10 minutes after Asik received a yellow card.

The odd goal proved decisive for Latvia in the first leg, and the nation was 90 minutes away from an unlikely berth.

The Second Leg

Miracle of Istanbul

Latvia had three keys players available for this match, including its striker Pahars. Pahars was playing in Latvia’s first competitive game in over a year on the bench. Latvia's defense would also see Dzintars Zirnis and Mihails Zemlinskis both in the starting lineup as they returned from suspension. More importantly, Latvia also looked to take advantage of a depleted Turkey squad. That depleted team also saw a change in goalkeeper as Ömer Catkic had to start for the suspended Rüstu Recber.

More suspensions looked imminent when Ümit Davala received a yellow card for unsporting behavior in the 10th minute for a foul on Latvia’s Andrejs Rubins. Turkey attempted to crack Latvia’s defense as it sought an early goal to erase the deficit against goalkeeper Aleksandrs Kolinko. Tümer Metin provided two good opportunities early on and on both occasions Kolinko saved the attempts.

But Davala made up for his earlier yellow card in the 20th minutes. Turkey’s Nihat Kahveci was able to regain possession and swung a pass in the penalty area to Ilhan Mansiz. Mansiz, the golden goal hero from the 2002 World Cup against Senegal, volleyed the ball with his left foot, and the shot went past Kolinko. Turkey continued to press forward, but Latvia looked to get that all-important away goal as they had two key scoring opportunities. Four minutes after Latvia allowed the opening goal, Jurijs Laizans found Verpakovskis with an excellent pass, only for Catkic to deny Verpakovskis with a save. Rubins had a scoring opportunity in which he began from near midfield, but his shot took a deflection.

At this point, the series was up in the air.

The second half began the same way as Latvia's stern defense halted any Turkish momentum on the offense. Turkey needed a breakthrough somehow as midfielder Gökdeniz Karadeniz came on to replace Metin.

This substitution proved critical as poor Latvian clearing allowed Turkey to gain possession of the ball in Latvia’s territory. Two passes later, Karadeniz crossed a low pass toward Hakan Sükür, and Sükür scored his 41st career goal for Turkey, putting him second at the time on Turkey's all-time scoring list. Turkey stood on the brink of a third consecutive European Championship. It seemed that Latvia's dream season would come to a bitter end.

However, Latvia did not waste time following that goal as Latvia had a throw-in following the rekick. Rubins’ throw-in found Vitalijs Astafjevs and Emre Belözoglu would pull down Astafjevson the ensuing throw-in. On the next play, Laizans struck a free kick that goes toward the penalty area. One of the two players on Turkey’s wall Tugay Kerimoglu missed the block on the attempt. Other Turkish players tried to prevent the shot, including Catkic.

None proved successful. Latvia had the decisive away goal. It came one minute after going down 2-0 in the second leg.

Laizans celebrated by removing a corner flag on the field, much to the dismay and anger of the 24,000 in attendance as some fans even through objects toward the area where Laizans and some teammates celebrated.

Then 11 minutes later, Latvia launched what would be a the deciding factor in who reaches Euro 2004.

The play began with Kolinko launching a deep ball that bounced off the turf. The ball found Verpakovskis, and he broke free from Turkish captain Bülent Korkmaz. Verpakovskis shot just over Catkic’s head. Latvia had this series in control now, and Turkey now needed two goals and. Turkey made two substitutions as forwards Hasan Sas, and Tuncay Sanli came on for Davala and Kerimoglu, respectively. Latvia answered by using a defensive substitution. As the game approached stoppage time, Latvia made one final change.

It proved fitting when Verpakovskis came off and on came Pahars, who had not played for Latvia in over a year while recovering from a hernia operation. The short playing time would give Pahars ample time to get fit while playing for Southampton in the English Premier League. By the end of the game, Pahars would get the opportunity to be ready come June 2004.

Latvia qualified for its first ever major tournament at Euro 2004.

After a disastrous qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup, Latvia became the biggest shock among the 16 qualifiers for Euro 2004.

Latvia's Vitalijs Astfjevs battles for the battle with Germany's Dietmar Hamann during a Euro 2004 match in Porto, Portugal. This match was one of 167 appearances for Astafjevs, the most by a European player.
Latvia's Vitalijs Astfjevs battles for the battle with Germany's Dietmar Hamann during a Euro 2004 match in Porto, Portugal. This match was one of 167 appearances for Astafjevs, the most by a European player. | Source

Longevity At Last

Before Latvia's successful campaign in qualifying Euro 2004, Latvia's most capped player was Eriks Petersons. Petersons earned 63 caps and 21 goals before Latvia's annexation into the Soviet Union. Today, seven players have surpassed at least 100 caps for Latvia; all seven players started in that second leg in 2003, including the captain of that match.

He earned his first cap during Latvia's Euro 1996 qualifying match against reigning European champions Denmark on Aug. 26, 1992. By 1999, Vitalijs Astafjevs became Latvia's captain of the national team. History was made in Latvia's friendly at Slovenia in Celje as Astafjevs became Latvia's first player to earn 100 caps. When he played his final match in Kunming, China in 2010, Astafjevs became Europe's all-time caps leader, a record he broke just over a year earlier against Honduras.His 167 caps are sixth most all-time in men's football.

But similar to Astafjevs, the remaining players ended their international careers despite failing to get Latvia back to a major tournament. He earned his first cap in Latvia's first game post-Soviet Union on Apr. 8, 1992 and Zemlinskis won his 104th and final cap in a 2-2 draw to Japan on Oct. 8, 2005. Along with Laizans and Rubins, Imants Bleidelis and Igor Stepanovs have gone on to earn 100 caps.

The seventh player from Latvia with over 100 caps helped set national records.

Maris Verpakovskis was the key player in Latvia's aggregate victory over Turkey in 2003. Verpakovskis went to become Latvia's all-time leading goalscorer.
Maris Verpakovskis was the key player in Latvia's aggregate victory over Turkey in 2003. Verpakovskis went to become Latvia's all-time leading goalscorer. | Source

A Star is Born

Among the 100-cap players from Latvia, Verpakovskis, who scored in both legs against Turkey in 2003, helped establish new standards in Latvian football. It was in qualifying for Euro 2004 where Verpakovskis made his impact and Latvia felt that impact. It was Verpakovskis that helped Latvia even get to the playoffs, scoring twice against Hungary before his lone strike in Sweden sent Latvia to the playoffs.

Most expected Latvia to struggle at Euro 2004 in a group that featured three heavyweights in the Czech Republic, Germany, and Netherlands. Even though its record may not show it, Latvia held more than its own at Euro 2004. Verpakovskis scored Latvia's first ever goal at a major tournament. It was the opening goal against the Czech Republic to take a shock lead in Aveiro, Portugal. Latvia had it best and shocking result when it held Germany to a scoreless draw in Porto.

Even with Latvia struggling to reclaim its glory from Euro 2004, Verpakovskis helped set the bar most thought could not be possible. Verpakovskis has often scored in competitive matches; of his 29 career goals, 24 came in either tournaments or qualifying games. Verpakovskis was Latvia's leading scorer in qualifying campaigns for the 2006 and 2010 World Cup, as well as qualifying for Euro 2008.

It was in qualifying for Euro 2008 where Verpakovskis made history. Verpakovskis became Latvia’s all-time leading scorer on Oct. 13, 2007, Reykjavik as his two goals helped Latvia win 4-2 against Iceland. Verpakovskis's final goal came in a 2014 World Cup qualifier in Latvia's 2-1 loss to Slovakia.

It has been nearly 12 years since Latvia's upset in Istanbul and so much has changed for Latvia. It has been tough that Latvia is unable to replicate the magic and glory it had in reaching Euro 2004, particularly in its crucial match in Turkey. But no matter what happens in Latvia's qualifier in Turkey, nothing can take away Latvia's moment in 2003.

Latvia set a precedent in Istanbul. Its golden generation was born in Istanbul. Latvia hopes to begin another new generation of stars in Istanbul once again.

Latvia's Centurions

Years Played
Vitalijs Astafjevs
Andrejs Rubins
Juris Laizans
Imants Bleidelis
Mihails Zemlinskis
Maris Verpakovskis
Igors Stepanovs
As of 2017, seven players have gone on to earn over 100 caps for Latvia. Before Euro 2004, Latvia's most capped player was Valerijs Ivanovs with 68 in 2001. At the time, Ivanovs broke Eriks Petersons 63-year old record for most caps for a Latvia play


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