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The Significance of Latvia's Miracle at Istanbul

Updated on March 7, 2020
Antonio Martinez1 profile image

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

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. It doesn't matter if two nations have met once or 100 times, 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 the 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 has 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. It would be the birth of a nation's golden generation that the country is now seeking to replicate.

Nightmare at Riga

The Nadir that Begun the Revival

Merely being in contention to qualify for Euro 2004 would have endured something significant for Latvia. Yet this achievement seemed before qualifying commenced in 2002. One can argue that Latvia's road to Euro 2004 shock qualification became even more impressive considering where Latvia stood nearly 30 months earlier.

Latvia was in the midst of a formidable group in an attempt to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. Having to play against three nations that 1998 World Cup (Belgium, Croatia, and Scotland), Latvia sought to secure both victories against San Marino in the group. In the first meeting in 2000, Latvia won but barely, doing so by the odd goal. But when it hosted San Marino on Apr. 25, 2001, Latvia was expected to secure victory in this game. Instead, the draw meant Latvia's suffered one of its most humiliating results ever, especially given that it came at Riga's Skonto Stadium.

Latvia started the game with Marians Pahars scoring a minute into the match, but Latvia failed to hold on to the victory. Latvia only managed a 1-1 draw to San Marino. The result proved a crushing disappointment as Latvia's manager Gary Johnson resigned following the result. His replacement would be Aleksandrs Starkovs.

European Cinderella during 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 Sweden. Hungary and San Marino would also be in their group, with few picking Latvia to contend in this group. Nevertheless, Latvia achieved crucial results, even with yet 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, Latvia achieved another road victory: a 1-0 win at Sweden to clinch 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 qualify for another tournament to go along with its 2002 World Cup and 2003 Confederations Cup berths.

Both nations had been enjoying their most substantial 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 hoped for an advantage heading 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 deemed them be ineligible to play in the second leg. One player Emre Asik received a red card for his elbow on Vits Rimkus. That took place nearly 10 minutes after Asik received a yellow card.

The odd goal proved decisive for Latvia in the first leg, and 90 minutes stood between Latvia and a famous berth.

The Second Leg

Miracle at 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 a 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 excellent opportunities early on, and on both occasions, Kolinko saved the attempts.

However, Davala made up for his earlier yellow card in the 20th minute. Turkey's Nihat Kahveci was able to regain possession and swung a pass in the penalty area to Ilhan Mansiz. The golden goal hero from the 2002 World Cup against Senegal, Mansizvolleyed 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. 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's celebration by removing a corner flag on the field dismayed most of the partisan 24,000 in attendance. Then 11 minutes later, Latvia launched what would be 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 replacement. 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 most significant 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 for the Golden Generation

Before its successful campaign in qualifying Euro 2004, Latvia had Eriks Petersons as the nation's most capped player. But, Petersons received his 63 caps and tallied his 21 goals before Latvia's annexation into the Soviet Union. Currently, 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 established in Latvia's friendly at Slovenia in Celje as Astafjevs became Latvia's first player to gain 100 caps. In 2010, Astafjevs played his final match in Kunming, China, a year after becoming Europe's all-time caps leader against Honduras. His 167 caps were tied for ninth-most all-time in men's football and were the most for any European player until Italy's Gianluigi Buffon eclipsed that mark in 2017.

But similar to Astafjevs, the remaining players concluded their international careers despite failing to get Latvia back to a major tournament. He received 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 earned 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

Latvia's Star Came of Age

Among the 100-cap players from Latvia was Verpakovskis, who scored in both legs against Turkey in 2003. It was in qualifying for Euro 2004 where Verpakovskis generated his impact, and Latvia observed that impact. It was Verpakovskis that helped Latvia reach the playoffs, tallying 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 the Netherlands. Its records in Euro 2004 may not demonstrate it, but Latvia held more than its own at Euro 2004. After all, Verpakovskis scored Latvia's first-ever goal at a major tournament, and it was the opening goal against the eventual semifinalists, the Czech Republic in Aveiro, Portugal. Although it managed only one point, Latvia achieved that one point against former continental champions Germany, who two summers earlier were in the World Cup Final.

Even with Latvia struggling to reclaim its glory from Euro 2004, Verpakovskis helped set records few could have imagined. 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,

On Oct. 13, 2007, Verpakovskis became Latvia’s all-time leading scorer in a road qualifier in 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 over 15 years since Latvia's upset in Istanbul, and so much has changed for Latvia. It has been tough Latvia is unable to replicate the magic and glory it had in reaching Euro 2004, also given its recent struggles during Euro 2020 qualifying. Latvia set a precedent in Istanbul. Its golden generation was born in Istanbul. Latvia hopes to begin another new generation of stars one more time.

Latvia's Centurions

Player
Caps
Years Played
Vitalijs Astafjevs
167
18
Andrejs Rubins
117
12
Juris Laizans
113
15
Imants Bleidelis
106
12
Mihails Zemlinskis
105
13
Maris Verpakovskis
104
14
Igors Stepanovs
100
16
As of 2019, seven players have earned at least 100 caps for Latvia, including Vitalijs Astafjevs. 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 mo

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Antonio Martinez

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