Ireland enjoy a perfect record against Latvia, winning all five previous matches on an aggregate score of 14-1. Much of the credit for this belongs to John Aldridge, who scored eight goals in his four competitive appearances against Latvia during qualifying for the 1994 World Cup and Euro 96.
In club competitions, however, Latvia have recently enjoyed the upper hand. Owing to the forensic seeding system operated by Uefa, Irish and Latvian sides regularly meet in the preliminary rounds in Europe. In July, Riga FC beat Derry City 4-0 on aggregate in the first round of the Europa Conference League, despite not appearing to have conducted detailed research on their opponents. After the draw Riga FC tweeted “Trip to Northern Ireland!” beside a picture of a Union Jack, prompting an immediate response from Derry City saying “Welcome to Ireland!” alongside a tricolour.
Stephen Kenny has happier memories of Latvian clubs visiting the Brandywell, as he managed Derry City in 2009 when they defeated Skonto Riga 2-1 on aggregate in the Europa League. Despite having gone bankrupt in 2016, Skonto remain by far the most successful team in Latvian history, winning 14 titles in a row beginning in 1991 when the Virslīga resumed.
Latvia are managed by Dainis Kazakevičs, who, like his Irish counterpart, was promoted following a successful spell in charge of the under-21 team. Kazakevičs was appointed manager of FK Jelgava in 2001 at the age of just 20 and the bulk of his Latvian squad play in the Virslīga. Notable exceptions include Vladislavs Gutkovskis, who scored six international goals in 2022 to win the Latvian Player of the Year award for the second time running, who plays for Raków Czestochowa in Poland and Roberts Uldriķis, based at SC Cambuur in the Netherlands. However, the most promising export is Raimonds Krollis, whose 24 goals fired Valmiera FC to their first league championship in 2022 and earned the striker a move to Spezia, where last month he became the first Latvian to play in Serie A.
In 2004 Latvia became the first Baltic country to qualify for the European Championships, leading prime minister Indulis Emsis to promise to dye his hair green if they made the quarterfinals. Despite this inducement Latvia finished bottom of their group with one point secured in an impressive 0-0 draw with Germany. Captain Vitālijs Astafjevs played in all three games, the high point of a 167-cap international career that saw him retire in 2009 as the most-capped European footballer in history (a record now held by Cristiano Ronaldo).
Latvia should have made their big tournament debut 66 years earlier as they participated in qualifying for the 1938 World Cup, narrowly missing out to Austria. When the Anschluss prevented Austria from participating, Fifa should have invited Latvia to replace them but instead ran a 15-country World Cup, awarding Sweden a bye into the second round.
Latvia compete in the Baltic Cup and have won the world’s oldest active football tournament for national team a record 13 times. Despite having recently been promoted to League C in the Nations League, they lie a lowly 133rd in the Fifa rankings. Times are even tougher for the Latvian woman’s team who in November 2021 suffered a record 20-0 defeat to England in a 2023 World Cup qualifier. Even scoring all of the goals in a game is no guarantee of victory for the unfortunate Latvians. In their final qualifier of that campaign, against Northern Ireland, Latvian players scored all four goals but lost 3-1 because of an incredible trio of own goals.
A handful of Latvian’s have played in the League of Ireland, most notably Raivis Jurkovskis who played for Dundalk in 2021. Roberts Mežeckis, who is now a member of the Latvian coaching staff, played a handful of matches for Cork City in 2009. Less happily, Igor Labuts’ spell as goalkeeper for Athlone Town ended in 2017 when the FAI banned him for a year for match fixing, a decision that was subsequently overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The next Latvian likely to feature in the Premier Division is Shamrock Rovers’ promising 18-year-old goalkeeper Toms Leitis. Sunderland defender Dennis Cirkin was born in Dublin to Latvian parents but is a youth international for England. Cirkin had a mixed evening when he returned to his native city in November 2018. England Under 17′s beat their Irish counterparts 3-1 at Tallaght Stadium but Cirkin was sent off.
The visitors technical director is Marians Pahars, who was manager of Latvia when they last visited Lansdowne Road in November 2013 for a friendly that Ireland won 3-0 on the night Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane took charge for the first time. In 1999 Pahars became the first Latvian to play in the Premier League when he joined Southampton for £800,000. Nicknamed the Latvian Michael Owen, Pahars achieved cult hero status by scoring both goals in a 2-0 victory over Everton on the final day of that season to ensure Southampton avoided relegation.
Less successful was Igors Stepanovs, whose career at Arsenal was literally, and not merely metaphorically, a joke aimed at exploiting Martin Keown’s constant insecurity about somebody taking his place. Ray Parlour in his autobiography The Romford Pele recalls that when Stepanovs played a preseason trial match he was clearly not up to scratch, but to wind up Keown the substitutes led by Dennis Bergkamp applauded the Latvian’s every misplaced pass.
Unfortunately Arsène Wenger was not in on the prank and took every shout of “Great header!” or “Unbelievable tackle!” at face value. When Parlour returned to Arsenal’s training base he was stunned to find Stepanovs sitting there having just signed a four-year contract. An injury crisis saw Stepanovs start an infamous 6-1 defeat to Manchester United. Walking off at half time at Old Trafford already 5-1 down, Parlour was approached by Dwight Yorke, who had completed his hat-trick in the 23rd minute, who asked: “Where the hell did you get that centre-half from?” Parlour sheepishly replied “Look, it’s a long story ...”