This post has been guest written by Stephen Cox. Stephen is an Arsenal fan and this summer his travels saw him visit Latvia, a country sandwiched between Lithuania and Estonia in northeastern Europe. A chance encounter in the country’s capital saw him take in the second leg of Riga FC against FC Copenhagen with a place in the group stages of the Europa League at stake…
The Europa League: an oft-maligned competition that deserves our respect
Whilst on my travels this summer, a group of young lads from Manchester staying in my hostel made me aware that a Europa League qualifier was taking place in the Latvian capital of Riga that evening. I was dismayed that I myself had not thought of this and at such short notice I was convinced there would be no chance of getting tickets. Nevertheless, I felt I could not allow such an opportunity to go begging.
I was willing to chance it, and so along with some of the Mancunian boys we headed off to find Skonto Stadium – the current home of Riga FC and the former home of the Latvian national team. On arrival at the ground, I was amazed to see how few fans were outside. A quick Google search told me that Riga FC had only been a team for 5 years, winning two trophies in that time and picking up a first league title in 2018.
The stadium capacity was 9,100 and to my relief there were tickets still available. At this point I had little care for the cost, but was astonished to find out they were just five euros. To put this into perspective, it costs £10 to watch my 7th tier local side at home. The 3-1 loss in the first leg, coupled with the suspiciously cheap ticket prices, meant that my expectations were not high. For context, FC Copenhagen average almost 15,000 fans at home games while the average attendance at Riga FC is less than 1,000. Interestingly enough, the Danish side are also the new home of controversial figure Nicklas Bendtner. The match against FC Riga would however come too early for the former Arsenal forward, with his registration still pending following his summer transfer from Norwegian side Rosenborg BK.
On entering the stadium, being one in continental Europe, alcohol was still permitted. This was something I relished as nowadays I am resigned to not drinking within a stadium at football in England. Of course, I understand why the FA at home have made the decision that at games alcohol should be banned. Despite this, I have always felt it was the minority spoiling it for the majority and as such atmospheres have now suffered. On collecting a rather lukewarm 3 Euro pint and some Latvian garlic bread we proceeded out into the stand. I wanted the full Latvian matchday experience.
I make the point about the stand as the area behind the goal was a standing section. Two of the ball boys were having an innocent kick-about here, typifying the atmosphere inside the scarcely populated ground. Indeed, it would have been easier to count the people rather than free seats. I was admittedly rather disappointed. I know that Latvian people prioritise ice hockey but I was still expecting more fans for a Europa League tie.
I began by watching the two sides warm up. Copenhagen seemed very relaxed, whereas Riga were jumping from drill to drill. I was personally unimpressed with Riga’s ball retention and approach by the coach: the constant switching allowed the players little time to settle. By kick-off, the stadium had started to fill up but was still nowhere near capacity. We were perhaps fortunate as we were standing just down from the Riga Ultras. Whatever the game was like, I knew we could expect some atmosphere and a show of defiance from them.
First half frustrations for Riga
The first half in truth was somewhat of a non-event. Copenhagen dominated possession without really doing anything with it and there were no shots on target. They had come to prevent the ‘cupset’ and seemed happy with a 0-0 draw. Their approach was perhaps to be expected, given that qualification for the group stages of the Europe League is worth almost three million euros in prize money.
When the home side got on the ball they did however pose a threat. Copenhagen were tactically naive at times, deploying a high defensive line but not pressing. This was allowing Riga’s Serbian playmaker, Stefan Panić, to frequently find his team-mates with the diagonal ball. Unfortunately, the end product was inconsistent. The player that really caught the eye was left-back Giorgos Valerianos. On the one hand, a couple of delightful crosses and some impressive footwork had me impressed. On the other hand, he demonstrated a volatile and petulant nature picking up a pointless booking for dissent.
The teams went in at half-time with the score still 0-0. The endeavour of the sides could not be questioned with the game being played at a high intensity. The away side had enjoyed a considerable amount of possession and the atmosphere had been slightly subdued as a result. The home side were however accessing the final third with encouraging ease and I always felt that if they could find a bit of extra quality, better chances would come.
Second half: time for a hero?
The first ten minutes of the second half passed without incident. With thirty-five minutes left and FC Riga needing a couple of goals to qualify, it was clear that they needed to inject some additional intensity. Valerianos and Brazilian midfielder Felipe Brisola did just that.
Valerianos, who has one cap for the Greek national side, was excellent. He was driving Riga forward at every opportunity, and as the perfectionist of the Cruyff turn, he did me proud with one on the half way line. That woke the crowd up and gave the home side some impetus.
Brisola was trying to get into the hole on the half turn and get closer to Riga’s lone striker. As Riga’s main threat in the first half had been from out wide via the long ball bypassing the midfield, he had not been involved playing as the number 10. Copenhagen had dropped much deeper in the second half which was no doubt to combat the diagonal ball over the top that had so looked threatening in the first half. As such, Riga began to play through the midfield, with Brisola looking to provide his side with a much-needed creative spark.
Riga finally tested the Copenhagen keeper but it was a simple save from the edge of the area.
With twenty minutes to go it always felt a big ask for the home side. It was looking more and more like they would need a moment of magic or an error to get the goal they desperately craved. Thankfully for the watching crowd that goal arrived three minutes later.
On a rare foray forward, the away side had pushed a number of men up the park. However, as their attack broke down, Riga pounced with deadly menace. A clever pass was turned round the corner in midfield. The ball found its way to substitute Deniss Rakels, who had only minutes earlier replaced the ineffective Roger on the right wing. Rakels swept an inviting ball across the edge of the box and the diminutive Brisola bent the ball into the bottom corner. Being right behind the ball, goalkeeper Sten Grytebust had no chance. The effort appeared to be going wide until the last second when the curl took it just inside the post. A fine finish to ignite the game: the boy from Boa Vista had added some breathtaking Brazilian flair to the contest.
The stadium truly erupted. I was bouncing up and down, and it remained that way until the final whistle. I have only once before seen an atmosphere comparable to the last fifteen minutes in Skonto Stadium: when England beat Croatia at Wembley in the Nations League. The ultras were in full voice, and, after taking a moment or two to decipher the words to the chants, I was more than happy to join in.
Try as they might however, the home side could not find a second goal. Grytebust pulled off an impressive save from a looping header, and a couple of chances went just wide. The Danes had the final chance when Cyprus international Pieros Sotiriou went clean through on goal but he somehow managed to skew his effort wide of the target. Given their negative approach to the game, it would scarcely have been a merited equaliser.
The last action of the game saw Valerianos receive a second yellow card. By far the best player on the pitch, it was a sending off he did not deserve. He is a player that should undoubtedly be playing at a higher level. I was surprised to discover he was 27 and has been a journeyman. Having made his international debut this year, perhaps finally he feels at home at Riga. However, if he continues to perform so strongly he will no doubt be heading for a larger club.
Alas a 1-0 victory was not enough for Riga to progress but they did their fans proud who all cheered to the last. The second half was thoroughly entertaining and I do not remember spending a better five euros on football in my life. A total bargain.
So what did I learn from Latvian football?
1) The beer was dreadful.
2) The passion was spectacular – something certain Scottish and English grounds could learn from.
3) Football has so much to offer: a club born 5 years ago has added so much to the people of Riga. Football truly can build friendships and transcend communities.
4) With FC Copenhagen qualifying in a group with Dynamo Kiev, Malmo and Lugano they will feel they have every opportunity to qualify (especially with Nicklas Bendtner at the helm). Given they lacked potency in Latvia, they may need him to hit the ground running.
5) Never turn down a cheap footy game and always be willing to watch a new side. The quality may surprise you, and you may discover a couple of hidden gems.
Having now watched several games in various European countries, my advice would be to grasp any opportunity to watch football on the continent (and beyond) with both hands. Football brings true passion, football is a passion and to experience that in another’s country is something one can never forget.