RIGA - They came, they saw, and they didn't do too badly considering. Latvia was barely mentioned in the media without being referred to as Euro 2004's "minnows" or "underdogs," but in spite of the fact that it was undoubtedly the weakest team in its group, the Latvian team was able to return home with its heads held high.
I actually predicted that Latvia would qualify from its so-called "group of death" because the relative closeness of the three other teams would cancel each other out in several draws, allowing Latvia to sneak through in second place. And it might have been the case, if Latvia hadn't played so appallingly badly against Holland in its final group game.
In the first game against the Czech Republic, Latvia surprised everyone (and no one more so than the Czechs) with a polished, professional performance. Although the Czechs went on to clinch the game 2-1, the Latvian players did well considering it was their first performance in a major tournament and they were up against far superior opposition.
They were probably even slightly better in their 0-0 draw against Germany a few days later. True, the Germans were utterly lackluster in all of their games, but Latvia nevertheless played well once again and was even unlucky not to have won the game.
And so when the final round of group D games was played, Latvia found itself in the extraordinary position of being able to qualify for the quarterfinals if it beat Holland and the Czech Republic beat Germany.
But Latvia was simply awful against Holland. It lost not because the Dutch were especially good, but because it was especially bad. For most of the game the Latvian players resembled a team of Sunday amateurs. They could barely keep possession of the ball and lacked any sort of shape in their play. It was a wonder that Holland didn't beat them by a greater margin.
Just before the game against Holland, Latvian captain Vitalijs Astejevs said that the team would play using the exact same tactics it had employed in its other two games. But therein lay the problem. Aleksandrs Starkovs, the Latvian coach, did wonderfully well in getting Latvia to the tournament. But his utter lack of tactical sophistication meant that Latvia never had a chance against far more talented teams such as Holland.
To sit back and try and defend against teams like Holland and the Czech Republic is suicide, especially when any hope of scoring rests with threading the ball to a lone striker.
Euro 2004 has been notable for two things. First, it has turned the traditional soccer aristocracy on its head. Second, it has shown that dogged, disciplined team play centered around a strong midfield can win against any opposition, no matter how many superstars it may boast.
Provided Starkovs stays as the national coach - for he's sure to receive a few offers after his extraordinary feats with Latvia - he must try and create a team that can take a more technically flexible approach to the game. True, he hardly has a large pool of talent to choose from, but hopefully the recent successes of the national team will help inspire a resurgence of interest in soccer in this hockey-obsessed country.
Following Latvia's Euro outing, several transfer rumors are already doing the rounds. One Latvian Web site reports that Chelsea, Manchester United and Juventus are all interested in signing Maris Verpakovskins from Dynamo Kiev, although it seems to be the only source to have any knowledge of such a potentially high profile deal.
According to the German sports paper Sportbild, newly promoted Bundesliga side FC Nurnberg is interested in signing Andrejs Prohorenkovs from Maccabi Tel Aviv. Prohorenkovs was one of Lat-via's most impressive players in the tournament and he has said that he would welcome a move to the German top flight.
Meanwhile, Spanish second-division side Levante is reportedly in negotiations to sign Andrejs Rubins from Russian side Shinnik Yaroslav.