RIGA - The sellout crowd at Riga's Skonto Stadium showed that soccer is enjoying unparalleled popularity in Latvia after the country's success in reaching the Euro 2004 finals. But the only truly memorable thing from a Latvian in the Sept. 4 game against Portugal came courtesy of a raven-haired 19-year-old girl called Strawberry.
But first the game. Well, there's not much to say about it. Latvia played its usual game of, um, sitting back and waiting. Maris Verpakovskis had a half chance in the fifth minute but failed to make proper contact with Andrejs Prohorenkovs' cross.
Portugal took the game to Latvia, but English referee Graham Poll rejected claims for a penalty when Pedro Pauleta came down after a challenge by Juris Laizans. An all-round lackluster first half ended goalless.
But things livened up considerably in the second half. Both teams came out attacking, but the sudden appearance of a streaker seemed to take everyone by surprise. After doing a little jig in the middle of the pitch, and giving a friendly hug to a Portuguese player, the police finally realized that they were supposed to do something about the situation and duly led the young woman away.
But as much as the crowd enjoyed Strawberry's contribution to the evening, the game quickly collapsed for Latvia from there on in.
In the 58th minute Ronaldo broke the deadlock when he scored off a rebound from Jorge Andrade's shot. Then, to make matters worse, Latvia's coach Aleksandrs Starkovs was ordered from the bench by Poll when he undiplomatically suggested that Ronaldo had controlled the ball with his hand.
Then almost immediately after the restart the Manchester United striker surged down the wing and crossed to Pauleta who scored from close range.
Portugal is readjusting to life without Manuel Rui Costa and Luis Figo, who have both retired, while Latvia learned this week that it will lose Starkovs - the architect of its recent success - to Spartak Moscow, although he will remain in charge for the Baltic state's first six world cup qualification matches.