Man of the matches

  • 2002-07-11
  • Steven C. Johnson
Thanks to the World Cup, sports writer Valery Karpushkin is enjoying a bout of minor celebrity. His creative commentary on local TV during the tournament has won him fans across the country. Here's his take on the secret to good play-by-play and the future of Latvian football. Interview by Steven C. Johnson

When Karpushkin, 53, began his journalism career, he wrote primarily about intra-Soviet hockey and basketball. In those days, he wrote far less about his first love —football —- because Latvian teams rarely played in the first division in Soviet leagues.

"We were very good at hockey, not bad at basketball, but our football teams played in the second division," he recalled.

This year, a crisis surrounding the World Cup elevated Karpushkin into the spotlight. After Latvia's main TV stations failed to secure rights to broadcast matches, a small channel teamed up with a political party to fill the void. Karpushkin got the call to call the matches. Since then, there's been no looking back for the "golos za kadrom" or "voice behind the frame."

After calling World Cup games on local television, you have become something of a celebrity in Latvia. I have heard people say they never liked football until they heard you call games. Have you received many such complements?

Yes, I've received many letters. They are all over my desk at work. There are many from women and young girls who told me my commentary was interesting because I did not speak only about the match. I also told listeners about the history of the World Cup. You know, I wasn't at the stadium in Japan, I was watching on TV, and I saw only what viewers here saw. So I decided to give more information about players, about the teams, about the countries and their football programs. And this was successful because more people who were never football fans got interested in the game. More fans is good for Latvian football.

Had you done television commentary before?

I usually just write about football for my newspaper, but from 1982 to 1991, I worked as a commentator for Soviet football and hockey, mainly doing commentary of our Latvian teams' games for Moscow television and radio. I also worked some on local TV and radio. In those days, I worked closely with a colleague who gave Latvian commentary while I gave Russian commentary. He would talk for five minutes in Latvian, then I would continue in Russian, then he would start again, and so on. But when Russian commentary ended on state television in 1991, I went back to just writing. So it's been almost 11 years.

Was it difficult to do again after so much time?

It was no problem. Television is no problem for me. I know the people who work in TV here in Latvia and we meet often at football games and everything was great.

When the TEM channel signed a deal to broadcast games, how did you get the call to provide commentary?

I had written in my newspaper that Latvia being without World Cup games was a very bad situation. Our fans were very angry and I was expecting a major demonstration on Brivibas Street at which people would demand games on television. But when a deal was reached with TEM, they called me and asked me to work the games.

You had no connections with the political party, For Human Rights, that sponsored the World Cup coverage?

No, only with TEM. I learned 10 minutes before I was to call the first game that this party was the sponsor. But this party, by giving people the chance to watch the World Cup, will, I think, receive a lot of support from fans. This would be true of any party that might have sponsored the matches, be it Latvia's Way or anyone else.

Latvijas Televizija said the asking price for broadcast rights was $400,000, much more than for the 1998 World Cup. Are you worried about a trend toward higher prices for the rights to broadcast such tournaments?

I think this is not a good trend, that FIFA is selling rights for so much money. It is unfair for countries like Latvia that aren't as rich as France or Germany. Of the countries in the world that didn't buy rights to the tournament, Latvia was joined by Belarus, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, the Solomon Islands, the Philippines, and a few others. The ex-Soviet republics probably hoped they would be able to watch via Russian TV, but the Russian channels blacked it out. So you can see who is left behind.

Will Latvia be able to afford the 2006 World Cup if prices keep getting higher?

I hope it's not too expensive. But actually, after this year, I think our government and political forces will do whatever it takes to make sure the tournament is broadcast here.

What's the state of Latvian football today? Does the team have a realistic chance of qualifying for the next European championship and, after that, the World Cup?

I think it's getting better. Of course, the competition is intense, but we have beaten good teams in the past such as Norway. And we beat Greece in Athens. Also, we have seven players in the English league. (Marian) Pahars plays for Southampton, (Andrejs), Stolcers for Fulham, (Igor) Stepanovs for Arsenal. Juris Laizans plays for the Central Army club in Russia.

When we try to qualify for the European championships, we will have to play Sweden, Poland, Hungary and San Marino. We have a good chance of finishing second. I really think we can beat Poland, Hungary and San Marino. But even if we had to play England or Germany, well, it's not realistic to expect to win, but it would be good for Latvian football because these teams pay quite big money to broadcast games and it would increase our profile.

But does having so many players in leagues abroad lower the level of play in the Latvian league?

Well, that's a potential problem, but the truth is we have quite a lot of good young players. When Pahars left Skonto to play for Southampton, we brought up Andrejs Rubins to replace him. If Pahars hadn't left, we might never have known about Rubins. Now Rubins plays for Crystal Palace (London). Our general manager says we have many good 16- and 17-year-old players. When one starter goes to England, we have two or three ready to compete for his job. This is very good.