Latvia. A country of under two million people, it is not surprising that the central of the three Baltic states has failed to produce many high quality footballers. This, however, has the potential to change in the next few years. Latvia’s highest league, the Virsliga, is now more than ever teeming with untapped talent, ready to break out into the big leagues. Several high-profile young Latvians have even made the switch to some of Europe’s biggest national championships. These four prospects represent the cream of the crop for Latvian youngsters.
Just recently promoted from Skonto’s youth team, Gutkovskis exploded onto the scene in this past Virsliga campaign, netting an astonishing 28 league goals to take the capitol club to second place and a shot at Europa League qualification. A pacy and lethal marksman, the 19-year-old is already a starter for his country’s U-21 side, well on course for a senior team call up for the next round of international fixtures. A massive physical presence, Gutkovskis would be well suited as a target man ala Peter Crouch, somebody who would use their physical power and awareness in the box to maximise their other strengths and minimize weaknesses. Linked with summer moves to England and France, the Latvian’s big break could be just around the corner.
2. Janis Ikaunieks, 19, FC Metz, attacking midfielder
Already a full-fledged Latvian international at the tender age of 19, Ikaunieks came up through the ranks at FHK Liepajas Melaturgs, which later became FK Liepajas following the team’s bankruptcy. At the coastal city club, Janis gradually developed his talents before, much like the aforementioned Gutkovskis, having his breakout season in the 2014 Virsliga campaign. He scored a somewhat more astonishing 23 goals from a midfield position, managing to grab nine assists as well as he led his newly-reformed club to a surprising 4th place finish. His heroics were enough for Latvia manager Marians Pahars to call the youngster up for Euro 2016 qualifiers. Ikaunieks played in his country’s 1-1 draw with Turkey and 6-0 destruction at the hands of the Netherlands, in both matches showcasing flashes of brilliance and footballing wisdom well beyond his years. Earning a transfer to Ligue 1 side FC Metz in the winter, the midfielder will have a point to prove as he tries to recreate his Liepajas form in one of Europe’s top leagues.
3. Valerijs Sabala, 20, Club Brugge, forward
Departing from Skonto Riga in the summer in favor of Belgian giants Club Brugge, Sabala became one of the first of the current generation of Latvian footballers to depart Latvia in search of international club success. Loaned out to Czech side Jablonec this winter to develop and get consistent playing time, Sabala now has an opportunity to impress his employers and potentially win a starting spot for next season. Already capped 15 times for Latvia’s senior team, Sabala has not failed to show his goalscoring prowess, netting a double in a 2-0 win over Armenia and an all-important goal in a 1-1 Euro qualifying draw with Turkey. Prior to moving to Belgium, Sabala was taking the Virsliga by storm. Grabbing himself 20 goals in his last season-and-a-half at Skonto, the 20-year-old never failed to remind his opponents of his scoring capabilities. Big things are in store for the youngster from Riga, and he is the one who looks most like becoming the next major Latvian superstar footballer.
4. Vitalijs Jagodinskis, 22, Goverla Uzhgorod, central defender.
Contracted to Ukrainian powerhouse Dinamo Kiev, Jagodinskis was loaned out to Ukrainian Premier Liga minnows Goverla Uzhgorod for development. Featuring in all but one of the team’s matches (against parent club Dynamo), the former Daugava prospect quickly became a sure-in for the first team. Playing a major role in Goverla’s surprise draw with high-flying Dnipro as well as the club’s single win of the season, against Metalurg. The third Latvian international on this list, Jagodinskis made his debut in a September friendly against Armenia following a string of impressive league performances as national team coach Marians Pahars tested out the youth he had at his disposal. With a lock on a starting spot for his club and an eye on an international one, Jagodinskis could grow to give the Sarkanbaltsarkanie the defensive edge the country will need after captain and team legend Kaspars Gorkšs inevitably retires.