Although the qualifying stages for Euro 2016 are only halfway finished, Latvia’s chances of making it to their first international competition since 2004 are all but zero. Taking a meager three points from five matches, harsh losses to the Netherlands and Iceland coupled with three draws from somewhat winnable matches meant that Latvia would go into the qualifying process halfway mark failing to win a single game. Fortunately for the nation’s faithful, the future is not bleak and dark. If anything, the performances of Latvia’s senior team in the opening portion of its qualification campaign shine a light of progress and hope for its footballing future.
For the first time in what seems like a while, the country played as a unit, not a mismatched collection of western European league-calibre players and Virsliga squad fillers and young up & comers. The team looks more balanced in quality, and the lack of current stars achieving notable success abroad is offset by a major boost in homegrown and home-based talent pushing its way into the starting lineup. The 6-0 loss to the Netherlands reflected the enormous imbalance in quality that was already not a subject of debate, but Latvia pushed back at times and in brief spells looked like somewhat of a match for the mighty Oranje. The scoreline was not an optimal one, but the difference could easily have been 10 goals not three years ago. Against Iceland at home Latvia managed to hold out for over two thirds of the match before succumbing to the visitors’ one man advantage, courtesy of a 55th minute sending off for Artjoms Rudnevs.
In its trio of draws, Latvia squandered possibilities to win each one of them. Against Kazakhstan a 0-0 draw was all the boys in red could manage despite having a stronger chance at victory. Kazakhstan played passionately with home support at its back, but the away side should have done enough to win. Playing home to Turkey, internal turmoil on the side of the opposition coupled with a stronger performance in front of goal from the Latvians was not enough to push the side to grabbing all three points. Going down early in the second half, Latvia equalized soon after but couldn’t score again. The most recent match, against the Czech Republic, proved to be Latvia’s best qualifying performance to date. Aleksejs Višnakovs scored in the first half to put Latvia 1-0 up in Prague before a failure to score on a clear chance and a stoppage time equalizer from the hosts meant Latvia would yet again fail to come away with a victory. Despite this the team operated very smoothly, and on a different day would have surely taken all three points from the Czechs.
In addition to the improved team play, the youth rising through the ranks and into the lineup is an encouraging indication of a new and improved Latvia. Youngsters like Jānis Ikaunieks and Valerjis Šabala, both 20, and Vitalijs Maksimenko (24) have already featured multiple times in Marians Pahars’s side, with Vitalijs Jagodinskis, Deniss Rakels, and Vladislavs Gutkovskis, all under 23, looking into the starting 11. Many of these youngsters are plying their trade abroad, indicating a wave of talent that is good enough to move on and be successful in bigger leagues. In particular, Ikaunieks is currently fighting for playing time in France, while Jagodinskis has become a stalwart in Ukrainian club Hoverla Uzhgorod’s back line.
The future of Latvia is looking promising. The national team is scoring goals against better sides than themselves, working as a unit, and look set to have brilliance within the squad for years to come. Marians Pahars has proved to be a great coach and a fantastic motivator, and the country’s legendary forward has pushed Latvia to lose just six of the 16 matches he has helmed. There may not be any chances of Euro 2016 qualification, but should the development of the team and its members continue on a similar path to the current one the next few years, then with a favorable qualification group Latvia has a real chance of making it to its first World Cup finals as sovereign nation, Russia 2018.