Having enjoyed a football weekend in the Estonian capital of Tallinn a few years ago I decided it was high time I ticked off the other two Baltic states, Latvia and Lithuania.
Arriving in Rīga on Ryan Air’s joy filled red eye flight from Stansted the Latvian capital soon wins you over with its imminent walkability and stunning architecture including several Art Nouveau structures. But before you even think about your transfer from the airport to the city you must take a look at the stunning Military Aircraft Museum next to the terminal and opposite car park P3. Once you have satisfied your Cold War intrigue a transfer to the heart of Rīga takes twenty minutes. It is worth stating that car hire is very good value and you can take the vehicle you hire into either of the other Baltic nations without any extra charge or additional insurance.
Football in Latvia is beset by money problems and poor support. Since independence in 1991 Skonto Rīga was always the biggest club in Latvia, winning 14 league titles in a row before Liepajas Metalurgs ended their monopoly in 2005. Skonto would only win one more championship before suffering a calamitous and fatal bankruptcy in December 2016. The Skonto Stadions is a very decent stadium, albeit three sided, and is now used by FC Rīga.
The SynotTip Virsliga (Higher League) operates with just eight clubs, six of which have only been formed since the turn of the 21st century. My first taste of Latvian football comes at Rīgas Futbola Skola. The RTU (Rīgas Tehniskās universitātes) Stadions has a large temporary looking bleacher style stand on the near side with in excess of 200 seats. On the opposite side there are two small terracing units one labelled for the away side and one for the home team “ultras”. Less than ten away fans from reigning Higher League champions Spartaks Jūrmala.
It is €5 entry on the day although e-tickets can be bought in advance for €3. Just before kick off the RFS “ultras” arrive bedecked in shirts and scarves and banging drums. Despite their fervour the home side barely muster a shot on goal and Spartaks coast to a 2-0 win. The official attendance was 330 although my head count made it considerably less.
Saturday April 28th 2018 – Latvian SYNOTtip Virsliga
FK Rīgas Futbola Skola 0
FK Spartaks Jūrmala 2 (Svārups 34, Dmitriev 77)
Att:330 Entry €5
Luckily the game did not overrun so the ten minute dash back across the river was made in time to see the 3pm kick off between Metta/Latvijas Universitāte and Valmiera Glass VIA get underway. Metta play at another very basic ground called the Rīgas Hanzas Vidusskolas laukums just a few minutes from the Skonto Stadions. It is €4 entry and there is again a long bleacher style seated stand down one side. This was a real slow boiler of a game, after an hour of mind numbingly tedious tiki-taka passing the two sides shared four goals in the closing stages including a couple of superb strikes.
Saturday April 28th 2018 – Latvian SYNOTtip Virsliga
FK Metta/Latvijas Universitāte 2 (Dzhamalutdinov pen 77,87)
FK Valmiera Glass Via 2 (V.Jaunzems 62, Cipe 83)
Att:250 Entry €4
An evening in old town Rīga capped a fine day out with a cross border trip to Lithuania to look forward to in the morning. It is worth mentioning here that there seems to be an issue with Lithuanian top flight where matches can change location at quite short notice. Thankfully the Lithuania FA website (lff.lt) is just as accurate and informative as its Latvian equivalent. My planned double was the 1pm kick off between Kauno Zalgiris and FK Atlantas, which had already been moved to the Nacionalinė Futbolo Akademija, and then the 6pm match between FK Stumbras and FK Trakai at the S.Dariaus ir S.Gireno Stadionas.
However, a quick check up before the three hour drive south from Riga to Kaunas showed that the Stumbras game had also been moved to the Nacionalinė Futbolo Akademija, which left the obvious dilemma of waiting around for a few hours for a match at the same venue or find an alternative match. I quickly found a 4pm kick off in the Lithuanian Cup at Šiauliai but it would be impossible to make kick off in time. A quick look into the murky depths of the Pirmā Liga, the Latvian second tier found a very handy 7pm match in Olaine for the intriguingly named FK Super Nova.
The Lithuanian top flight game was interesting, a more pacy English style of match instead of the short passing games witnessed north of the border. It was to prove a very entertaining match in a very basic venue normally used by Zalgiris’ and Stumbras’ second teams. The game ended 2-3 to the visitors who thoroughly deserved their win although the hosts nearly levelled in injury time.
Sunday April 2018 – Lithuanian A Lyga
FK Kauno Žalgiris 2 (Kloniūnas 13, Joan Figuereido 87)
FK Atlantas 3 (Baniulis 7,54, Šinkus 85)
Att:155 Entry €3
The gap between matches meant a comfortable drive back to Olaine which lies around 15 miles south of the capital. FK Super Nova were formed as recently as 2000 and previously played at the Ostvalda Vidusskola Stadions some twelve miles away in Imanta. They seemingly have quite good support and totally unexpectedly a modest but colourful programme was handed out free of charge. The Olaines Stadions turned out to be the best one of the weekend, a large back of seats with the central section covered with a roof. Opposite this a church and railway track provides a scenic backdrop. Super Nova now share this ground with local side, AFA Olaine.
The standard of football was pretty poor with a seeming inability to stop giving the ball away at every opportunity. The game was won by the hosts when a rare half decent cross was knocked into the net to the evident delight of the home fans. It seemed to me that the match was more a social event for families with the actual match being a secondary concern. The club are clearly trying to generate a family atmosphere and have an angry looking star as a mascot!
Sunday April 29th 2018 – Latvian Komanda Pirmā Liga
SK Super Nova 1 (Strautiņš 77)
FK Smiltene/BJSS 0
Att:228 Free entry, free programme
It proved an interesting break in two of European football’s backwaters.
An expanded version of this review will appear in a future issue of Football Weekends Magazine.