Baltic battles keep Latvia sharp
by Mihail Korolev from Riga
While the rest of Europe focuses on UEFA EURO 2008™, Latvia are preparing for the traditional tri-nation Baltic Cup tournament which kicks off on 30 May.
None from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have qualified for UEFA EURO 2008™, but they still have plenty of international intrigue ahead as the Baltic neighbours compete for local pride. Latvia coach Aleksandrs Starkovs is also hoping to find a star or two for the future after calling up FK Ventspils defender Igors Savcenkovs and FK Rīga's Roberts Mezeckis and Maksims Rafalskis.
"My goal is to build the team," Starkovs explained. "But we can't afford to look just to the future because we need results now. That's why the majority of my players are ones I have known for a long time. However, there are some new faces in the squad, who are doing really well this season – they have deserved their chance.
"I wouldn't say these boys are young," he added. "All of them have enough top-flight experience. This is true of both Mezeckis and Rafalskis, who won bronze medals with FK Rīga last term. They have continued to be first-team regulars this season. The same can be said about Savcenkovs, who is a regular for champions Ventspils. That's a sign of quality."
'Is this a joke?'
Savcenkovs was amazed to hear he had been called up, telling uefa.com: "Is this a joke? I can't believe it." He added: "I'm delighted. I had dreamed about a call-up, but I thought the earliest chance I might get would be next season. My aim remains the same though – to play for Ventspils. I can't be doing that bad if the national coaching staff selected me."
The 25-year-old Savcenkovs has stepped in for Jean-Paul Ndeki in the centre of the Ventspils defence following the Cameroonian's move to FC Torpedo Moskva. "Top-flight experience with Ventsipls is like oxygen to me," he said. "The quality of football in the Virsliga is very good and you just can't lose your concentration. It's not easy to cope with the pressure and avoid mistakes."
Starkovs hopes all three newcomers will seize the occasion to impress. "I want them to see these call-ups as an acknowledgement of their quality," he said. "They don't need to be shy. I want them to play their football." With veterans such as Igors Stepanovs, Vitalijs Astafjevs and Imants Bleidelis soon to retire, the time may have arrived for newcomers to shine.
Call up for this tournament