It would be a little far-fetched to say that the Latvian national team players and their coach, Aleksandr Starkov, were overly impressed by their Israeli opponents on Wednesday night - even if they only managed to snatch a share of the points minutes before the final whistle.
"We managed to keep the fans' interest alive for the rest of the qualifying tournament," said Starkov at the end of the match. He was also full of praise for the home team's supporters, describing them as the 12th man in the squad.
He was a lot less complimentary about the Israeli players. Starkov, who jumped out of the dugout as if he had been electrocuted every time the referee gave a foul against his team, accused the Israeli players of faking fouls and was even dismissive of the talents of Yossi Benayoun. "What's the name of that little guy?" he asked. "Benayoun? I think that Deniss Kacanovs completely took him out of the game."
According to one local journalist, Boris Levy, Starkov "sometimes gives the impression during the game that he has totally lost control and that he loses his head. But he was very proud of the substitutions he made on Wednesday, especially when he brought on Aleksandrs Cauna, who is known here as the Latvian Ronaldo. I tend to agree with him. The Latvian players said after the game that they expected more of Israel. Many of them said that Israel was on roughly the same level as Switzerland, but that Greece was better than both of them."
The Latvian players were, needless to say, delighted to grab a point against Israel, but pointed out that, given the relative weakness of their opponent, they could have even stolen a victory. "We knew everything there was to know about Israel," said the Latvian hero of the night, Vladimir Kolesnicenko, who scored the late equalizer. "We knew that they are much better at home than in away games."
In Greece, meanwhile, coach Otto Rehhagel promised that his team would make it to the World Cup finals - but the local media there is not so sure. "The 2-1 defeat by Switzerland was a slap in the face that brought us all back down to earth," wrote one Greek journalist, while another said that Rehhagel would now have to start from square one. Even though the German coach pointed out that Greece is still top of the group and was extraordinarily unlucky, local sports commentators predict that their national team is not hungry enough and that what should be an easy qualification for South Africa 2101 could turn into long and arduous trek.
In Switzerland, of course, the nation celebrated a rare away victory as only the Swiss can - with the utmost restraint. Tabloid newspaper Blick wrote that the national team displayed great fighting spirit, created a mini-sensation and clawed itself back into the frame for a place in the 2010 World Cup. "The disgrace of the defeat to Luxembourg is behind us and we have corrected the mistakes that were made." The Swiss papers also pointed out that the result on Riga was something of a bonus for their national team, since Israel is one of the main competitors in their group.
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