In order for Israel's national soccer team to get back on track in the World Cup qualifiers, it will have to first get past Latvia and its coach, Aleksandrs Starkovs, on Saturday night. Latvia's Group 2 match last October sheds some insight on the coach's temperament and unique character.
During the second half, with the score knotted at one-all, Juris Laizans - one of Latvia's most important players - committed an unnecessary foul. He drew his second yellow card and was subsequently dismissed. Laizans then became the fall guy for the team's 2-1 loss in Switzerland.
Starkovs has kept him off the team roster ever since, despite the protests of fans and the press, as well as hints dropped by his players that the team would only benefit from having the veteran midfielder play alongside them.
Starkovs, 54, gives the impression of being thorough and determined, yet dull. Perhaps that is why his career never took off. After a mediocre career as a player, he won 12 consecutive championships with Skonto Riga between 1993 and 2004. However, his high point was Euro 2004 with the Latvian national squad, which stunned Europe when it beat Turkey to reach the playoffs for the first time ever.
That victory landed him a job with Spartak Moscow. But despite his relative success there, the local press criticized his style of play and his closed character. In 2006, one of Moscow's players said the team had become dull under Starkovs, and even though the player was soon traded, Starkovs was fired two months into the season.
"Starkovs is a coach with a wide range of knowledge, but he's too soft a person and gives in to fan pressure," explained Vyacheslav Korotkin of Russia's Sport Express newspaper. "It was only a matter of time. A big, rich club full of intrigue - it was too big for him."
Within the confines of the Latvian national team, Starkovs remains king. He returned in 2007 to save it from collapse. Although the current squad is less talented on paper than the 2004 edition, he gets the most out of his players. Even if others object to his handling of the affair with Laizans, the success of 2004 is etched on Latvian minds.
Holding third place above Israel by one point, Saturday's match in Ramat Gan is critical for the Latvians. But Starkovs remains calm and guarantees the team won't be static.
"We have something to prove in a direct confrontation with a rival as strong as Israel," he said. "We'll have to be active, disciplined and projecting 100 percent confidence - not a milligram less. We want to keep the World Cup dream going."
The coach's focus on Israel may not be shared by his countrymen back home, said Latvian journalist Boris Levy. "People here are interested in the next game against Switzerland," Levy said. "A few days ago, a huge ice hockey tournament opened in Riga, and the European basketball championship will begin shortly. So what's another soccer match that clearly won't lead us anywhere?"
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