Latvia's Coach Never Hesitates to Pass the Buck

Latvia coach Aleksandrs Starkovs has the reputation of a predictable man, especially when it comes to finding excuses for his team's defeats.

After Latvia's 2-1 loss to Switzerland last week, the 53-year-old coach magnanimously placed the blame squarely upon the head of a single individual: the referee. "The ref was just waiting for chances to attack us. Otherwise we would have achieved our desired result. It's easiest for [referees] to make calls against smaller teams," he said.

There is nothing new under the Riga sun. After Latvia's loss to Portugal, Starkovs arrived at the press conference in a huff, only to release his rage on English referee Graham Paul, who during the game had banished the coach to the stands for a series of verbal assaults. He then launched into an extended tirade against Paul and UEFA itself.

The European soccer governing body responded by suspending Starkovs for the next six games. "He has always played the same tune, and the players follow his lead, particularly the young guys who grumble after every call from referees," says journalist Boris Levy. "There hasn't been a single game where they didn't have complaints about the refereeing, whether justified or completely off the wall."

Starkovs won 11 straight Latvian titles coaching Skonto F.C. of Riga, between 1993 and 2004. In qualifying play for the Euro 2004 tournament, Latvia ousted Turkey en route to its first-ever appearance in the competition, in which it even managed a 0-0 draw with Germany.

Still, most pundits in the country saw the achievement as a one-time affair, the result of solid tactical defense and the emergence of a new generation of talented players like Juris Laizans and Maris Verpakovskis. Unfortunately for Latvia, the former is suspended and the latter injured, and neither will play tonight.

Starkov's success with Skonto landed him a spot with Spartak Moscow, one of the most successful clubs in Russia's top tier, but he only lasted two seasons. "They wanted an immediate title and brilliant soccer, and those things don't come easily," says Levy.

Tonight Starkovs will again deploy his 4-4-2 formation on a mission to secure Latvia a spot in the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.

Should he fail, however, he will have no doubt about who to blame.