"This is a historic win, a great success for our nation," said coach Aleksandrs Starkovs after a 2-2 draw in Turkey on 19 November 2003 propelled his side to UEFA EURO 2004. "I believe this will be a big sensation across Europe."
As eight contenders battle for the four remaining European slots at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in tonight's play-offs, the smaller countries involved can take heart from Latvia's example. Starkovs guided the Baltic nation to their first – and to date only – major international tournament, against the odds and in the most dramatic style.
Māris Verpakovskis had scored the only goal of the play-off first leg against Turkey four days before, as hosts Latvia got their noses in front amid freezing temperatures in Riga. Despite playing well in the return fixture in Istanbul, however, Latvia's advantage evaporated as Nihat Kahveci and Hakan Şükür struck to give Turkey a 2-0 lead inside 64 minutes.
Turkey, World Cup bronze medallists in Korea/Japan, looked certainties to qualify but a goal from Jurijs Laizāns put Latvia back on top on away goals two minutes later. Verpakovskis then made it 2-2 on the night after chasing down a long hoof forward from goalkeeper Aleksandrs Kolinko.
"Before the game, we were depicted as underdogs and I was very happy about that," beamed Starkovs afterwards. "We got our tactics spot on." Şenol Günes's side were left shattered – "The team became undisciplined, and as Latvia's resistance increased, ours faltered," the coach said – but for all their disappointment, local supporters were magnanimous in defeat. "At the end the Turkish fans applauded us and you would not see that in every country," noted Starkovs. "That made us even happier."
Midfielder Vitālijs Astafjevs remembered the occasion clearly when he spoke to UEFA.com: "We started celebrating on the pitch when we couldn't get to our dressing room. And of course we were over the moon in the dressing room – we hugged and kissed each other. On the flight home our team doctor's moustache was shaved off and of course we didn't sleep that night – we were overjoyed.
"When we arrived at the airport I was surprised, as it was very early morning and the buses hadn't started running, but the airport was full," he added. "It was an unforgettable moment." Team-mate Marians Pahars agreed: "I never remember seeing that before. We are a sports-mad country, and ice hockey and basketball players had experienced it, but we hadn't."
If qualification represented a tremendous achievement, it was just the beginning for Latvia, who would impress at UEFA EURO 2004 despite picking up a solitary point from group games against the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands. Their example continues to provide inspiration, though Pahars maintains there was no great secret to their success. "I probably won't surprise anyone if I say the usual things: that you need to believe in yourselves. Any team can be beaten.
"There's no team in the world that can't be beaten. Certainly you must use the correct tactics, and each of your players has to give 100% or even more. It won't work if someone slacks a bit."
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