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Friday 6 September marks a very special day in the life of Marians Pahars, the most famous player in Latvian football history. The former Southampton FC forward is preparing to take charge of the national team in a competitive game for the first time, against near neighbours Lithuania in FIFA World Cup qualifying Group G.
Ask most fans, especially those from the United Kingdom, what they know about Latvia and Pahars's name is likely to crop up. The first Latvian footballer to appear in the English top flight, he was dubbed the 'Latvian Owen' because of his diminutive stature and style of play. A cult hero for many Southampton fans, Pahars has since finished his playing career and, after just three years spent learning his trade, has been fast-tracked to the role of national team coach.
It is a job largely associated with Aleksandrs Starkovs, who led Latvia to UEFA EURO 2004 but ended his second spell at the helm in July. Pahars took his place, opening with a 1-1 friendly draw in Estonia. Now the serious business begins, with Latvia second from bottom in their section having picked up just four points from six games. Pahars, though, is a man who knows how to get the supporters on side.
He moved to the English south coast on trial at the start of 1999 and duly scored the 'perfect hat-trick' – right foot, left foot, header – in a reserves match, prompting Southampton to part with the equivalent of close to €1m to sign him. His Premier League debut was against Coventry City FC on 5 April. "When I came on as a substitute in the 70th minute, my team-mates gave me several passes and I lost the ball immediately," he told UEFA.com. "Everybody was running and I couldn't understand how I could play at such a high tempo and why they had paid so much for me. I was asking myself: 'What am I doing here? I haven't got a chance!'"
Despite those doubts, Pahars soon adapted, scoring the equaliser as Saints drew 3-3 with Blackburn Rovers FC less than a fortnight later. His new employers, however, needed a win against Everton FC on the final day to avoid relegation; Pahars netted twice at The Dell to cement his status as a fans' favourite.
That marked the start of a prolific three seasons for the former Skonto FC attacker. Perhaps the most notable strikes of his 43 Premier League goals came against Manchester United FC, including a memorable effort at Old Trafford after he nutmegged none other than Japp Stam – then the world's most expensive defender – as Southampton held the treble winners 3-3.
"I clearly remember nutmegging Jaap Stam," recalled the 37-year-old. "After that game, Sky Sports asked me for an interview but I refused because of my poor English. Then our coach asked me: 'Don't you realise what you have done?' He took my hand and guided me to the TV camera – but I couldn't really come to terms with what had just happened. I soon started being recognised more and more in England and Latvia."
Pahars continued to perform well, finding the target regularly for Southampton and attracting interest from various other sides. Saints, however, refused to sell. Pahars finished with stints in Cyprus and back in his homeland before retiring in 2009 due to persistent injuries. "When you have done something your whole life and then stop, it feels like the ground has crumbled from under your feet," he said. "I didn't understand how to live or what to do, but I came through it."
After just a year as assistant at the club where he had made his name, Skonto, Pahars succeeded Starkovs after he left for Azerbaijani outfit Bakı FK. He guided Skonto to second in the league, as well as triumphs in the Latvian Cup and Baltic League.
A spell in charge of Latvia's Under-21s followed, before in July he got the top job. His first game was last month's draw with Estonia, but now for the hard part. Latvia are fifth in their group with four points from six fixtures ahead of Friday's visit of Lithuania to Riga and next week's trip to Athens. For Pahars, this current challenge is just the beginning.
He added: "
As a player I wanted to make a name for myself, play at a higher level and financially protect my family. My aim as a coach is the same – to get results and to progress. There are not many Latvian coaches who work abroad. If I made it as a player from this small football country, then why not as a coach as well? If a serious European club makes me an offer, I wouldn't say no! If I succeeded doing that, I would consider my life a success."
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