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Astafjevs signs off but love affair continues

Latvia captain Vitālijs Astafjevs won his 167th and last cap on 17 November, with Europe's longest-serving international signing off by saying: "I love football and have always loved it."

Vitālijs Astafjevs made 167 international appearances for Latvia
Vitālijs Astafjevs made 167 international appearances for Latvia ©Getty Images

Europe's most-capped international footballer of all time, Vitālijs Astafjevs, has hung up his boots with Wednesday's 1-0 defeat by China being his 167th and last appearance for Latvia.

The midfielder, 39, called time on his 18-year national team career after a 20-minute substitute cameo in his farewell game in the Chinese city of Kunming. He had already played his final match for his club side, newly crowned Latvian champions Skonto FC, on 27 October.

He said: "I never aimed to set any records, although it was great to break the European record after our friendly in Honduras last November. However it is not about records, it is all about my love for football."

Astafjevs, who will now dedicate his energies to coaching at Riga-based Skonto, was 21 when he made his Latvia debut in a 0-0 draw with Denmark in August 1992. "We were up against the European champions and were very nervous," he recalled. "I came on for Jurijs Popkovs, a Latvian legend, and was delighted. The main thing was, it finished goalless so we took a point off the European champions."

The one-time Skonto trainee later played abroad with FK Austria Wien, Bristol Rovers FC, VfB Admira Wacker Mödling and FC Rubin Kazan, but his personal pinnacle came when Latvia overcame Turkey in a play-off to qualify for UEFA EURO 2004 in Portugal. "It was unforgettable," he said. "We worked a miracle, everyone was amazed. That was true happiness."

Happiness, it seems, has been crucial to Astafjevs sustaining such a long career; he would not have lasted all those seasons had he not got such a kick out of playing. "I love football and have always loved it," he said. "I have always enjoyed playing the game, wherever I have been, even though it has been difficult at times. That love always helped me."

He hopes to transmit that passion to future generations as an assistant coach at Skonto. "I have a lot of things to tell the youngsters about," he said. "Our young team are the new Latvian champions, but even after a big success you have to stay focused, remain patient and keep working hard. Then you will certainly have happy moments in your career."

Astafjevs' long commitment may yet be recognised by a testimonial, with Skonto expected to approach the Latvian Football Federation (LFF) about organising such an event.