Saturday 14 May 2022

The City of Riga, Football and So Much More!

On the face of it, Riga may not seem much of a footballing destination. But whilst in the capital of Latvia, I met many football fans whether it be Champions League followers in the bars of the Old Town or the international assortment of groundhoppers found amongst the small but loyal local fanbases of Latvia’s top-flight Virslīga. Of course, Riga has more to offer than just football, however, and the largest city in the Baltics is a fascinating haven of the historic and the modern with plenty of Soviet-era kitsch bridging the two.
Cheap Ryanair flights have brought people from all over Europe to this thriving metropolis and you can see why. Firstly, there’s the Old Town with its trendy restaurants, lively bars and upmarket retail shopping set amongst its historic architecture, informative museums, and free tours. Contrast that with the Mežaparks district and its captivating Soviet-era amphitheatre cum bandstand sat in the middle of a large forest which itself is situated next to the calming Ķīšezers lake. But don’t forget the eclectic mix of modern design and Soviet-era construction in between either. From the fashionable building of the Latvian National Library built just within the last decade to the hundreds of Soviet-era apartment blocks, this city definitely boasts an interesting mix of 21st-century innovation and communist block antiquity to go alongside that obvious historic charm also present.

For Soviet era, also see the old skool Shopping Centre “MInska” complete with indoor market stalls where your archetypal babushka will be found happily pottering about amongst the varying wares on offer. (in some sort of reciprocal arrangement there is apparently a Riga shopping centre in the Belorussian capital of Minsk) 

Amongst all that I don’t think I’ve mentioned the huge Riga Central Market either. Sat next to the Old Town, the market and bazaar is Europe’s largest and consists of five sizeable pavilions constructed between 1924 and 1930 by reusing old German Zeppelin hangars. Marinated herring from Silkites un Dillites fish bar which sits inside one of the market halls was a definite highlight of my visit. The mouth of the Daugava River that flows through the city meets the Gulf of Riga before it all ends up in the Baltic Sea so, unsurprisingly, seafood is popular amongst the locals.

I can honestly say that after three days in this city, where both Latvian and Russian are spoken in equal measure, I had become very fond of it. But as my time drew to a close there was one thing missing, I had not as yet seen any live football. Eventually, my inner groundhopper will always break loose and I’ll want a local footy adventure. On my final night, it was now time to take in a game having already gotten in the mood by visiting the city’s two main stadiums.

Skonto Satdions and the ever so slightly larger Daugava Stadions (capacity 10,461) are the city’s, and indeed the country’s, two largest stadiums with the former recently hosting national team matches whilst the latter was being renovated. Neither were massively far from the city centre with my apartment, which sat about a 45 minute walk from the Old Town, barely a five-minute stroll from Daugava Stadions. Both venues were open enough for a few photo opportunities and the Daugava I found complete with some mouthwatering x rated floodlight porn.

As for finding that live game, Latvia hosted quite a few top flight midweek matchups during my Monday to Friday visit but only one of which took place in Riga itself. A Thursday early evening affair that would nicely round off my trip. (I was told there would also be a couple of u18 league contests taking place in the city during my stay but declined on that front)

There are currently three permanently Riga based clubs in the Latvian top-flight, FK Metta, FK Rīgas Futbola Skola (RFS), and Riga FC, whilst Spartaks Jūrmala usually based in Jūrmala along the coast are temporarily playing their home games at RFS’ LNK Sporta Parks home whilst their own venue is being renovated. Also nearby are FK Auda who are based in Ķekava a short distance south of the city. Crowds are usually in the low to mid hundreds, however, with basketball and ice hockey seemingly far more popular than the local football although the English Premier League does have a significant TV following within the country. 

The lack of interest in football, and in particular the country’s own leagues, perhaps stems from the fact that during the Soviet era Latvia rarely featured in the top division of the Soviet Union. FC Daugava Riga were the country’s most successful side but only managed seven seasons in the top flight and the last of those came as far back as 1962 albeit with a few near misses on the promotion front in the 1980s. No other side from the country came close to making the top table. Unfortunately, Daugava Riga were dissolved in 1991. Also, the national side's remarkable qualification for Euro 2004 is the only time they’ve featured at a major tournament since their 1991 independence which doesn’t help.

The most famous Latvian club, at least in recent times, however, are Skonto Riga who between 1991 and 2004 incredibly won a world record 14 consecutive league titles in a row. One final title would follow in 2010 before the club went bankrupt and out of existence six years later. A similar fate was suffered by FK Ventspils who withdrew from the league last year due to a lack of funding. This came after UEFA banned the club from European competition for the next seven years for violating UEFA regulations related to "fraud, bribery and/or corruption," I mention Ventspils as in 2006 they played my club Newcastle United in a UEFA Cup qualifying round tie. I remember the home leg most for the fact that Ventspils had only one supporter in attendance in the away end. This was true for the first half at least though a couple more fans seemed to appear from inside the concourse for the second period. But as far as I am concerned they will always be remembered as the away side who brought only one fan.

Ventspils were not based in Riga, however, and neither will FK Spartaks Jūrmala be for much longer. The two times Latvian champions who were formed as recently as 2007 and, as mentioned, are only using Riga as a temporary base hope to move back into their usual Slokas Stadions home before the end of the season with ongoing refurbishment soon to be completed. It was a Spartaks ‘home’ game with Valmiera FC, based just over 100km north east of Riga, that actually ended up being my aforementioned lone opportunity for live football when I visited the city, Only 100 supporters were present to watch a team that, so I am told, usually see between 300-400 fans turn up at their normal ground. However, sitting bottom of the league and playing over 30km from said home can perhaps explain this lower turnout.

LNK Sporta Parks where the game took place is a little way from the centre but accessible via public transport if you don’t fancy an extra long walk. The venue has two main pitches one of which has artificial turf where the game I witnessed took place. The pitch had uncovered seating along one side but facilities were sparse with a small coffee van and two portable toilets about all that was on offer for spectators.

Amongst the 100 in attendance were several foreign visitors and the first voice I heard upon arrival was that of a Welshman named Andy who like me also writes for Football Weekends magazine. Unbelievably a third Football Weekends contributor named Howard was also present with the three of us having arrived separately and with no prior notice. You couldn't make it up. The three of us got chatting to some German groundhoppers during the second half and I have now had an invite to Germany to come and watch their side Alemannia Aachen in action. Another groundhopper, this time of the Italian variety, also joined us and declared that there were too many groundhoppers per square metre. Towards the end of the game, there was one more lad we got chatting to and he was, I kid you not, a former Swedish international. Hans Eskilsson made 8 appearances for the Swedish national side and briefly played for SC Braga, Sporting Clube de Portugal, and Heart of Midlothian amongst other clubs. It was pointed out to him that out of all of us stood there chatting he was only to have his own Wikipedia page.

The match was an uneventful affair which ended in a 2-0 victory for the visitors who had a small contingent of away fans present. Those visiting supporters briefly came to life a couple of times with a few chants whilst there was one very vociferous home fan who rarely stopped shouting, but overall the crowd was not particularly lively. It was definitely a noisier affair in the Old Town’s Kiwi Bar for the Champions League offering on TV the previous night. Nonetheless, my Latvian football experience was still a very much enjoyable one and I met some cracking people, albeit none of them locals. It was one of the many highlights of my trip and certainly a match that I will always remember if only for the people I met.

Riga overall was an amazing experience and one I will never forget. For all the reasons already mentioned in this article and many more, I could not speak more highly of the city and I would recommend this fine Baltic capital to absolutely everyone.