Having gained just four points in their 2002 FIFA World Cup qualifying group, finishing fourth well adrift of Croatia, Belgium and Scotland, and even been held to a draw by San Marino in Riga in front of a crowd of not much more than 500, Latvia were few pundits' idea of UEFA EURO 2004? qualifiers.
But from holding Sweden in their opening game, they always looked potential qualifiers, and although they feel to defeats against both Poland and Hungary, those traditionally strong nations were pipped to a play-off place by Latvia. And then Turkey - semi-finalists in the 2002 World Cup - were beaten 1-0 in Riga and then subjected to a stunning comeback in Istanbul to take Latvia into their first major finals since independence.
So how did Latvia go from being a team that had never finished in the top three of a qualifying group to a team able to join Europe's elite 16? The key was the counterattacking style adopted by coach Aleksandrs Starkovs, who succeeding Gary Johnson in 2001 after the draw with San Marino. His 4-4-2 formation based around a pressing game and swift breaks paid dividends.
Kolinko's clean sheets
Aleksandrs Kolinko is the regular goalkeeper, and his six clean sheets in Latvia's ten qualifiers were vital to their success. Aleksandrs Isakovs and the Dzintars Zirnis were the full-backs in qualifying, although Olegs Blagonadezdins would have had a place if fit. Igors Stepanovs and the experienced Mihails Zemlinskis held the centre of defence.
Valentins Lobanovs has a crucial role as the holding midfield player, with Jurijs Laizans and Vitalis Astafjevs also in the centre, important to Latvia's tight game. Imants Bleidelis is on the right wing and Andrejs Rubins on the left, the crucial positions positions with both defensive and counterattacking duties, swiftly moving the ball forward using their considerable pace.
Up front, Maris Verpakovskis found prolific form in the latter qualifiers - including against Turkey - with Vits Rimkus as the regular partner. However, Marians Pahars returned to fitness to come on at the end of the second leg in the qualifiers and provides another option, as does Andrejs Prohorenkovs.
Win in Poland
The 0-0 draw with Sweden at the start of qualifying showed the strength of the new tactics, as a visiting onslaught was seen off. The next month, Laizans struck to secure a superb 1-0 win in Poland that took Latvia into first place, and although the trip to San Marino in November 2002 brought back unhappy memories of that previous meeting, Carlo Valentini's last-minute own goal secured a narrow victory.
When qualifying resumed in April 2003, San Marino were beaten 3-0 in Riga, Prohorenkovs's opener followed by two goals from Bleidelis. June saw the first setback, as Verpakovskis put Latvia- still group leaders - ahead at half-time in Hungary only for the home side to prevail 3-1. Sweden finally established themselves firmly in pole position in September as Poland won 2-0 in Riga, but a 3-1 home win against Hungary four days later with two goals from Verpakovskis and another by Bleidelis kept Latvia in the running.
Then in October came the decisive 1-0 victory in already-qualified Sweden, Verpakovskis ending their hosts' 25-match unbeaten qualifying run. Turkey seemed the favourites when paired with Latvia in the play-off draw, but Strakovs' side prevailed in Riga thanks to Verpakovskis and despite falling 2-0 down on 64 minutes in Istanbul, Laizans and Verpakovskis scored two more crucial goals to book what seemed an unlikely berth in Portugal.
Jerseys :Carmine red
Socks :Carmine red