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One amateur football team has achieved something that politicians and civic leaders have failed to do in decades in Latvia.

“We’ve got a Turkish goalkeeper; a couple of decent Latvian defenders; Polish, Scandinavian, Nigerian and British midfielders and a nippy young Russian lad playing up front with our star Cameroonian,” Riga United player-chairman Austin Nicholas tells the manager of some future English opponents on the telephone without even a hint in his voice that what he’s just said might sound a bit unusual. “There again, by the time you come over to Latvia to play us in the spring we might have a few of the Spanish and Italian lads in, and, all being well, we will play you at the Daugava Stadium where the national team used to play.”

Foreign affair
Foreigners have been playing in the Latvian amateur leagues since the 90’s. Even former Latvian national football team manager Gary Johnson turned out a couple of times for the British Embassy team back in 2000. Back in those days, however, you either played for an amateur Latvian side, a Russian side, or, very occasionally, an expat/foreigners’ side.
In 2001, Englishmen John Whitmore and Justin Walley decided it was time to create a football team that both Latvians and foreigners could play for. For several months this didn’t amount to much more than the odd indoor five-a-side game but, with perseverance, some kind of team was born, and a year later John Whitmore took his brave band of Latvians, Russians and the occasional foreigner on tour to Holland.
American Thuc To and another Englishman, Austin Nicholas, later became involved with the running of this ragged tagged mob of foreigners and local Latvians before the idea of forming Riga United was born a few years ago.

United for the game
Riga United Football Club was formed in 2007 and in the team’s first season became the first truly multinational side to ever play in the Latvian Amateur Football League (LAFL). Initially, the club’s name raised a few eyebrows:
“In the early days opponents in the Latvian league would see the team’s name on the fixture list and wonder who the hell they were going to play,” Austin Nicholas, whose tourism company Outthere.eu sponsors the team, explains for the benefit of the Triobet Baltic League e-mag’s readers. “Some teams imagined they were going to play a bunch of Latvians who just liked English football, while others heard our name and imagined some brand new football club with loads of money behind it. In truth, the name ‘Riga United’ was chosen because it perfectly sums up what this team is about – so far about 30 different nationalities have played for us. But this is not a foreigners’ team, this is also a Latvian team. We all live in Riga and have our lives here, and many of our players are Latvians born in this city.”
Indeed, even Riga United’s Latvian-language club-badge echoes this sentiment: ‘Vienoti spelei’, translates as “United for the game.”

Lost in translation
Despite a number of notable victories in their first season in the LAFL, Riga United finished in the bottom half of the table in 2007 and quickly discovered that some of the side’s greatest strengths could also cause its downfall sometimes:
“Having so many different individual playing styles in one team doesn’t make the side the most easily manageable unit you’re ever likely to come across,” RUFC club manager Justin Walley explains. “I remember in one of our first games trying to encourage the lads at half-time to slow things down and keep possession, while other players translated this into French and Russian for their team mates. Something seemed to get lost in translation between our big Cameroonian striker and his fellow Italian striker in the second half and they both ended up hands-on-hips moaning at each other in a bizarre mixture of French, Italian and English expletives for a couple of minutes.”

Coming and going
Another key problem for Riga United is that players are constantly coming and going.
Ali, the side’s skilful Turkish winger works on oil rig support vessels in the North Sea and can be away for weeks at a time; Tancredi, a football journalist for the Italian paper Corriere della Sera is often away on assignment at short notice elsewhere in eastern Europe; and then there are those players who work in the diplomatic service for the German, British and Italian embassies, who might end up missing a vital game because their respective countries ‘need them’ on that particular evening.
Sadly, too, many players become an integral part of Riga United for a year or two but are then forced to return to their homeland because of new assignments, or because their work contract in Latvia finishes. Already this year, United have lost two influential Spanish players as well as young Irishman Shane Madden, who had previously played in the Irish Premier League prior to his stint with United.
Moreover, the global economic crisis has even spread its evil tentacles to Riga United as players lose their jobs and are forced to return to their homelands.

Television and silverware
In 2008, Riga United elected to play in the LAFB Riga Summer Cup, a 26-team tournament, and midway through the campaign were filmed both training and in a competitive match by UK television company Bravo TV. The documentary took a look at the lives of expats living in Latvia with special emphasis given to some of the foreign members of Riga United FC. The program is due to be aired later this year.
At the time Riga United were languishing in the bottom half of the league table, but after a string of good results in the second half of the 2008 season, they ended up taking the last play-off booth. With regular midweek training sessions under the astute guidance of Cameroonian professional footballer Emmanuel Njodzeka Wirdzemo the team went from strength to strength.
They went on to knock out some of the highest ranked teams in the tournament, including a 4-0 thrashing of Kengarags in the quarter final, on a run that took them from the second round all the way to a keenly contested semi-final, where they narrowly lost to the eventual winners Ulbroka 2-1.
Despite this heart break the team picked up its first silverware in August last year when it finished up third place in the 32-team tournament with a bronze medal.

New belief
The same month, RUFC’s new belief was reflected as they gave an excellent account of themselves against semi-professional English outfit FC Brimington who warmed up against Riga United before taking on Latvian Virsliga side FS Metta/L.U in a friendly at the former Daugava national stadium the following day. In truth, United were meant as cannon fodder for the young English team, who even had their own dietician with them on their Latvian tour. The lads of Riga United however had different ideas, and were unlucky perhaps to lose the game by a final score of 4-2.
The chairman of the Sheffield league was extremely complementary about the attitude and team spirit of the Riga outfit and felt that it was the Latvian side who played much of the better football at times
The following day Brimington, a little battered and bruised took on virsliga side FS Metta/L.U and pulled off a massive scalp by beating the top tier side.

Landmarks
Other notable landmarks in the club’s short history include its five-a-side team recently taking second place in the Jurmala Invitation tournament, while back in September 2007, Riga United entertained the Northern Ireland national football team…well, the Official Supporters Club of the Northern Ireland team, in a well contested friendly on the morning of the full European Championships qualifier between Latvia and Northern Ireland. Riga United, who proudly represented Latvia, won the game before both sets of players met up later the same day to watch Latvia beat Northern Ireland 1-0 at the Skonto Stadium.

Team spirit
Understandably, Riga United has a special kind of team spirit that other teams just simply haven’t got. “We are not just a football team, we are a bunch of mates. A lot of us regularly meet up to watch football, meet down the pub for a few beers or just try to help each other out with finding a new job or flat if one of the lads has a problem. It’s amazing to be able to socialise with a bunch of lads who come from so many different places. But, at the same time, you realise that we’re not that different from one another. There certainly wouldn’t be so many racist people in the world if everybody could have this experience,” One of the players explains.

Future plans
With spring upon us, Riga United’s players return to the training field for midweek sessions at Riga’s Lokomotiv Stadium and FC Auda’s stadium in Kekava.
“We’ve got quite a few games coming up against touring teams who like to come over to Latvia and play us in the spring and summer months,” Club chairman Austin Nicholas enthuses. “They have a great time over here playing football, partying and doing stuff in the countryside like bungee jumping…As well as this, we are going to join the summer amateur league again this season and try to win it this time round, play a couple of friendlies against teams from the Latvian football pyramid, and we also hope to organise a charity game this summer to raise money for some of the people who are less well off than ourselves here in Latvia. This country needs to be united to get through the current economic mess. I believe that if you can do it on the football field, then there’s no reason why it can’t be done in other areas of life.”


   

 

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