Posted: 11/2/2008


     Arriving at Riga International Airport -RIX,the first thing you notice is how gorgeous the female custom officers are. It's enough to think about skipping the green 'Nothing to Declare' exit and going through RED for a thorough search.

    The second thing you notice is that Latvia must be the cleanest country on the planet. No trash or graffiti, and beautiful trees and quiet squares, with very few pigeons!  Albert was proclaimed Bishop of Livona and came to Riga in 1201 with 23 ships and 1,500 armed men on a crusade and founded the Bishopric of Riga.  In 1282 the city joined the Hanseatic League of great port cities and became part of Sweden and was in fact the 3rd biggest Swedish city for a long time. In 1710 Czar Peter the Great made it part of the Russian Empire until WWI.,when it became independent.

     First the Russians in early 1941 and then Nazi Germany until 1945 took control and after the war it became the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia. From September 17th,1991 it became independent again and joined the European Union and NATO as quickly as possible. The city is a mixture of Art Nouveau(Jugenstil). Finnish style wooden buildings, Medieval, Hanseatic, and some stunning modern art and buildings including a very classy indoor mall.

     I was driven around the city by Janis Mezeckis, for more than 15 years the General Secretary of the Latvian Football Association, who was quite a good player and coach prior to his present position. Has has been a UEFA match observer many times and recounted the time he was at the Leeds United vs Lazio, Champions League match when the President of Leeds United, Lord Harewood, a cousin of the Queen invited him to his stately home Harewood House, half way to Harrogate. It's a vaste estate with a herd of deer and many animals and birds and a great day out for local and international visitors.

    We went to the national training centre and met Paul Ashworth, coach of FC Skonto-Riga . Gary is from Norwich and speaks fluent Russian and coached in the Russian Premier League. They were driving to an away match at FK Dinaburg,so I could not watch them play, but spoke with Janis' son who is on the club but injured at present, and has played once for Latvia. I also chatted with 4 Brazilians players from Rio Grande do Sul, Sau Paulo and Recife. Off we went to watch FS Metta- Latvijas Universitate v FK Spartaks in a 1st Division match in Arkadija Stadium, artificial turf, which finished 0-0. Afterwards we had Latvian hot dogs together with the players who are amateurs and ranged in age from 16-26.

      I sat with Andris Riherts one of the co-trainers during the second half. He coaches the team and teaches sport science and coaching at the university. In February they are going to Hartford, CT for a short tour as guests of that university, now that Latvians don't need a visa to visit USA. His co-coach coach Ojegs Kamkins dropped me back in the city centre.  I wandered through the Old Town with its cobbled streets and stopped at a number of bars including The Stars Sports Bar which must be the King of all sports bars in Europe. On the ground floor you could choose from watching Chelsea embarass Sunderland 5-0, The Bundesliga, and Man Utd vs Hull City.

     Downstairs was a giant 5 meter cinema style screen showing United hang on to a 4-3 lead against the Tigers from Hull. We then watched Russian Premier League action, Zenit St. Petersburg at their Petrovski Stadium beat FC Khimki 1-0 with a goal from Portuguese star Miguel Danny, and of course the well known Andrei Arsahavin. I had a KISS Latvian pear cider. Martins was one of the pleasant barmen and he told me that the clientel was 50% local and 50% foreigners. I wasn't hungry having had a beef steak, egg and potatoes and salad in the Central Market for about $1.50 including a glass of orange juice.

     It's THE GREATEST market I have ever been to. The outdoor market with its fruits and vegetable stalls is big enough, but then there are 5 giant Zeppelin hangars full of hundreds of stalls. Acres of meats, cheeses, fish of all kinds from the sea, rivers and lakes, with caviars of various colours and honey stalls.