FOCUS: The dream team
Attack: Maris Verpakovskis (Dynamo Kiev and Latvia)
The 24-year-old striker almost single-handedly shot the tiny Baltic Republic of Latvia into this year’s European Championship finals – its first major tournament participation – and thus becoming a national hero.
Verpakovskis inherited his talent from his father, a player of note in his hometown of Liepaja and received a football as his first toy.Subject of a transfer at age 16, he saw little first-team action for his new club, Metalurgs. Despite this, national coach Dzoduastivili plucked the then 19-year-old from the substitute’s bench and pitched him in at the deep end against Greece in a Euro qualifier without so much as a single U21 game to his credit. The rest is history.
Verpakovskis scored in the 2-1 victory in Athens and has added a further 10 goals in 30 international appearances. In 2001, Skunto Riga, with whom he has won three championships and two domestic cups, signed him. Six goals in Euro 2004 qualifying games, including the winner against Sweden, secured second place in Latvia’s group. A further two against play-off rivals Turkey elevated him to national superstar status. Trials at Portsmouth and close interest from Arsenal and Bayern Munich amongst others followed, but the down-to-earth striker decided in favour of a regular place at Dynamo Kiev, for whom he has scored three goals in as many games.
Previous Latvian football idol Marian Pahars, active for Southampton, has accepted the futility of trying to reclaim his Number Nine shirt in the national side. Should Verpakovskis break down German and Dutch defences in June, Chelsea will be knocking on his door.
The public transport infrastructure is to be reinforced for the Euro 2004 tournament with the completion of the rail link between Faro and Esteval facilitating easy access to the new Stadium of the Algarve. Secretary of State for Transport, Francisco Seabra, met with the President of the Faro Câmara, José Vitorino, to finalise plans for the completion of the new station, guaranteeing a service in June. It is hoped that arriving fans from other parts of the country, as well as locals, will take this means of transport on match days, thus avoiding the traffic chaos experienced at the first capacity match to take place at the new stadium – last February’s Portugal v England friendly. Further improvements to the Lisbon-Faro line will also be in place by the beginning of June, allowing the new ‘Alfa Pendular’ service to cut the journey time between the capital and the Algarve.
In an interview with Spanish sports paper AS, England coach Sven Goran Eriksson has surprisingly tipped Germany to win the forthcoming Championships. “France has a great team, but for me Germany is the favourite,” the Swede said. “In comparison with other sides, the Germans always fight like crazy for the title, even when they don’t play such great football”. Eriksson also fancies the chances of Portugal, Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic and sees England’s prospects as dependent on how the players come through the last games of the domestic season, their fitness and possible injury problems.
News•News• News• News• News
Barcelona have reportedly lined up Portugal’s Brazilian World Cup-winning coach, Felipe Scolari, to take over at the beginning of next season. ‘Big Pete’s’ appointment is said to be safe, irrespective of how Portugal fare at Euro 2004. Potential successor, Porto’s José Mourinho, will be out of the running after looking to replace Claudio Ranieri at Chelsea. This should leave the door open for Carlos Queiroz – who is surely out of a job at Real Madrid after the team’s recent Cup and Champions League exits?
A QUESTION OF FOOTBALL
Last Week: Name the goalkeeper, regarded by many as the best of all time, whose career record includes an Olympic gold medal, a European Championship medal, four World Cup participations and only 70 goals conceded in 79 internationals.
Answer:Lev Yashin (USSR)
This Week: Which non-European country’s top clubs compete in the UEFA Cup and the Champions League?
Answer Next Week.