Derry City vs Riga: Riga on Europa Conference League group mission to restore Latvian pride

RIGA FC is on a mission to make its mark on Europe and steady the decline of Latvian football by reaching the group stages of a UEFA club competition for the first time in its history.

Formed in 2014 Riga FC was one step away from reaching the Europa League proper before being knocked out by FC Copenhagen (3-2 on aggregate) in 2019/2020. The club were then stunned by Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar, losing 3-1 after extra-time in the playoffs of the Europa Conference League last season.

The Balkans club has won the Virslīga and the Latvian Cup but conquering Europe by navigating through to the group stages has been the main objective in recent seasons according to assistant manager Kristaps Blanks.

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Latvian clubs have a chequered history in European competition. FK Ventspils were hit with a seven years ban from UEFA competitions for ‘fraud, bribery and corruption’ following a match-fixing scandal in the Europa League qualifying stages in July 2018.

Riga's Finnish winger Mikael Soisalo will be a threat to Derry City. Photograph by Zigismunds Zalmanis, Riga FC

Skonto Riga, who were knocked out of the Europa League 13 years ago by Derry City, were the first Latvian team to play in a UEFA competition when they beat KI Klaksvik 3-1 in Iceland in the Champions League preliminary round in 1992.

In 2009, the year Skonto Riga were stunned at Brandywell, FK Ventspils became the first Latvian team to reach the group stage of a major UEFA club competition as they qualified for the Europa League after defeating BATE Borisov. They became the standard bearers for Latvian football until their ultimate disgrace and disqualification.

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Current Virslīga leaders Valmeires, who Ruaidhri Higgins watched defeat Riga 2-0 recently on his scouting mission to the Skonto Stadium, are awaiting their opposition in the Europa Conference League third round qualifiers and hold the biggest hopes for the country this season.

However, Riga FC are intent on flying the flag for Latvia in Europe as they attempt to restore pride to a nation currently ranked 38 in Europe - two places above Republic of Ireland in the UEFA coefficients.

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Riga FC assistant manager Kristaps Blanks. Photo by Zigismunds Zalmanis.

“The European Cup is very important for us,” explained Blanks. “Last year we were in the fourth round (playoffs) and it was a very big shock that we lost because we were favourites. We only needed to win the last game and we were in the group stages.

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“Every season we want to be in the group stages. Two times we’ve almost been there. One time was in 2019 when our last (qualifying) game was against Copenhagan from Denmark. We lost 3-1 away and at home we won 1-0 and were one goal away. And last year we were in Gibraltar and drew 1-1 at home and 1-1 away and in extra-time we lost 3-1. Again we were only one game away from the group stages and lost,” he lamented.

“Every season we start with this hope and we hope this season will be different and we make the group stages. In Latvia we’ve won the title, the cup and most important for us now is to do something in Europe.

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“Of course Europe always depends on the draw. The draw is very important and it’s just luck. You have four duels, eight games. First round we were seeded and got Derry. If we go to the second round hopefully we are seeded again and then we will see.”

“Of course now we only think about the first round and about Derry City and after that we will think about the future.”

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