Latvia 2009 league preview.

By Andres Must
The economic crisis is looming large over Latvian football. There will be one fewer club in this season’s league championships, which kicked off last weekend, and a lot more local players in clubs’ squads. But one thing has not changed: champions Ventspils are favourites to retain their title, while their nearest challengers will be Metalurgs Liepaja and Skonto Riga.

“Even if there was war, football would always be played in Latvia,” says George Bindes, president of the league’s main sponsor, mobile phone company LMT. “But this season will be different because the economic situation has affected everything.”

“Of course, this will be a very tough year,” adds Janis Mezeckis, general secretary of the Latvian FA. “All clubs have to cut their budgets. Many footballers have gone abroad. But look at the positive side: now we have more local players at clubs.”

National coach Aleksandrs Starkovs hopes that the economic crisis will make it easier for young talent to emerge. This year the league will feature only 29 foreigners, compared to 80 last season.

With the help of eight foreign players, Ventspils are the strong title favourites in the eyes of most people. Coach Roman Grigorchuks and key players Andris Vanina, Zurab Menteshashvili and Vits Rimkus will be vying for their fourth consecutive title. The future looks brights for Ventspils, especially after they signed a two-year contract with national team player Aleksei Vishnakovs in February.

Record champions Skonto and Metalurgs Liepaja, champions in 2005, will be trying to stop the hegemony of Ventspils, but both will have to be careful of injuries, because neither has a squad to match that of Ventspils.

Behind the Big Three, Dinaburg hope to be among the medals. In recent years there have been several attempts to create a “superclub” in Latvia, such as Venta, FK Jurmala, Daugavpils Ditton. Now two clubs, Daugava-Dinaburg (last season’s third placed team) and Daugava (sixth), have joined forces. The new project is called Dinaburg FC and club owner, Russian-born millionaire Igor Maliskovs, has said that they aim to win their first league title within three years.

While Daugava will be relying on big money investment, Olimps/RFS Riga hope to succeed with a mixture of youth and experience. Their squad includes 16 players who were born after 1990, but also experienced names such as Vitalijs Astafjevs, Alexander Kolinko, Andrei Shtolcers, Juris Laizans, Igors Stepanovs and Mikhail Miholaps. All of them have played or are still playing for the national team.

It’s hard to believe that any of the other clubs – Jurmala, Daugava Riga, Tranzit Venspils or Blazma Rezekne – will be able to compete for silverware.

The championship will be played in four rounds. In 2008 there were 10 clubs in two rounds, with the top six teams entering a title play-off and the bottom six entering a relegation play-off. But the second group lost fans’ interest and the decision was taken not to divide the league anymore. So this season the top eight teams will keep their place in the Premier League, but the club in ninth place will meet the runners-up of the First Division in a relegation play-off.

In the first game of the championship, only the Big Three – Ventspils, Metalurgs and Skonto – earned three points. Vladimir Dvalishvili, the Georgian forward, scored a hat-trick to give Skonto a 7-0 win over Blazma.