WALES AWAY: Latvia Calling Part Four (11/09/23)

Today was the main reason for coming all this way. Latvia V Wales.

After not getting in till 5am a lie in was called for. ‘P’ was putting its boots on ready to relieve ‘A’ and stand in front of ‘M’ for twelve hours when I strapped my shoes on and headed out to collect my ticket for the game.

Becks walked with me, so he could avoid putting his data on for Google Maps. The collection point is only fifteen minutes from our apartment.  We say hello to some familiar faces then walk back through town.

The streets are awash with Wales fans. Red shirts and bucket hats everywhere. I love the day leading up to a game. Everyone in a good mood, full of hopeful optimism, laughter and beer. Everyone singing and letting the town know that we are here. A spirit of comradeship flows, a bonding of people who have a connection because they have all made the effort to travel this far. Stories of previous campaigns are shared, old friendships reignited and new friends made. I just love it. It’s what makes Wales Away different from just going away on a city break.

Then I went back to bed.

‘P’ had been on duty for four hours when we finally got up. We dressed with a purpose,  we had wasted enough of the day, it was time to soak up the atmosphere. We went to our usual pub, had some food and a drink, then feeling sustained,  we went back to bed.

We eventually drag ourselves out of the apartment to walk to the stadium. We bump into Auntie Mel. Megan is sitting with her in the Home End. She tells us she is going to the game on a boat and there was room for Megan,  but not me. No problem,  I’m happy to walk and it made sense for them to stick together.

There was a gang of Welsh lads who had been seriously over served, bombing down the road on hired scooters wobbling all over the place shouting “Where’s the stadium”, but not hanging around for an answer.

I start to follow the crowd.  I soon spot a sober looking chap who looks like he knows where he is going. I walk beside him for a bit then say, “I hope you’re going to the stadium because I’m following you”.

He replies, “I’d better put Google Maps on then, cos I was following you”.

We strike up a conversation and before we know it, we are outside the stadium. Normally it’s easy, just follow the Wales fans. But because of the small allocation we were given for the ‘away end’, there are red shirts pouring in through every entrance.

I had read somewhere that the ground has a six thousand capacity but it looks bigger, so I check. Its actually eight thousand. I also recall reading it’s the biggest stadium in the country,  but Wikipedia is yelling me it’s the second biggest.

It was only built in 2000, but it feels older, like a relic of the Soviet era. But I like it. The phrase ‘old skool’ comes to mind. The facilities are basic, but reasonable.  The toilets are far better than most stadiums I’ve been to and there is a bar. And get this, it’s the quickest service we have had in any bar in Riga, it took me all of two minutes to get served. And they had cider. And you can take your pint in to watch the match – unheard of in the UK. Result.

The stadium is home to Skonto Riga and has hosted gigs by the likes of Massive Attack, Metallica and Snoop Dog.

I use Google translate to find out where my official seat is – for away games most fans generally just stand wherever they want. I’m in row 1, place 7. Which basically means I’m right at the front at pitch level.  And the fence is adorned with Welsh flags, so unless I stand up, I ain’t seeing anything. I don’t mind though, being at the front means I’m not crammed in and don’t have to get people to move if I want to go to the bar or toilet. I’m soon surrounded by familiar faces so I’m happy.

Between the 1958 world Cup and Euro 2016, Wales consistently failed to qualify for any major tournaments. Nobody ever expected anything,  with low expectations it is difficult to be disappointed.

Then things started to change. We qualified for Euro 2016, Euro 2020 and World Cup 2022. People started to expect success and would be annoyed when we lost. Having already lost to Turkey and Armenia, and Drawn with Croatia, many have already written off our chances of qualifying for Euro 2024. Latvia, who have lost all their games, are all that’s keeping Wales off the bottom of the table. Buy hey, it’s Wales Away. Party on regardless.

As kick off approached, it was clear that Wales fans occupied around 50% of the stadium,  including the home end. The sound of Welsh voices singing drowned out any Latvian chants. There was a party atmosphere throughout the ground, aided by all day drinking (it was a 9:45pm kick off) and beer being served throughout the game.

Wales dominated the game and when cult hero Aaron Ramsey banged in a penalty at half time, everyone went wild. A one nil lead is easily turned over though and as the clock ticked towards ninety minutes,  we were getting nervous. But in injury time Brooks banged in a second goal with no time for Latvia to make a comeback.

As the home fans drifted off after the final whistle the Red Wall wasn’t going anywhere.  Everyone was singing and dancing and many climbed the fence keeping the fans off the pitch, much to the displeasure of the security.

After what seemed an eternity,  they tried to clear the stadium,  but this wasn’t helped by them still serving beer.  We take advantage and get a pint before we are forced to walk down the road, pints in hand.

En route to the Old Town we meet up with several Latvian fans who congratulate us on both the victory and on how ‘magnificent’ our support was.

Eventually we are back on our square drinking with old mates from Caerphilly,  till the pub turns the lights out. I am reunited with my favourite fiancé and discovered she didn’t get a boat to the stadium,  she got a Bolt, which is a Latvian Uber type thing.

We head off in search of munchies and find Cannabis crisps and Magic Mushroom crisps in the supermarket. And do you know what? They actually worked.  We drifted off into a deep chilled sleep.