The Rise and Fall of Skonto Riga
Once the giants of Latvian football, now Skonto are struggling to survive
For 13 lucrative years, Skonto Riga were irresistible. No one in Latvia could get close. Each passing season was greeted with resignation, a sense of inevitability: Skonto would, of course, win the First Division again.
They had done it since their inception, in 1991, a period of unparalleled domination that showed little sign of ending. They were rich – at least by comparison with their rivals – and popular. They had their pick of the country’s brightest talent, so much so that the national team became almost reliant on their players.
When Skonto lifted the league title in 2004, it was for the 14th time in a row. They had successfully monopolised the Latvian game, eliminated any sense of competition and established themselves as the club from the Baltics.
Skonto, whose unrelenting success and inexorable surge to domestic title after domestic title understandably led to some jealousy from local rivals, had, unquestionably, put Latvia on the map. Football in the country had never been so healthy.
In 2004, the Latvia national team put on an unexpectedly resilient showing at Euro 2004, a tournament few had expected them to reach. A narrow defeat against Czech Republic in their opening game was followed by an impressive goalless draw against Germany. The Netherlands beat them handsomely – 3-0 thanks to a quickfire Ruud van Nistelrooy double – but Latvia, in defeat, had earned plenty of admirers.
It had all been possible thanks to Skonto, whose domestic success meant regular forays into European competition. They played against Barcelona, Chelsea and Napoli, among others, high-profile fixtures that raised the previously minuscule profile of Latvian football in the west.
But the good times, for Skonto, were fleeting. The foundation for their success had been laid by their owner Guntis Indriksons, a former KGB agent with a shady past and a dubious reputation. Indriksons was also the head of the Latvian Football Federation (LFF), which played a significant part in Skonto’s clear superiority.
After winning a 14th title in 2004, though, the club began a gradual decline. The money dried up and so, predictably, did the trophies. Indriksons backed out, unable and unwilling to steer Skonto away from trouble. By 2016, Skonto Riga, far and away the most successful club in the history of Latvian football, ceased to exist. It all came crashing down.
Football was not always the national sport in Latvia. For 50 years during the Soviet era, ice hockey and basketball were more popular. And that was not a surprise. Latvia’s football teams were pushed to the bottom of the Soviet pyramid, languishing in the lower divisions, unable to compete with the powerhouses from Russia and Ukraine.
There was, then, no real desire, for Latvians to spend the weekend watching football. And there seemed little chance of a rapid rise in popularity following independence in 1991. The expectation was that football, like basketball and hockey, would be irreparably damaged by financial crises and the allure of the west.
But that all changed when Guntis Indriksons, made wealthy by his various business ventures, rolled into town. Few knew anything about him, aside from his history with the KGB. His intentions were unclear. There was, understandably, some suspicion and scepticism.
Indriksons, though, quickly made his mark. He set about forming a team in his image, a team capable of immediately challenging for silverware. Skonto Riga, bankrolled by their founder and owner, did more than that, winning the First Division title in 1991 and setting off on their long reign of consistent success.
“The club developed an extensive scouting and youth coaching system that is now beginning to pay dividends,” the academic Daunis Auers wrote in a 2001 article for When Saturday Comes. “Indriksons formalised his domination of Latvian football when he took over as president of the Latvian FA in 1998. In many ways, club is country, as the overwhelming majority of the national team are either current or former Skonto players, the coaching staff are virtually identical, and the national side now plays at Skonto’s new stadium. Compared with other ex-communist countries, football in Latvia is as organised as the Arsenal back four in the George Graham era.”
Not everyone in Latvia benefitted from Indriksons’s emergence, though. Skonto’s hegemony was stifling; they were so superior to their modest opposition that, by the late 90s, things had become a little absurd.
For two seasons running, Skonto did not lose a game. In the 1998 season, they beat a hapless FK Valmiera side 15-2 and finished the campaign more than 20 points clear of their nearest rivals. They were blessed with the country’s finest talents: the midfielder Vitālijs Astafjevs, who went on to play for Bristol Rovers, and the striker Marians Pahars, sold in 1999 to Southampton for £800,000, were just two of those who excelled in the Latvian top flight.
Led by the shrewd and intelligent coach Aleksandrs Starkovs from 1993 until 2004, Skonto were unstoppable domestically. They made their mark in Europe, too, beating Aberdeen and holding Chelsea to a goalless draw in the first leg of a Champions League qualifier in 1999 (they were beaten 3-0 at Stamford Bridge in the return fixture). This was a team of winners, a team that did not look like loosening their grip on Latvian football without a fight.
“Skonto players were well disciplined and also had bonuses,” says Arkādijs Birjuks, a journalist at Sportacentrs. “The team were motivated to score more goals in games against underdogs, because every goal gave additional money to players. There was amazing competition for a place in the starting XI, so every training session was intense.”
There was no hubris, no complacency at Skonto. Those involved with the club were fully aware of their advantages, of the sizeable gulf between them and the rest. But they remained professional, spurred on by Starkovs, who ensured that motivation was never lacking.
“Organisation and traditions,” said Skonto’s former press officer, Uldis Strautmanis, when asked for the reasons for Skonto’s period of domination. “And money – some legends have even talked about money from criminal gangs. Money helped buy Latvia’s best football players. But the structure was also sorted out: the best training conditions in Latvia, good coaches, opportunities to play abroad and to play for the national team.”
It was good while it lasted. But the club’s collapse, a slow, drawn out decline over many years, might have been predicted long before it began. By the late 1990s, Indriksons had run into financial difficulties. It meant less and less investment in Skonto, less money for players, less of a gap between the top and the rest.
Still, Skonto were in a strong enough position to continue winning titles until 2004. By then, though, their rivals FK Liepājas Metalurgs and FK Ventspils had caught up. In 2005, Skonto finished third behind both, their power diminished, their long run of dominance finally ended.
“Indriksons put millions into Skonto and he says that even selling of the club’s stars – Laizāns to CSKA Moscow, Pahars to Southampton, Verpakovskis to Dynamo Kiev and others – never allowed the club to be sustainable,” said Edmunds Novickis, a football writer for Sportacentrs. “He supported the club by business earnings. And then his business went down. I am not sure that the  crisis was the main driver, the fall probably started earlier. And, of course, the football club got hit.”
As Indriksons’s wealth dried up, interest in Skonto waned. Starkovs, so integral to the club’s success, left for Spartak Moscow in 2004. Six barren, stagnant years followed, until Starkovs returned in 2010 and led Skonto to their final league title, not an insignificant achievement given the circumstances.
But silverware only papered over the growing cracks. By the beginning of the 2011-12 season, the situation was farcical. Indriksons, still struggling to cope with the fallout from the 2008 financial crash, sought to revitalise Skonto. He offered discounts to families and children, and distributed free tickets at schools and youth clubs. There were, briefly, four-figure crowds at the 10,000-capacity Skonto Stadium, but they did not last. Before long, only a few hundred spectators were turning up, including a handful of faithful ultras chanting rather forlornly behind the goal.
Indriksons had officially sold Skonto to a Cyprus-registered company called Tremova Ltd the previous summer for 210,000 lats (£260,000). But he had no intention of truly leaving the club to its own devices.
“Indriksons formally sold the club but I know that de facto he was still the owner,” Novickis said. “As I have heard, in the last years Indriksons took money from the club as often as possible. He didn’t pay salaries to players but when some players were sold – for example, Šabala for over €300,000 – players still weren’t paid and money disappeared. Probably he knew the club couldn’t exist in the long term and just took everything he could.”
The sale of the club, then, was simply a formality. Indriksons had been in the midst of a court case over an alleged non-payment for a stake in a hotel chain. His fixed assets – including Skonto – might have been seized. It was highly convenient, then, that Tremova Ltd stepped in when they did.
Skonto continued, but they were riddled with debts and beset by poor decision making. They started the 2011-12 season at the decrepit Daugava stadium, because an attempt to play at the indoor Riga Olympic Centre had been denied. Skonto wanted to let the grass grow at their home ground before taking to the pitch. So they turned to the Olympic Centre, only to be told after an investigation that the indoor pitch was three metres short of the minimum required length.
At the first game, at a decaying and ageing stadium, on a bumpy, uneven pitch, only 100 fans attended. Starkovs had left for a second time. The iconic players of the 1990s were long gone. Skonto, as Aleksander Goryunov wrote in 2011, were “more dead than alive”.
Only Indriksons remained, though even he found himself forced out a year later. A new law passed by the Latvian parliament meant Skonto’s owner could no longer both own the football club and continue in his role as president of the LFF.
Things did not improve. Skonto’s precarious financial status meant they were refused a place in the Europa League and only Indriksons’s influence prevented their demotion from the Latvian top flight. For the remaining players and staff, the final few years of Skonto’s existence were testing and often miserable.
“We didn’t receive salaries for seven months,” Pahars, who returned to coach Skonto after leaving Southampton, said in a 2018 interview with the Independent . “That was the situation. Nobody at the club [was being paid], it was very, very bad. We were losing players during the season. The situation was very bad, not just in terms of money, but the treating of people.”
That sentiment is shared by Strautmanis. “I worked at Skonto for the last six to seven years, when things got worse from year to year,” he said. “There were only promises, promises, promises... so players stopped trying for the club. Everybody knew the situation and knew that Indriksons had stopped investing money.”
By 2016, Skonto had declared bankruptcy. They were denied a place in the first division, left without most of their players and staff. All that remained was a youth team. Skonto Riga, after 15 league titles, Europa League meetings with Chelsea and Barcelona, and 25 years at the top of the Latvian game, were no more.
Skonto are not the only club in Latvia to have suffered such a fate. There have been several instances of teams funded by dubious owners, stories of match fixing and money laundering. FK Daugava Riga, FC Daugava (of Daugavpils) and FB Gulbene are just a few of the clubs over the past few years to have been declared insolvent or banned from Latvia’s top flight.
There is, though, no tale more cautionary than that of Skonto. Their reputation, their history, counted for nothing when they were run into the ground by incompetence and neglect. The hope is that the future of Latvian football will, at least, be more sustainable. There remains a dearth of money, no team with the funds required to make a mark in European competition, as Skonto did. But the first division is now more competitive.
The future, though, according to Sportacentrs journalist Rolands Elins, is “quite grey”, shrouded by uncertainty. “Our national team is not doing fine, its reputation is in shambles, we are nowhere close to even starting building a national stadium,” he said. “There is new leadership of the LFF: our ex-captain [Kaspars] Gorkšs took over from Indriksons, but there is strong opposition, and just this April most of the LFF Board stepped down.
“The good news, though, is in the Latvian league – there is money flowing in Riga clubs Riga FC and RFS (Rīgas Futbola Skola), with big long-term ambitions. Hopefully they come true. But such a time when a centralised club like Skonto could exist is gone in Latvia. I see no way how one club could win 10 and 15 times in a row in the Latvian league.”
Strautmanis, too, does not foresee a repeat of Skonto’s dominance. “For one reason: money. Unless there are some crazy investors,” he said. “And there must also be a good youth academy with the chance to sell players abroad.
“Latvian football’s future depends on the Latvian national team. If they started playing well, or we got some star – like Maris Verpakovskis or Artjoms Rudņevs – it will be a boost for all Latvian football. Or if one of the clubs surprisingly get into the Europa League group stage. Until then there will be a situation like there is right now – we’ve got an interesting national league, but still haven’t got many spectators or interest in the league.”
In Latvia, then, Skonto remain unique. And the club is likely to stay that way. The legacy of the country’s most reputable team is a subject that divides opinion: some consider them a key part of the development of Latvian football, others view their hegemony as harmful, disruptive. But none question Skonto’s impact.
It is an impact that can still be felt today. The club’s youth academy remains active, still amongst the most productive in the country. And there is hope that the national team might one day benefit from this.
But the academy is just a spectre, a remnant of Skonto’s great past. It is a club, for all the trophies, that now exists only in memories.