Latvia’s Ogre isn’t the Baltic cousin of this guy
it’s a commuter town 30/40 minutes south-west of Riga. There are some Latvian placenames which sound funny in English once translated. Who, for example, lives in Pigeons (Baloži?) Ogre, though, is one that, along with Madona, doesn’t need translation to elicit a snigger or two.
The irony wasn’t lost on more Western-minded Latvians during the Soviet era. A running gag was the Communist party badges which featured Lenin with the town name.
So, on Sunday 26 October, with a German acquaintance visiting, we decided to go there for the joys of Latvian second division football and kill two birds with one stone by seeing the town as well.
At the train station, the town’s name still raises a smile.
The day was fairly cold, only a few degrees above zero and me and Zanda headed in the direction of the main town, some parts of which still have a Soviet air about them.
Kalna Prospekts (Hill Avenue) and Zinibas Iela (Knowledge Street) improved things a bit with their woody hill
but Ogre so far hadn’t excited us. We walked down to the main street through the town centre, which was tiny. A number of signs promised us tourist information, but they pointed in contradictory directions and there was nothing even remotely resembling a tourist info place. Instead, we wandered around, watching kids play on the ice in front of signs that informed us that Ogre had no money.
The main street through the tiny town centre was a bit dead, with not many people around,
so there weren’t even locals we could approach to ask where the action was. Giving up, we decided to warm ourselves up, so took a seat in the Pures bakery. This was at least a decent place to sit for a while and, until my German friend arrived, options for excitement in Ogre seemed a bit limited.
Afterwards, we went for another stroll, feeling a bit out of place as the locals had seemingly decided that 2 degrees was a bit too cold for them to be out in fresh air. Along the way we snapped any buildings which looked remotely interesting
and walked along the river, which, like the rest of the town on this day, looked a bit grey and alone.
My German friend had joined us at this point, so we headed for a little food and pre-football beer to the oddly named Police Academy bar/restaurant. This had a bit more character to it, but what a weird name. Okay, no doubt it was once an actual police academy, but that’s like calling a new restaurant “underwear shop” just because that business previously occupied the premises. The food and service was at least proficient and we exited in better spirits for the main course of football.
Now it does need to be said, Latvia isn’t footballing country in any sense. The sport lies a distant third at best behind ice hockey and basketball in the nation’s sporting affections. They have had their moments in the past. In 2004, the national side beat Turkey to reach the European Championship finals, where they managed a draw with Germany. At club level, Skonto Riga had some success in the late 1990s, giving Barcelona a good game at home, losing 2-1, while Ventspils, the current strongest side, reached the final qualifying round of the UEFA Champions league in 2010, losing to Zurich, who went on to play Real Madrid, AC Milan and Marseilles in the Champions league group stages.
Those successes seem a distant memory these days, as the national side and club sides have struggled for the last few years to make any impact. The UEFA seeding system at club level doesn’t help. While the Latvian champions in the past could realistically hope for a game against a top European side, these days, changes to UEFA competitions to favour the larger federations mean that the Latvian champions are shunted into the second of four qualifying rounds, against unsexy teams from the likes of Belarus, Wales, Northern Ireland and Norway. It’s all a vicious circle. The club games against similar no-hopers in European club competitions go ignored, as people understandably prefer the beach in July to watching the might of Metalurgs Skopje. That means clubs struggle along with poor attendances, which denies them the money to buy decent foreign talent. While gifted local sporting youngsters play ice hockey or basketball instead.
The Ogre stadium itself is hidden among residential buildings.
The previous day, we’d seen an excellent game, with Ventspils winning 4-2 in Skonto stadium in Riga to clinch the Latvian championship in front of a meagre crowd, so we were hoping for a similarly decent game. The cost of entry was only 2 euro, down from the 3 lats (4.30 euros) that Skonto were charging a couple of years ago. At Ogre, it was free, but despite that, there were few people in attendance in the stadium’s solitary stand.
At least with the football we weren’t disappointed with Rezekne winning 3-1 against the home side, who missed a penalty along the way.
The football rescued what would otherwise have been a disappointing day out. I still think Ogre won’t be at the top when I come to do my best/worst list, but at least the football gives a reason for coming here. Four towns out of 29 done. Coming up next: Ogre’s neighbour Ikskile.