Latvia's top-tier Virsliga lost three clubs last season, with long-running accusations of match-fixing and financial irregularities dogging the Baltic state's domestic division. Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
For much of the first 15 years after independence from the USSR in 1991, Latvia was among football's great underdog stories. Skonto Riga (now FC Skonto) had the particular honour of scoring the Champions League's first ever goal following the re-branding of the European Cup, and the country's most successful side represented Latvia with pride in Europe. In 1996 they twice took the lead against Barcelona at Camp Nou, and have drawn with Inter Milan and defeated Aberdeen.
The national team qualified for the European Championships in 2004, where they held Germany to a goalless draw. Given that Latvia is a new country of only around two million people, these are some achievements. Their history as a people is one of being ridden roughshod over by bigger powers, and those successes in the early years after independence were hugely meaningful.
But in recent years the stories attached to Latvian club sides has been decidedly more negative. Indeed, Latvian Football League president Emils Latkovskis has become one of European football's most beleaguered figures. When I asked him last July how easy it might be to arrange to speak with the owners of recently liquidated FK Daugava Riga, his response was truthfully blunt: "Good luck," he answered flatly. "Even the police don't know where they are."
That hesitant cynicism has been hard earned for Latkovskis. The president of the top-tier Virsliga could really take no other approach as the competition over which he presides slowly imploded, chopped down from 10 clubs to seven as the criminal underworld ate into it.
The problems began in March 2015, the eve of last season (Lativa's top flight runs from March through November). FC Daugava Daugavpils, a side perennially on the receiving end of accusations of match-fixing and financial mismanagement, were told by the Virsliga that their books weren't sufficiently in-order to be issued a license for the season, and were promptly re-allocated to the third tier.
Worse was to come. Daugava Riga – former Champions League qualifiers from the nation's capital – received the same verdict just days later, with the club choosing to cease all football operations rather than join their namesakes in the amateur Second League.
"We couldn't give them licenses," explains Latkovskis, almost apologetically. "We have certain financial criteria to do with where the budget for the season is going to come from. When you have clubs where you are suspicious about where the money is coming from, you have to take action.
"With some teams you see that their financial model doesn't make sense. A lot of backers finance clubs from their personal funds, but then you start asking why are these people involved in football and where is that money coming from? Why are certain players moving from one suspicious club to another? What are the motivations?
"Latvia is pretty small and usually you would know who is funding a club, what are their goals, and who are the people involved. You would know that these people love football and that's why they are involved.
"But with some, probably this money is coming from activities that are not related to football. We're talking money-laundering, drugs, human-trafficking... When issuing licenses we had to ask what kind of money the clubs are using and what they will be doing with it. We think money, criminal money, was being put into these clubs as a means of hiding it."
This all feeds back into the other great plague of Latvian football, which by June 2015 had suffered its third casualty in as many torrid months. FB Gulbene, firmly rooted to the bottom of the table after eight games, were banned from the Virsliga indefinitely over the alleged rigging of two heavy defeats to FK Spartaks and FC Skonto. In 12 weeks the league had lost 30% of its membership to the vagrancy of the black market.
"We had suspected for a long time about Gulbene, but these two games sealed it," says Latkovskis. "We've always known they're connected to not the right people, when they were playing in the [second tier], but now we've had some player interviews and some reports from UEFA and we're 100% sure that they have been fixing games.
"We tried hard to talk to them about what was going on, but then it became apparent that the team management was also involved in match-fixing. Then there was no other way, no other solution for keeping match-fixing out of Latvian football than by removing Gulbene from the championship."
It was, understandably, a last resort, especially in the context of two sides having already been removed. No league boss wants to preside over a competition that is losing teams on an almost monthly basis, but Latkovskis' hands were tied.
Aside from clubs dropping like flies, one of the president's biggest headaches last season was his on-going battle with the Latvian state to make match-fixing a criminal offence. Without proper legislation, Latkovskis' had limited power.
"We have to criminalise match-fixing", he told me in August 2015. "It would be much more efficient to fight this if our legislation was adjusted. Right now you can only be criminalised for state offences like money laundering. That's very difficult to prove, so it makes our lives difficult."
Latvian Football Federation president Janis Mezeckis shared that view.
"These three clubs, we're sure, have been involved in fraud, but that is all the police can get them on," Mezeckis told me in August 2015. "We've made proposals to the Ministry of Justice to make changes in criminal law to include match-fixing. I'm sure the change will come; it's just a matter of time, I think.
"But we're realistic. We know that even when the rules change it won't immediately stop this kind of manipulation."
In February 2016, the Latvian state finally gave in to reason and enshrined in statute that any attempts to throw the result of football matches in the country would be punishable by law. This doesn't help matters as far as pursuing the top dogs at Daugava Riga, Daugava Daugavpils and Gulbene is concerned, but it puts Latvian football in a promising position moving forward.
This season has seen a comparatively clean bill of health in the Virsliga, with Latkovskis confident that the criminal elements have been expunged from football in Baltic state. The ship has been steadied rather quicker than Mezeckis predicted, but no one is naive enough to believe that plain sailing is guaranteed from here on in. Indeed, the league's most successful club – 15-time champions FC Skonto – were refused a licence for the season and are now playing in the second tier.
Former national team captain Vitalijs Astafjevs stepped down as boss of FK Jelgava in May after a difficult two-year fight against the tide. Jelgava have never been accused of improper conduct, but the experience was a sobering one for Astafjevs. "Football life is hard now in Latvia," he surmises bleakly. "It's at a lower level than it was 10 years ago and there's no money. Young players are caught up in match-fixing because there is so little money. It's inevitable, really."
It's devastating that any country should be left to suffer at the hands of criminals by the inactivity of its legislators in this way, but the situation in Latvia represents a particularly depressing demise from the heroics of 2004.
These days, Latvian football's European exploits take place in courtrooms. In November 2015 a dawn raid by police triggered an inquest into FC Daugava's 7-1 Champions League defeat to Swedish side Elfsborg in 2013 – the only match under criminal investigation, since it took place in a continental competition. It's the biggest headline that Latvian clubs have made for some time; this season, like last, all four representatives were knocked-out of Europe by the beginning of August.
The Virsliga can take heart from the fact that it was able to see out the rest of the 2015 season, albeit considerably lighter than it once was, and that it has moved forward this season with eight clubs. Latkovskis thinks this is the right number for a country like Latvia, since it creates a more balanced and competitive league in what is a small pool of resources.
"Eight teams, who are all clean, is better for us. Better that than having 10 teams artificially where you don't know who is funding them.
"We don't want a situation where the top team is beating the 10th team 7-0, 8-0 like in the past. We think it's about quality not quantity, and we are satisfied with eight," he says hesitantly, before quickly reconsidering: "Perhaps satisfied is the wrong word. But things are better than they were."