With Latvia representing little more than a small dot on the enormous footballing world map, universal points of reference from the Latvian game are thin on the ground. If there’s one single, recognisable element to emerge from the Baltic republic however, that would be one of its clubs: Skonto FC. The achievements of the Riga based outfit were so all-consuming that they transcended local borders and pushed the club’s name into the consciousness of the wider football fan.
Skonto’s record-breaking dominance of the Latvian game in its fledgling years as an independent entity post-Soviet era was absolute. The club from the republic’s capital won every single edition of the Higher League between 1991 and 2004 – 14 times in succession, a then world record – and yet these giants of modern Latvian football no longer exist. This is the story of their quarter century rollercoaster existence.
Officially Skonto football club was founded in 1991, although the actual history of the club began a few years earlier in 1988 when coach Marks Zahodins was tasked with assembling a student football team in Riga to represent the USSR at the forthcoming Universiade, a multi-sports event more commonly known as the World Student Games. After the Universiade was over, a decision was taken that the team should continue and work towards the goal of creating players capable of representing the Latvian football league within the powerful Soviet Supreme League.
It rapidly became apparent that these players were some distance from being ready to compete in such elevated company, but the club stayed together anyway thanks to a 1990 invitation from the State University of Physical Education to participate in the debut Baltic championship. This was a competition put together by several of the Soviet states that had already declared independence. Sixteen clubs participated in the championship (8 from Lithuania, 6 from Latvia and one each from Estonia and Russia) and Riga was represented by a university team playing under the name of Daugava LVFKI, named after the river Daugava that flows into the Baltic Sea close to the capital.
In 1991 the club changed its name again to incorporate new sponsor Forums-Skonto and the financial boost this brought was vital in allowing the club to function outside of the university framework. Playing under this name the club made its debut in the transitional season of the Higher League after Latvia seceded from the USSR and regained its independence in August 1991. It was a winning start too as Forums-Skonto ended its maiden season in first place from a field of twenty teams to become the first champion of the newly independent republic.
Forums-Skonto formally joined the newly formed independent league and in December of 1991 the club was officially incorporated under the name of Skonto. The name was acquired by the newly founded Skonto group whose main concern was construction work. The club’s first president was Guatis Indriksons, a member of the Skonto group and a former KGB official and five years later this businessman and sports administrator would become the president of the Latvian Football Association. During his mandate as chairman of the club, Indriksons became the owner of 90 percent of the club’s shares.
That debut championship win was hard-fought and coach Marks Zahodins and his players only secured it following a play-off against RAF Jelgava. Latvia legend Aleksandrs Starkovs took over from Zahodins in 1992 and would be involved with the club during most of its dominant years which yielded a further 13 titles and 7 domestic Cup wins. There were regular European campaigns too and during the 1999-2000 season the club came within one qualifying round of making the Champions League group stages.
Skonto produced many talented players during the years they held the Latvian game in a vice-like grip; national legends like the former Arsenal defender Igor Stepanovs, celebrated Latvian goalkeepers Vitalij Astafjevs and Maris Verpakovskis, top international scorer Mihails Miholaps and the former Southampton star Marians Pahars. Most significantly the backbone of the national team that shocked the continent by qualifying for the 2004 European Championship in Portugal was Skonto derived.
That standout year when the national team competed manfully with Europe’s elite happened to be the same one that the club’s run of championship successes was finally broken by Metalurgs from Liepaja. Skonto would win just one further title in 2010 and this last success led to the sale of the club by Indriksons to Chechnyan businessman Bislan Abdulmuslimov, although the former owner would stay on as president. One year on and and the club was resold, this time to an offshore company named Tremova and registered in Cyprus. The new owner did not meet promises regarding investment however and the club started to run up large financial losses.
The calamitous decline of Skonto began in earnest in 2012 when a prevention of conflict of interest within the public sphere law was passed by the Latvian parliament following pressure from the European Union. As a consequence Indriksons was forced to resign as president because he was by this time serving as president of the Latvian Football Association. This left Skonto without its influential mover and shaker and the man who ran the whole administrative side of the club.
That same year Skonto won its last ever trophy, the Latvian national cup, defeating Metalurgs in the Final. In 2013 virtually all their sponsors deserted Skonto causing a major financial crisis. Players were not paid salaries and bonuses and some were not pacified by verbal promises so took their claim to court.
The following year Skonto resourcefully managed a second place finish in the championship, but UEFA disqualification because of their precarious financial status meant they would not enter the qualifying rounds of the Europa League. Unsurprisingly the Latvian Football Association, led of course by Indrikson, was more tolerant and declared just one day before the start of the new season that Skonto would be allowed to retain their top flight place.
This was the most difficult of campaigns for the club: unpaid financial obligations cost them a three point deduction, later reduced to two on appeal, but then supplemented by a further four point penalty as liabilities remained unpaid. Against all odds the financial situation stabilised slightly in the latter part of the year and Skonto finished again in a laudable second place, even despite the points deductions.
So in 2015 the club management managed to attain a license to participate in the Europa League and the team would again battle bravely to the runners-up spot in the championship. Sadly the fine efforts on the pitch by a compromised squad would be in vain. Severe financial issues continued to dog the club and even their allies at the Latvian federation finally lost patience. Skonto were thrown out of the Higher League and for the first time in their history would be playing in the second tier First League. Most of the squad departed and a makeshift team limped to a lowly eighth place finish in that debut First League season.
The spiralling debts led to an inevitable petition for bankruptcy and with the club reduced to a mere husk, its owners did not seek League entry for the following season. There would continue to be teams representing the club but only at youth level – to all extents and purpose Skonto Riga now no longer existed.
The stellar rise and sad demise of this remarkable club is a story very much in keeping with the trend that characterises Latvian football in the post Soviet era. Rewind to that very first independent championship back in 1992 and you’ll find a footballing graveyard – remarkably not one of its dozen participants exist today.
Attempting to fill the huge void left by the collapse of the League’s record-breaking club is a new entity named Riga FC, formed in 2014 and playing their home games at the vacated Skonta stadium. The chances of Riga FC ever matching the achievements of the sadly departed Skonto are remote.
My personal viewpoint is that the Skonto club has now actually returned to its original purpose, the very reason why it was created in the first place, to work with and develop youth players at an academy level. It’s some minor consolation that at least this fine old name stays alive in the footballing world in some form.
Nikola Radulović runs the excellent Serbian language Football Through Time and Nations site and we plan to publish more of his historical writing on BTLM in the months to come. Nikola can also be found on Twitter @FCTimeNations