FK RFS: A closer look at our UCL opponents

Jun 27, 2024 | All News, First Team

If you spoke to many a Larne fan over the years, the thought of the club’s name being drawn out of a pot at UEFA headquarters in Nyon would have been a pipe dream but, this season will be the Inver Reds’ fourth European campaign in a row and second in the UEFA Champions League.

After heading to Helsinki last year, the red and white army will descend upon the Latvian capital of Riga next month as Tiernan Lynch will lead his squad against FK RFS. RFS won the Vrsliga for the second time in their short history last season having only been founded in their current guise 2016. They are the phoenix club of former Latvian powerhouses Skonto FC who were declared bankrupt eight years ago. Since 2022, the club have played their home games at the 2,300 seater LNK Sporta Parks but often move bigger games to the national Skonto Stadium. Previously, they played at the Janis Skredelis Stadium which held just 250 people.

The club has its origins in post-Soviet Latvia as the youth wing of FC Skonto until its original founder, Vladimirs Belajevs severed ties with their parent club and founded FSK Daugava in 2005. This club enrolled in the second tier in 2007 and won promotion to the top flight the following season, albeit only staying for a year. They changed their name again in 2011 to the full title listed above but rebranded to the slicker RFS in 2016 when Skonto FC were liquidated, had their license revoked and were dissolved into Belajevs’ club.

If you think Manchester City’s current run of four Premier League titles in a row is impressive, Skonto FC make that look insignificant! RFS’s predecessors won the first FOURTEEN post-Soviet era Vrsliga titles from 1991 to 2004 so RFS certainly had a lot to live up to. In their first season, they only discovered that they would receive a top flight license a month before the season started so had to build a squad capable of competing. The team, largely made up of ex-Skonto players, finished sixth in their first season and continued on an upward trend, finishing third in 2018 which saw them qualify for Europe for the first time.

2019 turned out to be an historic season for the young club as, not only did they compete on the continental stage for the first time, they won their first piece of silverware, defeating FK Jelgava 3-2 after extra-time in the Latvian Cup final. They won their first ever European game in similarly thrilling style with a stoppage time winner seeing them win 3-2 away to Olimpija Ljubljana only for the Slovenians to overturn the tie in the return leg.

This success came under Lithuanian manager Valdas Dambrauskas but, after he left in 2020, current manager Viktors Morozs took the helm and the man Tiernan Lynch will be pitting his wits against has brought incredible success to the club. A narrow 1-0 loss to Serbian giants Partizan Belgrade in Europe was a credible result but his first season brought no trophies. However, the following year was a dream season for Morosz and his charges.

2021 saw RFS win their first Vrsliga title and rounded it off with a second Cup success for a domestic double. They also went on an historic European run, beating KI Klaksvik of the Faroes in the Europa Conference league for their ever European win before following it up with a 5-0 aggregate thrashing of Hungarian outfit Puskas Akademia. They were eventually narrowly knocked out by Belgian giants Gent but 2022 would bring new European heights.

After suffering a similar fate to Larne a year later by losing to HJK in their first ever Champions League tie in 2022, RFS dropped into the third round of Europa Conference League qualifying – as Larne will do this year if the Latvians triumph. Here they defeated Maltese outfit Hibernians before they travelled to Belfast for the play-off round – Linfield fans look away now! David Healy’s men were pegged back in a 2-2 draw in the first leg in Riga before an extra-time stoppage time equaliser and eventual penalty shootout win at Windsor Park broke Blues hearts and sent RFS into the group stages of a major European competition. They became just the second Latvian team to do so after FK Ventspils in the 2009/10 Europa League and were drawn in a group with Fiorentina, Heart of Midlothian and Istanbul Basaksehir. While they did not register a victory, they managed a 1-1 draw in Florence in their opener as well as a goalless stalemate with their Turkish visitors at home to exit with their heads held high. Andrej Ilic, now of French giants Lille was the historic first goal scorer in the groups for Morosz’s men.

That European run did impact their domestic form and they ceded their title to Valmiera, finishing third. In 2023, Europe was not so kind to RFS as they crashed out of the Europa Conference League in the second qualifying round to Azerbaijan’s FK Sabah having beaten Makedonija GP in the first round. However, a dramatic last day of the season victory over Metta saw them overtake local rivals Riga FC to claim their second title in three years and head back to the Champions League to take on Larne. Both sides will be hoping to progress beyond the first round this year in what is a second campaign at Europe’s top table for both. The winner will have a tough task as they take on Norwegian champions Bodo/Glimt in round two.

The 2024 Vrsliga season is just over the halfway point with 20 games played. RFS lead again, five points clear of their rivals Riga FC. The club had three players – Dimitrijs Zelenkovs, Martins Kigurs and record appearance holder Roberts Salvanieks – in the Latvia squad that lost to Lithuania and defeated the Faroe Islands in the Baltic Cup at the beginning of this month.

Other players to look out for include Brazilian playmaker Emerson Deocleciano who is the club’s all-time record goalscorer with 50 as we speak as well as Serbian striker Darko Lemajic who has 44 goals for the club in what is now his second spell there. 6’ 6” Slovenian defender Ziga Lipuscek is a commanding presence at the back and a threat at set pieces while 38 year-old goalkeeper Pavels Steinbors brings with him plenty of experience and 31 Latvian caps.

We look forward to heading to the Land of Blue Lakes to the capital city, which is known as the Paris of the East for the first leg on July 10th before an historic night as there will be Champions League football played at Inver Park for the first time on July 17th. Hopefully this has brought you up to speed on all things FK RFS and, as they say in Latvian, “Visu Labu!”

Written by Mark Strange.

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