Blending in with Latvian hockey fans in Riga

by Jacob Jarvis

Sport has a brilliant way of uniting people. It defies language barriers and physical borders, giving its viewers something to bond over in its own unique way.

So, when in Riga in December 2015, the opportunity to view one of Latvia’s most prominent hockey teams, Dinamo Riga, was too much for my friends and I to turn down. Regardless of our complete lack of knowledge in regards to the game’s rules, we were utterly enthused.

So, with some of the best of the region’s beers warming our bellies and some questionable fan hats doing the same for our heads, we headed to the city’s ice arena – to see the city’s team take on its counterpart from Minsk.

Nestling into the bustling crowds, we were welcomed, quite literally, with open arms. Outside the arena, in the queues for drinks, and in the endless rows of seats themselves, the burgundy clad regulars were in full song before the puck hit the ice. And as the main chant was simple enough, it wasn’t long before we’d surreptitiously, we believed, hidden our status as tourists and were singing along as though we’d not missed a home game for our whole lives.

The notable difference between the Latvian event and English sporting events was what a spectacle there was before the hockey got under way, then during the breaks between each quarter. A compère with teeth whiter than a fresh bathroom suite and a suit which looked like it was stitched onto him took over proceedings, announcing every player individually, before they skated on to the ice to raucous applause. A brand new 4×4 car was even wheeled onto the ice, up for grabs for one lucky ticket holder. All of this only added to the palpable feeling of excitement exuding from the stands.

Then came the game. Honestly, I can’t claim to have had a grasp exactly on what was going on, but hockey is the best live sport I have ever had the pleasure of bearing witness to.

The rolling substitutions made it impossible to keep track of what team was on top at any point, or to even pay attention to the carnage occurring on the rink. Players getting smashed into the walls constantly, everyone diving into the goalkeeper’s area and constant scrambles for control of the direction of play. An air of determined desperation to get the tiny black disk in the net seemed to surround all of the players.

In the last quarter, Dinamo were down 3-4 to Minsk and the ‘keeper was replaced by another outfield player to let the side bombard the opposition goal. Though despite the inevitable onslaught the winning side had to withstand, the tactic failed, with Riga coming unstuck on a counter attack and losing 3-5. My heart sank slightly, along with the locals in the stadium. But, in terms of entertainment, the result barely mattered when the whole spectacle was that enticing.

It was unbelievably cheaper to attend than a football match in England, I wasn’t ripped off with lukewarm £5-a-pint lager, and I didn’t feel remotely excluded by the die hard fans I was surrounded by.

If you’re ever in Riga, go get behind the Dinamo – it’s an experience.


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