Where are they now? Igors Stepanovs
Latvians aren’t renowned for their footballing ability, so it is always a surprise to find one playing for Arsenal in the Premier League.
Sports common in the Eastern European country include ice hockey, basketball, rally driving and Winter Olympic events, so when the Gunners signed Igors Stepanovs back in 2000, many drew a deep breath.
The defender had impressed in his homeland and it was expected one of Europe’s top clubs would come calling. However I’m sure the Highbury faithful would have been less than impressed with what he produced in England.
Read on to find out what Arsenal saw in the defender, and how his career flopped so badly, as we ask; Where is he now?
Born in Ogre, Latvia in 1976, it would have been nearly impossible to predict where Igors Stepanovs would end up.
Athletic, tall and strong – some of the words used to describe a 16-year-old Stepanovs back in the early 1990s. He fit the bill for an Ice Hockey or Basketball player.
So it was a surprise for many to see him sign a professional contract at Skonto-Metāls (who soon became Skonto Riga).
After making his debut in ’92, he played eight seasons at the capital club, winning 7 national titles.
He was also called up to the Latvia national team, for whom he won his first of 100 caps in 1995.
And it was his performances on the world stage, along with European games against the likes of Inter Milan, Barcelona and Chelsea, that saw him attract the interest of others.
And as he was beginning to become a regular for Latvia after years of hard work at his club, it seemed as though his dreams were set to come true when one of the world’s top clubs at the time came calling.
As manager Arsene Wenger saw legendary Gunners captain Tony Adams get injured, he quickly lodged a £1.35m bid for Stepanovs in 2000.
Aged 24, he played his first game for Arsenal against Ipswich Town in the League Cup, scoring the Gunners’ only goal in a 2-1 defeat.
However, Wenger was constantly improving his side, and saw Stepanovs at part of his long-term plans. Subsequently, the Latvian received more and more game time, until he was almost a regular in the starting XI.
But an infamous game at Manchester United would change all that.
The two sides were battling for the Premier League title and Arsenal came off worse, as they lost 6-1. Their chances of winning the title had been dealt an almighty blow.
His dramatically below par performance in the match saw him dropped by Wenger, and he went on to make only six more appearances for the club over the next three years.
That wasn’t enough to make him eligible for a winner’s medal for the 2001/02 Premier League, and he didn’t feature in either the ’02 or the ’03 FA Cup wins.
31 games in four years at the club represented a massive lull in the once promising defender’s career, and he was soon shipped on following defensive strengthening by Wenger.
A semi-successful loan at K.S.K. Beveren, helped the player regain some confidence and combined with with good performances for Latvia in the qualifying rounds for Euro 2004, he began, once again, to attract attention.
After Latvia were knocked out of the Euros at the group stage, Stepanovs joined Zurich based club Grasshopper.
Two consistent seasons in Switzerland went by, but nothing outstanding came from the six-foot-three defender. Consequently, he completed a free transfer to FK Jurmala back in his country of birth in 2006.
But that didn’t last, and neither did his short stays in Denmark and Russia.
He struggled to find his early career form wherever he went, and soon found himself back at FK Jurmala, where he made 25 league appearances in what would be his last two seasons.
Where is he now?
As he was honoured for playing his 100th and last match for Latvia in 2011, Stepanovs moved into a player-coach role at Jurmala.
After he announced his retirement, the Latvia Football Federation decided to offer the Eastern European legend a chance to coach in the country’s youth set-up.
He is now the coach of the under-17 Latvian national side, however he is yet to take them to a European Championships.