BERNE – For the sixth consecutive IIHF World Championship, they’re an eye- and lens-catching attraction in hockey arenas. We're talking about Jolanta, Kerija and Zane, the three Latvian women who make it year by year onto the jumbotron, in television broadcasting or on newspaper photos.
Zane is the most experienced of the blonde trio. Her career as a World Championship fan started in Germany 2001, when Latvia played in Cologne and Nuremberg. In 2003, she took her university classmate Jolanta along with her when Latvia played in Turku, Finland. Meanwhile, in 2002, Kerija made her debut in Karlstad, Sweden.
The three Riga natives say their best World Championship trip was the 2004 edition in Prague. “That’s where we met the first time,” they note, pointing to their hair as the most obvious similarity apart from the national team jerseys. And it was also the last time Latvia made it to the quarterfinals.
“But the best World Championship, as many fans from other countries also told us, was 2006 in Riga,” Zane says. “It was an amazing hockey atmosphere there, and there was so much going on in the city. Many people came to us there and said they saw us on TV. Sometimes we feel a bit like representatives of our country.”
But of course they all also enjoy going abroad to see the annual hockey summit. “We have to save money throughout the year, but it has become our tradition to be at the World Championship every year,” Zane explains.
Part of the World Championship's charm involves meeting other fans and celebrating with them. Sometimes the three stay in touch with contact with fans of other teams, and sometimes they just meet them again by accident. “When we went to Zurich for a game of Slovakia, some Slovaks recognized us even though we weren't wearing Latvian fan gear,” says Zane.
It only took a couple of games for them to catch the lenses of photo and video cameras during this year’s tournament. Kerija shows a page from 20 Minuten, one of Switzerland’s most read newspapers, which ran a photo of the trio. They got a copy from a Swiss fan. “The Swiss are very kind and helpful here,” Kerija says.
During our interview, there was no lack of male admirers asking for a photo. These fans have their own fans, evidently. The women are sometimes ready for this, and sometimes not. Such as when a roller hockey player from Barcelona, Spain, asked them to don his club’s jersey for a photo. “We only wear the Latvian jersey,” they told him.
Kerija is also the president of one of the Latvian fan organizations. About 2,500 Latvians made the trip to PostFinance Arena despite the current financial crisis, which hit the Baltic country more than any other in the European Union. “Most came by car or minibus,” she explains. “It’s not so far this time.” Of course, perceptions of distance are relative. It's a journey of about 2,200 kilometres, or 30 hours, from Riga to Berne.
Some of the Latvian fans didn't have to travel quite that far. There are Latvian expatriates living in other European countries who joined the fans in maroon. In fact, 958 Latvian residents were registered in Switzerland at the end of 2008.
Many fans are staying in Interlaken instead of Berne, she explains. It's an idyllic town between two lakes, nestled at the foot of the Alps just 50 kilometres east of Berne. “We feel a bit like it’s our town now, but there are also some fans from other countries coming for the final stages, like Czechs and Swedes,” Zane said.
The trio are in accord about who’s their favourite player. “We don’t have one. Hockey is a team sport, and we support the whole team,” Jolanta said. “But we sometimes also like to stay up late at night to watch NHL games.”
Right now, however, it’s time to focus on the IIHF World Championship. And it looks like another good year for Latvia, possibly the best since making the quarterfinals in Prague five years ago. For the first time in World Championship history, the Latvian national team beat Sweden and Switzerland. Both times, it happened in a shootout.
“It was such a wonderful victory,” Jolanta says of the 2-1 win over the host Swiss. “Especially after the Swiss had tied the game so late.”
A win in regulation time tomorrow against France would bring Latvia to seven points, which means that they would almost have nailed down a quarterfinal berth. The maroon-and-white team plays its last Qualification Round game against Russia. That's another big game, but this little country has showed in the past that it has what it takes to defeat its superpower neighbour. In the last two World Championship matchups between the countries, Latvia upset Russia 2-1 (2003, Turku) and 3-2 (2000, St. Petersburg).