WorldDan BrennanComment

The Mysterious Igors Stepanovs...

WorldDan BrennanComment

In today's Independent (15th December), Glenn Moore evokes memories of Beveren's Belgian Cup final team of 2004 which, incredibly, included 10 players from Cote d'Ivoire. Dan Brennan decides to take a different tack, paying tribute to Beveren's 11th man – the mysterious Igors Stepanovs.

Just over a decade ago, in the summer of 2000, Igors Stepanovs arrived at Arsenal for a cool £1 million, as part of the great Skonto Riga Millennium sell-off orchestrated by former Latvia coach Gary Johnson, which saw a bucket-load of Balts - most now since forgotten – shipped off to various English clubs.

Born in the Latvian town of Ogre, Stepanovs, sadly, turned out to be something less than a giant for Arsenal. After his part in a 6-1 debacle at Old Trafford in 2001 - where he formed one half of a jerry-built East European central defensive blockade with Oleg Luzhny – he was, a tad unfairly, singled out for blame and his fate as a figure of fun was sealed. Few noticed much of a void when he was farmed out to Beveren, the Belgian club who had forged a 'technical relationship' with Arsenal.

Arsenal’s Belgian tie-up had enabled them to secure first claim on Beveren’s conveyor belt of raw talent coming out of Cote d’Ivoire, which was cultivated by Arsene Wenger’s old colleague Jean Marc-Guillou. Guillou, the man behind the success of Ivorian club, ASEC Mimosas and its academy that produced Kolo Toure, latterly went on to become general manager of Beveren and continued overseeing the arrival of umpteen Ivorians on a yearly basis – including the likes of Emmanuel Eboue, Yaya Toure and Gervinho - until 2007 when his Ivorian experiment imploded, the club was relegated and he left to set up academies in other farflung corners such as Madagascar and Thailand.

The notion that all the Belgians should get in return was a Latvian version of Gus Caesar might seem a tad unfair. But Beveren did have other Arsenal fringe players passing through their squad, and of course, they benefited from a tidy transfer fee when Eboue moved to London.

For Stepanovs, meanwhile, being shunted off to Flanders did provide him with an unlikely stab at silverware. In 2004, lining up with 10 Ivorians – he helped Beveren surprise the Belgian pundits by reaching the country’s cup final, only to suffer a narrow defeat to Club Bruges.

Stepanovs spent a year with the Belgians in all, but the locals say that they never really got to know him. “He was one of the biggest enigmas of Belgian football as he never talked to anyone,” a Belgian football journalist who I encountered at Euro 2004 told me. Belgium weren’t taking part, but he had valiantly traveled 800 miles overland to try and unravel the mystery of Stepanovs on behalf of a curious Belgian public.

“At training all the Ivorians would be practicing their tricks, and he would just be on his own running up and down the line,” recalled the Belgian hack. “And it was the same in the club canteen. In one corner, they Ivorians would be laughing and dancing, with the music up full volume. In the other corner, Igors would be sitting on his own reading a book.”

Gunners, Flems and Walloons alike might be surprised then to learn that when he pulled on his national team shirt as Latvia captain, Uncle Stepa, as they call him back home, was transformed into a sort of Latvian Tony Adams. “Hugely dependable, a real leader,” according to Latvian football journalist Mikhail Korolov. Anybody who saw him marshal the defences in a heroic 0-0 against the Germans at Euro 2004 would be forced to agree.

Stepanovs had left Beveren in the summer of 2004, to be replaced, naturally enough, by an Ivorian. He had apparently held out hopes of a return to Arsenal until the last, although got decidedly grumpy when anyone asked about it. Instead, he ended up accepting a move Grasshoppers in the more sedate environs of Zurich. Sedate, at least, until Uncle Stepa hit town, and established himself as the noisiest thing to hit Switzerland since the invention of the cuckoo-clock.

Anyone who watched Igors Stepanovs at Arsenal would hardly have marked him down as a rabble rouser. A toiler, yes, but a troublemaker - never. But he proved too hot to handle for Swiss club Grasshoppers of Zurich, who terminated his contract a year early after his second red card for assaulting an opponent.

Thereafter, the nomadic and increasingly sporadic denouement to his club career began to unfold, first with a return to his native Latvia to sign for FK Jurmala on the Baltic Coast, followed by stints with Esbjerg in Denmark and FC Shinnik Yaroslavl in Russia. In the last five years he's not managed to make more than a handful of appearances, and hasn't lasted over a year in the same place.

In June last year, 2010 Beveren were dissolved, merging with KV Red Star Waasland, to become Red Star Waasland Beveren. Uncle Stepa though is still chugging away. Now 34 and back at Jurmala, he remains listed as a national team player, currently on 99 caps. Hopefully – 15 years after his international debut - he has at least one more cap in him, so that he can bring up the ton. If he does, who knows, he might even crack an enigmatic smile.

Dan is one of the UK’s most well known football writers and contributes regularly to FourFourTwo, When Saturday Comes and World Soccer magazine.  You can follow him on twitter @DanBrennan99