Still playing with distinction midway through his fourth decade, Kaspars Gorkss shows no signs of wear and tear getting the better of him. The rock-solid 6'3 (1.91m) defender, who enjoyed notable club stints at Queens Park Rangers, Reading and Wolverhampton Wanderers in England, remains a mainstay in defence for Latvia, whom he also captains. With his steely determination and iron will, he is a cult hero among his country's fans.
"I'm not the sort of person to brag or boast about anything. It's not my place to say that I've had a great or successful career. There's one thing for sure, though: it's been well spent and it's not quite over yet," the 35-year-old told FIFA.com. In fact, a full 20 years since making his debut for Auda, the Latvian second-division club where his father Juris is now the chairman, Gorkss has just signed a new contract with top-flight outfit Liepaja. In the process, he has also tacitly extended his ties with the Latvian national team, nicknamed the Sarkanbaltsarkanie, for whom he has been a loyal servant since 2005.
"I'm football-mad: it's my love, my passion, what drives me on," Gorkss said. "It's true that, as the years go by, training sessions get harder and harder for me, but football still makes me feel better than anything else in the world. Nothing can compare to the excitement and adrenaline that build up at the weekend when a match is coming around."
Contrary to those who subscribe to the idea of a club-versus-country trade-off, the two are very much inextricably linked for the veteran, who therefore has no qualms about continuing to turn out on both stages.
"I feel that I've still got something to offer Latvia, with my leadership and experience," he said. "The national team are very close to my heart: I'm as passionate about them as about the game itself. The day I decide to quit international football, I'll quit playing altogether. The two will go hand in hand."
It is undeniable that Gorkss has lost a yard or two of pace compared to the version that was named the Latvian Footballer of the Year in 2009 and 2010. Nevertheless, he has lost none of his influence in the Sarkanbaltsarkanie squad, with whom he came within striking distance of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. The Baltic minnows were still in contention going into the final matchday of group-stage action, but ultimately had to settle for third place in Group 2 behind Switzerland and Greece, respectively.
The day I decide to quit international football, I'll quit playing altogether. The two will go hand in hand.
"That type of disappointment stays with you forever, but that's the nature of the beast for a football player: you have dreams and you're always going to get to achieve some of them and not others," he said. "One of my goals at the beginning of my career was to play in the [English] Premier League and I did that, which I'm delighted about. At international level, my aim was to feature in the finals of a major tournament, which must be the pinnacle. Unfortunately, that hasn't been possible and yes, it could go down as one of my biggest regrets – if I had to write it off for good."
The promotion king
As those words make clear, Gorkss is not ready to give up on this dream just yet, and with good reason, with Latvia still in the hunt for a spot at Russia 2018. That said, he and his compatriots have not exactly hit the ground running on the road to Russia: with just a single victory under their belt, a 1-0 win away to Andorra, they are languishing in fifth in Group B.
"Our hopes of qualifying are slim, but we've got to cling to them. So long as it's not mathematically out of the question, we've got to keep believing, come what may, and working hard," said the gnarled stopper, turning his attention to his country's potentially make-or-break meeting with their old Swiss foes in a fortnight's time.
"That match promises to be as tough as the rest. Switzerland have a good blend of established talents and youth. They've got some super players and have made a really good start to these qualifiers. But the beauty of football lies in its unpredictability: nothing is set in stone and anything is possible. For Latvia, games like this one are a golden opportunity to show that we're improving and looking up."
And if anyone knows about upward mobility, it is Kaspars Gorkss. After all, the centre-back's CV includes no fewer than three promotion-winning campaigns, all with different clubs in England (in 2006/07 with Blackpool, in 2010/11 with QPR and in 2011/12 with Reading), with the last two involving a rise from the second-tier League Championship to the promised land of the Premier League.
"Back in England, they called me the promotion king," he reminisced. "I've got wonderful memories of that time, but I think it's a coincidence more than anything else. On each occasion, I was just a link in a chain," he added, modestly neglecting to mention the mettle and durability that continue to set this Latvian iron man apart to this day.