Emils Birka joined Valmiera FC on the eve of 2022. season. The season that many will remember as the team’s golden year. In the interview, Emils reflects on the season, and his perfomance and states his goals for the upcoming year.
Preparations for the new season have started, how do you feel?
I feel very well. I am fully ready and motivated to start the new season to try and repeat what I achieved last season. Maybe we can even do better.
How did you spend your vacation?
I spent my time usefully, paying off the debts that had accumulated at university. It is very difficult for an athlete to combine it all, even more so because I myself have a face-to-face program. You have to find free time or make arrangements with teachers to find a way to deal with everything. I myself am in Valmiera, the university is in Riga, it is problematic to go out, so I spend my holidays studying. I had also gone on vacation to the Netherlands, where I also rested for a few days. I gathered energy, got motivation and new strength to start all over again now.
Emīls Birka and Valmiera FC – Latvian champions. Have you finally digested it and what are the feelings of this moment when more time has passed?
Of course, it’s nice, and with it comes self-confidence, because that championship title has been won. It must be said that it also created a greater motivation to work, the investment made during life now brings results.
How do you rate your performance last season?
I always expect more from myself, especially in terms of scoring performance, which is what was lacking the most last year. I want to be useful to the team, try to earn goals or assists and also help in the formation of the attack. Defensively, this year was very good, with practically no big mistakes that could be called a goal conceded because of me. If you compare this with previous years, I was much more stable in defensive actions.
You arrived in Valmiera shortly before the start of the season, how long did it take you to get used to it, to understand what is really happening in Valmiera?
That period was really lightning fast. It was necessary to jump into the events immediately and there was not much time to prepare. In two weeks until the first game, I had to go on the pitch in the starting line-up right away – I hadn’t even really played together with the team leaders. There was one test match with Metta, but there too I worked more with the players who were in our closest reserves. Broadly speaking, I understood the game plan and idea right away, it wasn’t like I went to the field with a blank page. There were problems, there were mistakes – I believe that in the first game against Riga FC we conceded a goal precisely because of a communication error. With each next game I felt better and better until I opened up completely.
New team, new experience, what is the highlight you have taken from the championship season?
I remember my first and so far only goal for the club, but what happened in Liepaja was the most important. I only played for one minute myself, but those emotions will be hard to beat. To win the championship in the last match of the season is indescribable, especially because we scored in the last minute. You run, rejoice and start celebrating – the brightest emotions in my life.
You competed with Pape Yare Fall for playing time, at the beginning of the season he was out of the rotation – when he returned, how secure did you feel about your place, about playing time?
Our competition is positive and friendly. We always wish each other good luck before games, it’s not like there’s any problem. At first it turned out that Fall was injured and I was given the opportunity to play in the first team. Even during the 15-game winning streak, I felt that I was playing regularly and there were no problems. At the end of the season, I realized that there would be a rotation. The head coach said that we are different and each has an opponent that is more or less suited to our playing styles. I was ready that we would share the minutes, but I did everything to prove myself and get the maximum number of minutes. I definitely don’t get upset if I don’t make the starting line-up for a game.
Both have the same position, but you are different players..
Yes, I would say Fall is one of the most athletic players in the league. His physical qualities are very developed – speed, ability to play on the second floor. I stand out more by playing more positionally, taking less risks, but in the case of Fall, those risks often pay off. Therefore, there is already that adaptation – there is an opponent against whom you have to play positionally correctly, but there is an opponent where you need to be high-minded.
The season started in the gums, then a 15-game winning streak – how would you explain it?
It’s hard to say, I wasn’t in the team in previous years, maybe it had happened before, but it seemed that we were a little tired and stressed. I consider the games between Daugavpils and Metta as failures, we had to win there, but in football, all kinds of things happen, even in big championships, leaders tend to stumble. As we ran in, confidence grew and the victories came by themselves, we played our game.
What was the moment when you realized that we could fight for the title?
From the very beginning, when I came here, we already thought that we could do it with Valmiera. I watched Valmiera’s first game at the Turkish training camp and even then it seemed that they were playing impressively fast football with pressing. It was like “wow”, something could really happen there this year. For a moment, that confidence disappeared, but as soon as the winning streak started, we started defeating the Top 4 teams with convincing results, everything returned. 15-game winning streak? We can easily achieve everything, we are at the top of the table – by and large, everything was in our hands.
Metta and Valmiera – the philosophy is similar, but the teams fight each in their own part of the table, how did you perceive these changes?
Even when playing in Metta’s team, we went to the pitch every match with the desire to win, it wasn’t like we were going to get spanked. We always tried to play football there, but the game itself was more chaotic, because there you have to try to squeeze the maximum out of the episode that occurred, there may not be another one. Here you can play more calmly, knowing that the result will come. You just have to create as many chances as possible, be safe in defense. The main difference is confidence, it’s hard to even compare.
Everything was decided in the last match of the season, what do you remember from it?
I had a calm, simple training the day before, I slept great. The excitement showed during the game. I have noticed that when I am on the bench there is stress, but when I play on the field, that adrenaline allows me to not feel that tension. Sitting on the side you see and hear everything. You want to be on the pitch, you want to help, especially in such an important game. During the personal warm-up, I just watched what was happening in the game, I couldn’t even really take my eyes off it, it’s hard to deal with the fact that you have to be ready to go on the pitch yourself, while the teammates are there – already battling against the opponent.
Djibril Gueye scores, final whistle – what happens next?
We, the whole team, ran together at the beginning. After that, of course, the fans, we tried to shake hands with everyone present, say hello, I went to my parents. That sense of community was the most important thing at that moment. It was fantastic, none of us will ever forget it. And that support is very important. Both here and at my previous club, I always feel supported. I can say thank you to the fans of Valmiera, who supported us in every game, found a way to motivate us. Original and witty shouts during the game always make you smile – “Valmiera one, zero opponent”, you won’t hear anything like that anywhere else.
What do you need to work on and what would you like to achieve in the new season?
There is always room for improvement. I can still mention the results, every season I have a goal, but so far I have not managed to achieve it. My contribution must definitely become bigger, become more productive, and I definitely want to stay on the pitch with even more minutes. The goals of the team are very important – victory in the Virsliga, the Latvian Cup, the Euro Cups. If we could repeat what RFS achieved – to be in one of the group tournaments, it would be impressive.
You received your first call-up to the national team, tell us about the process.
I’m still waiting for my debut, I’m trying to prove to the coach that I’m ready to go on the pitch and I hope it will happen already in the new season. I’ve been working on it for a long time, I can’t say that I didn’t dream of it all my life, but in the last years, since I’ve been playing in the Virsliga, I’ve definitely been striving for it. I also follow my competitors, see how they are doing. There was no surprise at the call. When could I make my debut? Hard to say. If I improve my performance during the season, the time will come for my debut. I think that everything depends on yourself, because you still have to prove yourself. You have to gain confidence and everything can change, I can get regular game time.