True Lithuania

Football (Soccer) in Lithuania

When one French journalist saw a full basketball arena (where “Lietuvos rytas” fought in ULEB cup semifinals) close to an empty stadium (where a Baltic Football League match took place) he published an article that Lithuania is a land where “the king of sports” has to live in basketball’s shadow.

In reality, the popularity of football is on the rise and the very few games that are on par in terms of quality with the ULEB cup semifinals also attract full stadiums as well as a TV following. This craze is mostly imported from other European nations, such as England, where many Lithuanians emigrated since the country has joined the European Union in 2004.

However, very unlike basketball, Lithuanian football is weak. The national team never even qualified at the European Championships let alone the World Cup. In football the element of luck is bigger than is basketball, therefore there were times when the Lithuanians scored draw against major teams such as Germany, Italy or Spain. However, defeats to the likes of the Faroe Islands or Liechtenstein soon afterward dash the hopes of Lithuanian fans and decrease the popularity of football.

Football clubs of Lithuania attract less funding than their basketball counterparts and so they are weak, relying on Lithuanian players and foreigners who didn’t manage to get a hold into their national leagues. Not a single Lithuanian team ever took part in main stages of the Champions’ League or the UEFA Cup. Moreover, the Lithuanian national football league (“A lyga”) is frequently dipped into scandals of betting fraud. “Panevėžio Ekranas” from Panevėžys long dominated this league in the early 2010s, amassing a yearly budget of 2 million Euro (yes, this was the richest football club in Lithuania). “FBK Kaunas” used to prevail in the 1990s and 2000s (both the Kaunas and Panevėžys teams were eventually expelled from the league in 2009 and 2015 respectively, because of debts and controversies). “Vilniaus Žalgiris” was the best Lithuanian team in the 1980s and still has a larger fan base than other Lithuanian football clubs. It has recently returned to prominence, dominating the league once again in the 2010s.

Vilnius Žalgiris ultras sector during a 2013 season game. These are the most numerous football ultras in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Some of the major football clubs, including both FBK Kaunas and Žalgiris, are or were owned by controversial Russian businessmen whose irregular investments brought the clubs to the verge of collapse at one time or another. Vilniaus Žalgiris was saved only by its fans establishing an alternative club under the same name. In 2009 the A lyga was rejuvenated by accepting numerous clubs from minor towns (less than 20 000 inhabitants) that did not meet the official criteria but were arguably managed more transparently, such as "Banga" from Gargždai or "Kruoja" from Pakruojis.

Unable to see quality football in the local stadiums many fans follow leagues like England’s Premier League on TV (or, of course, the European Championships and the FIFA World Cup). The stadiums, which are not as modern as in the Western Europe, are thus left to the ultras. In the fields, however, football is a popular pastime.

Lithuania's largest stadium (S. Darius and S. Girėnas stadium in Žaliakalnis borough of Kaunas) has 9180 seats, while in general "A lyga" stadiums have some 1500-4000 seats each. Seating is typically only on a single side of the stadium and the football field is combined with an athletics track. Even these stadiums get full only during some national team games and rare matches against powerful Western European teams that usually end the UEFA tournament qualification bids of Lithuanian clubs.

An A lyga football game (Žalgiris vs. Sudūva of Marijampolė, 2013) in Lithuania's most modern stadium (renovated by the Football federation in 2011). The national team now plays its home games here as well. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Should you wish to see a football game in Lithuania take note that unlike in some Western leagues the Lithuanian season is held in summer (i.e. from spring to autumn) with a rest period in winter due to harsh weather. In addition to the top "A lyga" there are lower tiers known as "I lyga" and "II lyga".

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