Roy Hodgson had a list of the Lithuanian players in front of him for his press conference yesterday, admitting that even he, a renowned student of the global game, had not quite yet been able to memorise the names of this evening’s opponents. In the end, he did not need it.
Lithuania are by no means the worst team in Group E – only England have more points than them – and they are probably the strongest of the three Baltic sides, ahead of Estonia and Latvia. But, compared to those two, they have made the least impression on global football since independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
Lithuania have never qualified for a major international tournament. Latvia famously played at Euro 2004, holding Germany to a 0-0 draw in the group, while Estonia reached the play-off round for Euro 2012 only to be beaten by the Republic of Ireland. Lithuania have never got that far.
This is a relatively strong Lithuania, side, though, with six points from their first four games, and while they come to Wembley eager to make an impression in one of the biggest games in their history. They have sold out their allocation of 1,500 tickets for their first ever trip to Wembley and expect just as many Lithuanians – many drawn from the immigrant community – among the home fans tonight.
Detached from this special occasion, though, football in Lithuania has to take second place to basketball, their national sport. There are two Lithuanians playing in the NBA – Donatas Motiejunas of the Houston Rockets and Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors – representing at a higher level than any of their current football squad, now scattered between the second-tier leagues of Europe.
None of Lithuania’s squad for tonight’s game play for a top side. Goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis, of Steaua Bucharest, is a transfer target for Udinese. Tomas Mikuckis plays for Russian Premier League newcomers Torpedo Moscow. Gratas Sirgedas plays for Stuttgart’s second team. But that is that.
Lithuania’s greatest players have certainly played towards the top of the European game. Edgaras Jankauskas was part of Jose Mourinho’s Porto team who won the 2004 Champions League. Valdas Ivanauskas – who went on to coach Hearts – played for Hamburg in the mid-1990s. Of the current generation, Marius Stankevicius still plays for Hannover, but no longer for the national team.
The sporting facilities of Lithuania reflect this hierarchy, the fact that football has to make do with second place. One official from the Lithuanian Football Federation joked this week that he saw more full-size grass pitches at Tottenham Hotspur’s Enfield headquarters than he has ever seen in Lithuania.
When England go to Lithuania on 12 October, they will step out at the LFF Stadium in Vilnius, which holds just under 6,000 people. Zalgiris Basketball Club, though, who play in the EuroLeague, can draw crowds of double that at the Zalgiris Arena in Kaunas, the largest indoor arena in the Baltics.
Wembley, this evening, will be a very different experience.Reuse content