Raise your hand if you would have expected some surprises during this futsal season. Well, would you have ever thought that this would come from Lithuania? On Friday 26 October, at the FIFA Council held in Kigali, Rwanda, the Baltic republic was announced as the host of the next FIFA Futsal World Cup in 2020. The announcement arrived in a flourishing period for the Lithuanian movement: FK Vytis Futsal has upset the predictions, becoming the only team to win the Main Round group starting from the Preliminary Round, obtaining then the chance to organize the Elite Round for some of the best teams in Europe. There is also glory for the U19 national team, which will play at home its Preliminary Round group. Who would have expected that a federation, despite the financial problems, would manage to catalyze on its country all the attention coming from fans all over the world? Having a chat with our colleague Arnas Sarkunas, journalist for LRT (Lithuanian Radio and Television), we were able to contact Lithuanian television commentator and Vytis press officer, Paulius Jakelis, who will tell us how they have received this succession of news and events.
Futsal Corner: Dear Sr. Jakelis, good morning. Let me congratulate you and the LFF (Lithuanian Football Federation) for your amazing achievement. Not many would have bet on your bid, but once again Lithuania amazed the futsal world. Did you expect this result? How much did the Federation work on organising this bid?
Paulius Jakelis: First, I would like to say that the Lithuanian football community is happy about Lithuania hosting the Futsal World Cup. I know that the Lithuanian Football Federation worked hard to get it here. Recently we had many changes, but I would like to say that it was ex-president Edvinas Eimontas who started all the work to bring the World Cup to Lithuania. Many of those who played a big role into bringing this event to Lithuania are not working in the federation anymore, but what they did was amazing. You have to be a little bit crazy to even come up with such an idea. Of course, other people, like current president Tomas Danilevicius, also played and important role and I am proud for everyone who were involved. In January 2017, more than 4000 spectators came to watch the European Futsal Qualifiers game between Lithuania and France in Vilnius. This year, the UEFA Futsal Champions league Preliminary round hosted by FK Vytis Kaunas had big attendance numbers as well. People in Lithuania love football. If you ask my personal opinion I was not really sure of getting this amazing chance. So yes, it is a surprise for me.
FC: How futsal’s health in Lithuania? How is it developing, how much is known about it and how many people practice it?
PJ: Talking about futsal in Lithuania, particularly this year, is really special because Vytis are creating one miracle after another. For the first time ever, a Lithuanian club reached is among the Top-16 in the UEFA Futsal Champions league. Kaunas club won all their 6 matches in Preliminary and Main round. People have never spoken about futsal as much as they are doing now. Everybody is excited and interested. By bringing high class Brazilian players and the best local players, Vytis set different quality standards in Lithuania. Before Vytis there were no professional futsal clubs in our country. All teams are super motivated playing against Vytis, and local players are growing much quicker training with Brazilians. Talking about Lithuanian futsal, last year’s A Lyga season was great, with 2-3 teams fighting for the title. This year there are many new teams, but basically Vytis are the only professional club training regularly, paying salaries etc. In Lithuania there are almost no real futsal players, with few exceptions. Most of the players play football and futsal in winter only, as we have a very short season. Therefore, there are a lot of things to improve and develop in Lithuanian futsal.
FC: Vytis achieved a surprising result in the Champions League. Is it the result of a specific plan? How much will it help to make Lithuanian futsal known in the rest of the world?
PJ: I will quote you one colleague who is hosting sports news on a local TV channel: “Vytis are the best thing in Lithuanian football at the moment.” A few years ago, everybody could only dream about a Lithuanian futsal club playing with Top teams in the UEFA Champions league. Now it is reality. Vytis will host the Elite Round. Fans will be able to see Ricardinho and Movistar Inter playing. That’s incredible. And behind all this glory there is a lot of really hard work, basically by two people who are club’s pillars: Darius Gurskis and Guilherme Ferreira. They are everything here: owners, administrators, sponsors etc. They are and example of how two people with big passion for football and particularly futsal can create miracles. They are amazing. Nobody see them but without them this would have never happened. Of course there is a bigger team around them, but they are fundamental.
FC: There is an article on LRT which talks about some financial problems in Lithuanian football. Could they affect the Lithuanian futsal movement too?
PJ: The LRT article about futsal includes an interview with the head of the Lithuanian futsal association, where he speaks about how hard it is to find any sponsors and support for futsal clubs in Lithuania. I couldn’t agree more with him. As I said – if it was not for those two incredible guys, Vytis would not exist. It’s not easy to find a budget for a professional futsal team. And this problem does not exist only in Lithuania. We have seen many stories of big clubs that, even after great performances in UEFA Futsal Cup, cease to exist in the following season. In my opinion, UEFA should create a system as soon as possible to give financial support for clubs participating in each qualifying round, similar to football where teams get their slice of cake for playing in Europa league and Champions league even in the first rounds. This would help the clubs to survive.
FC: Have you ever thought about the idea of letting futsal teams play their league games before basketball matches in order to raise attendance?
PJ: Actually, I never thought about this. Futsal and basketball are different sports so if a fan likes basketball it’s not granted that he will be interested in futsal. In theory this could be possible in some cities, but surely not in most of them. Futsal clubs can only dream about the budget of basketball teams and renting such arenas is too expensive. I can speak as a Vytis representative: last year we had great attendance in some games even reaching around 1000 for local championship matches. We are proud of these numbers. Playing in Zalgiris Arena (18.000 seats) is almost impossible for us. It is extremely expensive to rent it and there is not the right court for futsal. We need to grow futsal as a separate sport and not as a basketball warm-up, because that is how people would consider it. That’s just my opinion.
FC: How is the Lithuanian national team preparing for the international friendlies and tournaments? What are the next goals to be achieved? Will Lithuania aim to amaze the world?
PJ: I know one thing for sure: preparing the team for the World Cup is going to cause the Lithuanian Football Federation a lot of headaches. Most of the players are amateurs – they do not live on futsal and have their own jobs. They do not train everyday. Therefore, there are many problems that need to be solved. I am sure the LFF will prepare a strategy and do something about this. There is simply no other way. With the team that we have now, we can’t be competitive in the World Cup. There are many things to do and improve. But I believe we will be ready in the end.
Futsal Corner truly appreciates the time Paulius Jakelis dedicated to answer our questions. We send him our best wishes for the future with both his club and his profession. We also send our congratulations to Lithuania for being appointed as the World Cup host, and wish them the best with the organization of the event.
Cover image: Twitter – Lithuania FF (@ltfutbolas)
Author: Valerio Scalabrelli (Twitter: @ScalabroFS)