Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Krepšinis 8 Futbolas 1 (Basketball 8 Football 1)

I keep thinking about Hooters. I just can't help myself. As I'm sat here in my bedroom on my own, my mind keeps wandering back to the place I watched Belgium beat Panama with the five drunken Poles.

The waitresses were nice but the thing I can't get out my mind is that they had eight screens showing the basketball, and just one the football.

Lithuanians, for some reason, are mad about only one sport... basketball. I don't know where this came from, but like many "east" European countries they seem to have got heavily into this Yankee-doodle-dandy sport. Lithuania took to it like a duck to water and have always punched above their weight at it. They famously won the European basketball championships back to back (1937 and 1939) in their first independence period. These were the last two to be held before the war and, of course, Soviet occupation. The next tournament Lithuania entered was in 1995 when they reached the final, losing to Yugoslavia (as it just about still existed at that time.) They'd also lost to them in the group stage. So, Lithuania, having won "Eurobasket" twice, were unbeaten in the competition which started in 1935, until 23rd June 1995. Sixty years! So you can see why they love it.

Famous stamps from the first independence period

Basketball, as a sport, is ok, I suppose. I quite like the game in some ways. It's quite exciting and skillfull and I do like certain features, like there's a definite time limit. They use this amazing new invention - called a ...

s t o p      w a t c h

They have this crazy, but wonderful idea. When play stops, the watch is stopped. It's brilliant. That way you get no time wasting tactics like some other sport I might mention. What an imaginative concept.

But it's also got some really crappy features too.

Be dong be dong be dong... two points to one team. Be dong be dong be dong... two points to the other team. It's like a penalty shoot out most of the time. If you don't score, it's bad.

Also, in more American slanting clubs, you get all the Yankee-doodle-dandy over-the-top hype like a guy on the organ playing silly tunes or, as I really really hate when I watch the Perth Wildcats, that hateful man with the mic encouraging the fans to chant at his command.

"Let's go Wildcats, Let's Go!"


"De - fence..." (thud thud thud)

I might be a bit of a moron but I do not need to be told when and what to chant, especially when there's only two options on the menu.

Also, it's kind of a sport that favours you a bit if you're tall. If you're a 1.9+ m freak, then you might be a good basketball player. If you're short, forget it. What kind of a sport is that?

Also, why did Lithuania suck up to America so much? It's not just Lithuanian of course. Even Russia are pretty big on basketball - so how does that work?

Look, I know that other sport might have faults too - it can get very dull for instance - but it has lots of redeeming features too. To play, you only need a ball. Two lads can take one to a field, put their coats down on the grass to make a goal, and you've got a pitch. You can't do that with basketball.

Football, is really the only world game. Every single country is a member of FIFA. Not so many, in FIBA and it's very much dominated by one country.

Come on Lietuvai, get with the programme. Get more into football and less into USA led basketball.

Ok, rant over.

On my agenda for today was to meet Rasa at her restaurant again and collect a bag of clothes she very kindly washed for me, walk to the station and get my train ticket for Kaliningrad, take a look at the Lithuanian National football stadium where England had played recently, and try to buy some Lithuanian ties for my daughter's forthcoming wedding.

Hotel 15th Avenue. No 15 on Gedimino Avenue. Just behind MacDonalds

Most Iconic Sight in der Verld

Aaah.... Vilnius

Pilies Gatve

The restaurant I went into upon arrival

The one I usually go to

The God Squad - still strong in Lietuva

Not sure what this is 
When I got to the station it took a while before I discovered where the ticket office was and even then it was frustrating. The Soviet style woman at the station turned me away when I couldn't show her my passport. Oops. So I'll have to go back again tomorrow.

Train Station
The LFF (Lithuanian Football Federation) stadium is just around the corner (under the rail bridge, up the hill and on the right) from the station, so that was the obvious next place to go.

An uphill but lovely walk

Suddenly, there it was. I had been to the previous Vilniaus Žalgiris ground to the north of the city on a previous visit but I knew that when England played in Vilnius in the World Cup qualifier they played here, so I had to pay a visit, right? Woy blady wuncha?

Home of Football in Lithuania

It was a hive of activity with a boys competition going on. The next Leonas Messiunas, no doubt, was among them. The ground has an artificial playing surface on which it is easy to pick up injuries. One of the coaches showed me his disfigured knee which he said was due to an injury on that pitch.

Obvious yellow, green and red is everywhere.

As well as being the national stadium, the tiny (5,000 capacity) ground is also home to Lithuania's most famous football team, Vilniaus Žalgiris.

In the Soviet period I warmed to them, as a football fan obviously, as they were the nearest thing I had to a symbol of Lithuanian nationality that was allowed in those days. The basketball team are also called Žalgiris and were, to most people here, the main focus of their sporting attention in Soviet times.

Žalgiris means "Greenwood" ("Grunwald" in German) and the name is taken from the place of a famous battle of 15th July 1410 when Lithuania fought off the Teutonic knights of the Holy Order (Roman Catholic empire, basically) under the heroic leadership (it is said) of Grand Duke Vytautas.

You'll never take Lithuania!
This kept Lithuania as the last pagan state in Europe. But the God Squads had their way in the end and managed to bribe a future Lithuanian Duke, Jogaila, with a hand in marriage and a doubling in size of his kingdom. This was the dawn of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth when their territory stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, including what is now Moldova and Odessa, I believe.

It's bizarre that Lithuania so stubbornly resisted Christianity for so long, only to become one of the most devoutly Catholic countries in the world.

Anyway, getting back to football.

Žalgiris' best season in the Soviet "Top" league was in 1987 when they finished third.

Since independence, they've won the Lithuanian league 7 times and the cup 11 times. They're hardly ever out of the top three and they're still doing well now. I'm going to try to watch them play (at least for a half) tomorrow as they're at home to Palanga.

It's incredible to remember that just thirty years ago, thoughts of an independent football league in Lithuania were just a fantasy of crazy people's imagination.

And, yes, that would be me!

When I became a born-again Lithuanian around 1982, I got heavily involved in the British Lithuanian Association and it's "Youth" (i.e. anyone under 60) association. It was my recruitment project that first brought me close to my dear wife, Lesley, when we met at a "Lithex" ("Lithuanian Experience Weekend") at Sodyba. These were brilliant events, organised by a team of enthusiastic young people, including the brilliant Vidas Puodžiunas, Gerardas Jakimavičius, Algis Silnickas, Romas Juozelskis, Romas Kinka, Gaijute and Vince O'Brien.... the list goes on.

Being a bit of a football fan, I started writing a cartoon in the Youth Association's newsletter, LYNES.

Below, is the first edition of Mečys of Miestas. Basically, he's the best footballer in the world and played for a fictitious team called Kauno Miestas. These were Soviet times so it was arranged that he should play for Spartak Moscow, and of course, the Soviet Union. With Mečys in the team, the Soviets were world beaters and they beat Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final.

Mečys was a star in a country where everyone was equal, but some were more equal than others but he bumped into some of us when the Soviet Union played England at Wembley and, like me, became a born-again Lithuanian and got all political.

He was eventually arrested and sent to a hard labour camp in Siberia.

I remember the joke in that one. A fellow in-mate asked him...

"Hey, you've been to the west, what's it like?"

"Just like this really. They're all into low calorie food and exercise."

Fittingly, I did eleven editions but the last one was not published in LYNES because the dynamo behind it, Vidas Puodžiunas, emigrated to Canada and the paper kind of folded.

I was proud to be a best man at his wedding in Toronto though, where we presented to him a special edition of the newspaper, all about him. Ed Kvietkauskas was heavily involved in that one if I remember rightly.

The last cartoon, I think drawn even before the Sajudis movement had started, depicted Mečys back in Vilnius, at a massive rally under Gedimino Piles, being sworn in as the new President of Independent Lithuania. It brings a tear to my eye to even think of it.

Anyway, what about Lithuania's national team? They're not very good, I'm afraid to say. They played in England's qualification group and despite a good start their form fell away and then they never really looked like having a sniff at qualifying. At least they finished above Malta.

On October 11 2016 the dream was still alive, then "pop!" it had gone

Lithuania are ranked 133rd in the World, so, sadly, in the bottom half.

At least we're above the blady Kiwis!
In case you were wondering (as I was), what about basketball? It's a bit different with Lithuania ranked 6th in the World, out of 147.

Here are the highlights of when England played here.

It was a great privilege to be allowed to wander around the ground at will. I had to go into the dressing room where Rooney & co got changed...

Here's how they came onto the pitch...

And the view Rooney would have got as he kicked off...

After getting that big one ticked off my list, I set off back to the city center to see if I could buy some Lithuanian ties for Laima, my daughter's, wedding. It's so sweet that she wants to do that. The Lietuviu samoningumas is very strong in the Kuliukiai.

On the way back I saw this poor (I think frittilary) butterfly on the ground.

I love walking around the old town in Vilnius.

Lithuanian ties are a rare commodity, even here in touristy Vilnius. So when you see some, you buy. It felt like when I used to go Grafton Street in Dublin to the Butler's chocolate shop and demand to buy literally all the "Walnut marzipans" they had, same here.

"Kiek jus turite?"

"Šeši? Gerai, Aš nupirksiu visi!"

Still need another three, Laima
Then, as it was approaching 3pm it was time to find a bar to watch Colombia v Japan. I had planned to eat something and just have tea but, as luck would have it, sat at a big table drinking beer were three aussies from near Brisbane, like me, over for the World Cup. They'd just come from Kaliningrad and told me it's been great, so no blady warries there, mate!

They were a great laugh and were over with their entire football team, some of whom had stayed behind in Kaliningrad. Clearly I was with the three brightest members of their group.

Stephen was especially impressive with his knowledge of the game. He kindly bought me a beer so I promised to buy them one in Kaliningrad on Friday before the Switzerland, Serbia game.

We all fancied Colombia to win but a dramatic sending off of a Colombian defender in the 3rd minute, resulting in a penalty that was converted changed the dynamic completely. Columbia fought back bravely and equalised but succumbed to Japan in the end.

Corner to Japan.

"What's the point doing a long corner here?" Stephen bellowed.

"They're (the Japanese) all too blady short!"

Queue cross onto the head of Osako. 2-1 to Japan.

Fair dinkum - got to have pint when with aussie blokes

The pub was actually a brewery

The bar lady who served me my cepeliniai having a crafty fag

When pressed for time, go to Hooters.

I had to return to the place that was a hoot the day before. This time, all the screens were showing Polska v Senegal.

The Africans bossed the game and took a 2-0 lead before Poland got one back. The Polish guys from Lytham St Annes must have been gutted. They really played poorly but credit to Senegal. A great win for them.

Second goal... doh!

Probably the vorst beer in der vorld
I literally couldn't drink the second beer I was served. Very rarely does that happen.

The third was OK

Finally, the last match of the day was Russia playing Egypt. As all 32 teams had now played once it was time to start the second round of matches. Could Russia follow up their emphatic 5-0 win with another? It turned out they could and they beat Egypt easily 3-1 despite the return of their superstar, Mohammed Salah.

I went back to Republic 4 where I'd arranged to meet another relative of mine, Gražvydas and his friend Carlito. Like Rasa, he shares last common ancestors with me that are my grand parents and his great grandparents.  Gražvydas' mum was Zita. She was so lovely and full of fun but tragically died of cancer (perhaps caused by Chornobyl) a few years ago. Zita's mum, Pranuse, was another of my Dad's three sisters.

Gražvydas is as bright as a button and left Lithuania to go and living in England for a few years where he ran a drinks supplier business. Obviously, he speaks perfect English with hardly any accent. But he's moved back to Kaunas now. It's not because of Brexit, which he still thinks will not go through, but because he missed his long standing girlfriend and other friends and family.

Last Common Ancestors again

G and Carlito

 Carlito's also a drink distributor and knew a lot about beers and spirits. They got me a nice pale ale and recommended another beer which I have forgotten the name of. (G?)

Russia's first goal...

That was another big night of too much alcohol. Stats coming on that soon.

So this is how the last group looks now after two surprising results...

And Russia are all but through to the last 16 with by far the most goals in the tournament so far.

Here are the 17 games so far. After a bright start, we've settled back to the usual, cautious pattern of football with less than 2.5 goals per game.

Still, not a single 0-0 draw yet.

No 0-0s but 6 1-0s


  1. My word. Good one mate. You know my views on Lithos and basketball so I won't expand on them again. Good to see Mechis of Meechas (never could pronounce it!) again!

  2. I don’t think you have the automated support right. The organ is baseball, and the defence chant more football. Basketball pretty much destroyed cricket in the West Indies. I’m OK with basketball, but it’s nothing special. When I went to Orlando Soccer City, they had an aging Kaka, they also have ultras that face the crowd rather than the match and try to create fervour in the crowd. But they don’t understand the flow of the game, and they often fire up at moments you need to watch. Very false and odd.

  3. Meant to add, great blog. Always fun to read.