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Football rules the world

  • 2010-12-16
  • Interview by Michal Bubnik

Liutauras Varanavicius, born on March 17, 1970 in Kaunas, is the president of the Lithuanian Football Federation (LFF). An amateur footballer as a student, Varanavicius earned a degree in Economics from Vytautas Magnus University before moving into business, becoming a leading figure in a local bank and, at 27, the youngest chief executive in the Lithuanian banking sector’s history. First elected in 2000 as president of the Lithuanian Football Federation, he was re-elected in 2002 and 2006, with a 2009 vote then prolonging his mandate until 2012. He was also admitted to the UEFA Executive Committee in 2009. His tenure at the LFF has coincided with a huge growth in interest in football, with a 40 percent increase in the number of Lithuanian youngsters playing the sport, and 16,000 grassroots players now registered. Varanavicius is married with children (two sons and a daughter).

What do you expect from the national team during qualification for Euro 2012? After 3 matches, Lithuania has 4 points. Can the national team reach second position in the UEFA Euro 2012 qualifying Group I? Or is it too early to talk about this, and we have to wait for the next results? Is Spain out of reach for all teams in group I?
It’s still early. We have played only three matches so far, but it’s a positive start; so far we’ve achieved our targets. If we can keep that form, second place is possible. Spain is probably out of reach, but they are not unstoppable. Whoever wins some points from them will have an advantage.

If not now, when will the Lithuanian team finally qualify for the World Cup or Euro Cup?
Depending on the draw, the chance might be at Euro 2016. The final tournament will be expanded from 16 to 24 teams, therefore, giving more teams an opportunity to qualify. Anyway, realistically, small countries like Lithuania need a lot of elements to come through to qualify - a good draw, excellent form of the team throughout, and some fortune in their games to qualify.

Darvydas Sernas was honored with the Player of the Year award in Lithuania. He was playing in the Polish second division half a year ago and now plays in Poland’s first league…
He always had that flash of brilliance, even in the Lithuanian league. But the turning point came when he switched from a winger to a forward at the end of last year, when the national team was short of forwards. Surprisingly, he did very well and then carried on with that form in his club. In terms of ability, Lithuania might have better and more established players, but it’s been an amazing year for Sernas.

Is it difficult to be president of the football federation in a country where the most popular sport, basketball, is described even as a second religion?
It is certainly not easy to compete; however, sometimes the popularity of basketball is exaggerated. If you see the attendance at the national championships, the football league sometimes has even better numbers, while in terms of people playing football and basketball, there isn’t much difference. However, everyone loves to be on the winning side and the results of the basketball teams has meant they have more interest, more sponsors.

Is there an opportunity for football to become the most popular sport in Lithuania?
We certainly believe in this, and recently we established a strategic plan on how to achieve it in the next 10 years. The four main pillars of the strategy are to promote mass football (grassroots), professionalism, football culture and to build infrastructure. The long term goals are set, now we are in the process of setting short term objectives and tasks.

Is football infrastructure developing? What was done in the last 10 years? Is Lithuania closer to standards demanded by UEFA/FIFA?
The infrastructure development has really kicked off in the last few years. We had a very successful mini-pitch project, with about a 100 installed all over the country for grassroots football. For professional development a very important project was the National Football Academy in Kaunas – the best training ground in the country. Currently, we are undertaking a project to install 10 full-sized artificial pitches in various regions. The stadium infrastructure is also improving rapidly - we have new stadiums in Marijampole in Alytus, a few have been renovated or are under construction. The biggest problem is in major cities, where not a lot has changed in the last 10 years.

How does cooperation with Latvian and Estonian football associations appear?
The main co-operation point is the TrioBet Baltic league club competition, which was launched in 2007. Our national and youth teams also regularly meet in the traditional Baltic Cup.

What is the purpose of organizing the Baltic League? Could the benefits of this Baltic football club tournament be comparable with the Scandinavian tournament Royal League and the Baltic Basketball League profits?
Yes, it is based on a similar idea. The Baltic league is valuable international experience for Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian clubs, who usually have only a few international matches in the calendar year. It’s a different proposition than the national championships, for players and fans alike. It’s a positive promotion of football in the Baltics.

In almost every European country we hear about corruption in football.  Has this problem occurred in Lithuania? And if yes, how was it solved?
Corruption is a problem for football as a whole. We are aware that there might be problems in Lithuania as well, and we were one of the first in Europe to adopt the FIFA Early Warning System. It helps us to monitor the situation. So far there has been no proof of match-fixing. And, in the last 10 years, there have been no scandals whatsoever that have questioned the integrity of the Football Federation.

What is your impression of World Cup 2010 in the Republic of South Africa? Which team were you supporting? What about the vuvuzelas?
As UEFA Executive Committee member, I was supporting European teams. From my fan times I also adore Argentina. Generally, I consider WC2010 as payback to Africa for all the talent that we enjoy in this game. We all understood how difficult it was to make this tournament, so I consider it successful.  Vuvuzelas are not a part of football culture and I hope we will remember this as a cultural deviation from the normal football atmosphere.

What is the main goal for the Lithuanian Football Federation for 2011? How will this year be for Lithuanian football?
The goals are to make the first real steps that are planned for in our strategy for 2010-2020, and continue all the projects we have done this year. One of the new challenges awaiting Lithuanian football is planning for the European Under-19 championship final tournament, which we will host in 2013.