The Lithuanian national team is on the rise. After moving back into the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking top 50 for the first time since February 2009, the eastern Europeans are now on course to top their best ever placing of 37th, achieved in October 2008, in the coming months.
The Lithuanians are yet to play an international match this year, but last year's 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualification race gained them plenty of admirers. In a group with Serbia, France, Austria, Romania and the Faroe Islands, Lithuania finished in fourth and even celebrated a 2-1 victory over group winners Serbia.
Their start to the campaign was nothing short of sensational, with shock victories over Romania (3-0) and Austria (2-0) giving hope to a first-ever FIFA World Cup appearance. "Basketball is the most popular sport in Lithuania, but thanks to those two wins the nation really got behind us too. It's a great feeling to have made the people of Lithuania proud," said top scorer Tomas Danilevicius at the time in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
However, only two further victories against the Faroes and Serbia were to follow, and their six defeats ultimately scuppered any chances of a place in South Africa. "Of course we don't have any Ronaldinhos, Thierry Henrys or Cristiano Ronaldos in the team," continued Danilevicius. "But we work hard as a team and have a good mix of youth and experience."
Of course we don't have any Ronaldinhos, Thierry Henrys or Cristiano Ronaldos in the team. But we work hard as a team and have a good mix of youth and experience.
Lithuania, who declared their independence in 1990 following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, first competed as an official FIFA member association in 1992, though they are yet to appear at a major international tournament. Nonetheless, the eastern Europeans have enjoyed a number of successes during their short history, including a well-earned away 1-1 draw against Germany in qualifying for UEFA EURO 2004, as well as a 1-0 victory over Scotland in their following match.
In September 2006, Lithuania consolidated their reputation as giant-killers with a surprise point in EURO 2008 qualifying against Italy, who had lifted the FIFA World Cup Trophy just two months earlier. They only missed out on qualification for France 1998 by a single point, but struggled to make an impact during the campaigns for Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 respectively.
After missing out on South Africa 2010, Lithuania are now fully focused on winning a place at EURO 2012. Friendly matches against host nation Ukraine, Latvia and Estonia in May and June will provide them with a solid testing ground before the qualification race kicks off in September. Still, the men in green and yellow face a treacherous path to the finals having been drawn alongside Scotland, Czech Republic, Liechtenstein and defending champions Spain in Group I.
The nation's hopes for 'Operation 2012' rest firmly on the shoulders of Raimondas Zutautas, who at 37 became the youngest-ever coach of the Lithuanian national side when he was appointed in February 2010. Zutautas, who has no previous experience as a top-level coach, replaced outgoing Portuguese tactician Jose Couceiro in December following the unsuccessful bid to reach South Africa 2010. "We are up against some strong teams, but there are more difficult groups," said Zutautas. "We'll be a tough nut to crack, especially at home. There are no teams that are unbeatable."
Zutautas made 40 appearances for the Baltic nation and played in the UEFA Champions League with both Maccabi Haifa and Panathinaikos, celebrating the Greek domestic double in 2004 with the latter.
In view of their recent achievements, Lithuania certainly have the potential for a successful European Championship qualification campaign, but the Baltic side will need to be at their very best if they are to overcome the likes of international heavyweights Spain and Czech Republic and reach their first-ever major tournament.