Lithuania have appointed Raimondas Zutautas, their youngest-ever coach, and tasked the former international with steering them to UEFA EURO 2012. The move came after the national association decided not to extend former coach Jose Couceiro's contract.
"We were not satisfied with the former coach. Many people were happy with the national team's wins, but we have had better results in previous qualifiers," Liutauras Varanavicius, head of the Lithuanian Football Association, told AFP on Wednesday.
At 37, former midfielder Zutautas is the youngest-ever coach of Lithuania, who rejoined the international football family after the Baltic state won freedom from the Soviet Union in 1991. He was capped 40 times for the national side between 1995 and 2003, scoring one goal, and wearing the captain's armband for the final three years.
As a club player he scored one goal in Israeli side Maccabi Haifa's 2002 UEFA Champions League 3-0 defeat of Manchester United, and also saw international action with Greece's Panathinaikos. His on-pitch career came to an abrupt end in 2004 when he suffered a serious knee ligament injury. He is relatively untested as a manager, although he was previously assistant coach at Russian side Alania Vladikavkaz.
Under Couceiro, appointed in 2008, Lithuania beat Austria, Romania and Serbia in their qualifying campaign for this year's FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa, but failed to win a berth after finishing fourth in their group. A slot at the 2012 European championships would be a boon for travelling Lithuanian fans as the tournament will be hosted by neighbouring Poland, plus Ukraine.
Zutautas will face an uphill task, however. In last Sunday's qualifying round draw in the Polish capital Warsaw, Lithuania found themselves in Group I, with reigning European champions Spain, the Czech Republic, Scotland and minnows Liechtenstein. Zutautas is nonetheless unfazed.
"There are no unbeatable opponents. I will do everything I can to get Lithuania to the European Championships," he said in a statement.