Lithuania captain says his team exceeded expectations
Hosting Futsal World Cup "put Lithuania on the map"
FIFA Secretary General in attendance at opening matches
Relief, tension, joy, disappointment, pride – it was certainly a roller coaster of emotions for Lithuanians on a first matchday of this FIFA Futsal World Cup™. It was, indeed, a day of firsts for the country: its first day hosting a FIFA tournament and seeing one of its senior sides play in any major competition.
The hosts didn't have a dream start, though, losing 2-1 to Venezuela. For a moment after the final whistle went, the arena in Kaunas went silent, with Lithuanian players distraught. But soon after applause began and quickly grew louder and louder, with the players also returning back the same.
Fittingly, captain Justinas Zagurskas scored Lithuania‘s first-ever goal in the Futsal World Cup, but preferred to focus on the end result: "It was only great for a moment, but not worth much after 40 minutes."
He acknowledged, however, that the debut was one to remember.
"We were waiting for this match for a very very long time," Zagurskas said. "Whether you are a football or futsal player, your dream is to play in the World Cup. This dream came true today, even though we would have loved to get a result."
Asked about any positives, the Lithuania captain pointed out the team exceeded expectations: "Everyone wrote us off before this tournament, as if we‘d be a cannon fodder. But we showed we can compete. We just made one mistake more than Venezuela and they won."
Both Zagurskas and Lithuania coach Yevgen Ryvkin said lack of experience of such high-level matches played a part.
"Our players are at semi-professional clubs and they do not have a lot of strong opponents throughout the year," said Ryvkin. "But I believe in these guys, they grew a lot in a short time. I think they still have not reached their full potential."
Lithuania boast one of the youngest sides in the tournament, with 23-year-old Albert Voskunovic featuring prominently in the first match. In a scene of heartbreak, he was nearly in tears walking off the pitch after the game, but was consoled by other players, especially the team's only real veteran:, 36-year-old Arsenij Buinickij.
"I was really sad," Voskunovic told FIFA.com. "But [Buinickij] is an experienced player; he came to me and calmed me down. We gave our all and played really well, but it was not enough and it‘s very disappointing."
For Voskunovic, the COVID-19 pandemic nearly crushed his dreams. As the tournament was postponed, he suffered a long-term injury last year and had to start from scratch to get back to fitness again. Merely appearing in the World Cup, therefore, represented a personal victory.
"I suffered one injury, recovered, then got injured again," he explained. "I spent six months on the sidelines, but I managed to return and I think we all prepared very well physically for this tournament.
"I think we showed the world we can play futsal. It‘s just that the opponents have shown a little more quality and experience. We did not have experience of such games with such a crowd. Now we know what that is like."
It was a learning curve and proud moment not for just the players, but for everyone involved: a culmination of hard work for many people. Five years ago, when Lithuania presented a bid for this tournament, few believed it could be possible. But despite various challenges, with the pandemic the most notable, the dream has become a reality.
"It's a feeling of relief and liberation," admitted Lithuanian Football Federation president Tomas Danilevicius as he sat down for a short chat with FIFA.com reflecting on the first matchday. "We were preparing for several years and there were many doubts - we had to postpone the tournament for a year, and there were details to refine until the last minute. But now it feels like a weight has been lifted off our backs."
Danilevicius was delighted to welcome FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura, who attended opening day matches in both Vilnius and Kaunas. "We really value the confidence and attention shown by FIFA," he said. "After all, the FIFA Futsal World Cup is watched by almost 200 countries worldwide and millions of people. It’s like Lithuania’s window to the world. A lot of people might find out about this small country and where it is on the map."
Lithuania will be on the map for a while yet. The FIFA Futsal World Cup Lithuania 2021™ has just kicked off and will be entertaining fans until the final on 3 October.