Wednesday, 20 June 2018

FK ŽALGIRIS VILNIUS (Lithuanian Football Federation Stadium)


After yesterday's trip to Kaunas, it was back to the fabulous capital city of Vilnius for the second game of a midweek Lithuanian double header. 

Futbolo Klubo Žalgris are one of Lithuania's most successful club with 7 titles since the A Lyga was established in 1991. Prior to that the club competed in the Soviet Union football system where their highest finish was third in the top flight in 1987. The club qualified for the UEFA Cup for the first time as a result of this finish but they lost to Austria Wien in the first round. The club left the Soviet league in 1990 to join the Baltic League with other clubs from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, before becoming founder members of the A Lyga.

The club run into problems in 2008 when their owner Vadim Kastujev was arrested in Moscow. The club failed to meet the licensing requirements to compete in the A Lyga and were subsequently demoted in 2009. The fans of the club founded a new club VMFD Žalgiris and regrouped in the I Lyga, winning promotion back to the top flight in 2010.

The club were crowned A Lyga Champions in four consecutive seasons from 2013 to 2016 and they reverted back to their original name of FK Žalgris Vilnius in 2015.

FK Žalgris Vilnius play their home games at the three sided, 5,000 capacity, LFF National Stadium. The ground is less than 1km from the main train station in Vilnius. The stadium was originally home to FK Vėtra and was known as the Vėtra Stadium. When FK Vėtra went bankrupt in 2010 the stadium was taken over by the Lithuanian Football Federation and renamed the LFF (Lietuvos Futbolo Federacija) Stadium.

The national team have played their home games at the ground since 2005 - Lithuania were in the same World Cup Qualifying group as England and Scotland, who were their last two home opponents in qualifying. The ground is on the flight path of the airport so if you are a plane spotter then you are onto a winner.

After last night's experience, this evening actually felt like a matchday. The Zalgiris ultras in the corner created a bit of noise and, even though there was only 230 present, you felt the hustle and bustle of a football game. You could also get yourself a beer as well and some very tasty (deep fried) garlic rye bread strips. Perfect for soakage! One similar thing to the ground in Kaunas though is that the ticket office was the front seat of a car. The cost of admission was 2 euros more expensive though!

The game, although not a classic, was entertaining enough. The home side started brightly with plenty of possession but it wasn't until the 21st minute that they made the breakthrough when Tomas Szymkowicz let fly from 25 yards and the ball sailed into the net.

After 35 minutes Palanga were given a glorious chance to equalise when they were awarded a penalty. Unfortunately for them Gvidas Juška's spot kick came back off the upright (video clip below).

After a slow start to the second half Zalgiris were reduced to 10 men when Slavko Blagojevicius received two quick yellow cards. Naturally Zalgiris were happy to defend their lead and play on the counter when the opportunity arose. It was on one of these counters that Zalgiris doubled their lead when, after 81 minutes, Liviu Antali rounded Tadas Norbutas in the Palanga goal to seal the victory. The home side finished the game with nine men when Linas Klimavičius received a second yellow card in stoppage time.

So a season that began in Ružomberok in Slovakia back in August finally reached it's conclusion this evening. Once again it has been a fantastic adventure across home and abroad. I have been to some brilliant places and met some great people along the way. Hopefully I will see you all soon when I start another season of travelling in a few weeks time.

Thank you for reading, have a great summer!

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

FC STUMBRAS (Darius and Girėnas Stadium)


After our adventures in Kaliningrad and Gdansk the party of seven had dwindled down to just two and we decided to cross the border in Lithuania for some A Lyga action.

There are no trains from Poland to Lithuania on a Monday to Thursday so it was a choice of either nine hours on a bus or an early start and a few hours on a plane, via Stockholm, for just a few Euro's more. We took the latter option and were in Vilnius in time for a liquid lunch and to enjoy some World Cup games on the TV.

From Vilnius it was a train west to the city of Kaunas for the the first game of a midweek double header. The 105km train journey took around 90 minutes from Vilnius and we treated ourselves to a first class seat, in an air conditioned carriage and with free wi-fi for 6 euros. Once again our European friends make a mockery of our transport system.

The National Football Academy of Lithuania was set up in 2006 as a training academy for the best players in the country. In 2013 the NFA set up a team to enter the league system and called itself FC Stumbras. The players were mostly youth players but experience was added as the club progressed up the leagues.

The club reached the A Lyga in 2015 after winning the I Lyga title in 2014. Stumbras finished in their highest ever position of 6th in 2016 but last season they had to win a relegation play-off (they beat FK Banga Gargždai 5-1 on aggregate) to remain in the A-Lyga. However in 2017 the club beat FK Žalgiris 1-0 to lift the Lithuanian League Cup, so the club will play in the Europa League for the first time this year.

Stumbras were hosting FK Trakai this evening and there was some Evertonian interest as, amongst their squad, Trakai boast the former Toffee's winger Diniyar Bilyaletdinov. The Russian was a peripheral figure at Goodison making 77 appearances, 29 of which were from the bench, but he did score a couple of cracking goals in his time on Merseyside. He did start the game tonight but was largely anonymous before eventually hobbling off injured after 35 minutes.

There was also some Welsh interest as Trakai will also be travelling to North Wales, well England to be more precise, next week as they have been drawn against Cefn Druids in the Europa League, but the first leg will be played at Park Hall in Oswestry. After watching Trakai tonight I would say The Ancients have a chance as nothing I witnessed would especially worry me, but as is usual it will probably be the match fitness/sharpness that will be the difference. That's what normally does for Welsh teams at this stage of competition.

I was sat next to a lad from Lithuania at the game in Kaliningrad and he had warned the standard of football in the A Lyga was not great and the game tonight did nothing to convince me he was wrong. It was a poor, poor game in all honesty. 

The match was settled in favour of the home side with a strike from Brazillian Marcos Soares Jr. after 32 minutes, when he fired home after latching onto a defence splitting pass from Jardel Nazarene (click here). The home side had a few chances to make the game safe in the second half, and nearly paid for thoses misses as Trakai went close late on, but the game ended 1-0.

Originally built in 1925, The Darius and Girėnas Stadium (named after the Lithuanian pilots Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas who died in a crash near the end of an attempted non-stop flight from New York to Lithuania) is a brutal concrete communist athletics stadium, typical of its era. The ground was upgraded to UEFA standards in 1998.

Next month the ground is due to be demolished and rebuilt, when it will be fully enclosed and the seating areas covered, with a capacity of around 15,000. Hopefully the new ticket office within the stadium will be an office rather than the seat of a car and hopefully there will be a refreshment kiosk as, on a very warm evening, there was nothing on sale at the ground.

There was certainly no need for 15,000 seats tonight as the crowd just about reached 100 and quite a few of them were groundhoppers from Germany and Switzerland.

Pre-match was spent in the fabulous Hop Doc with plenty of local beers to get through but, football and beer aside, the city of Kaunas is definitely worth a visit if you are ever in Lithuania.

 Tickets please!

Saturday, 16 June 2018

FIFA WORLD CUP 2018 (Kaliningrad)

Saturday 16th June 2018
FIFA World Cup Group D
Kaliningrad Stadium
Croatia 2-0 Nigeria
Attendance: 31,136

You are here!
For months now people who know me well have been asking whether I would be going to Russia for the World Cup. I explained that I, and a few others, would be going over for just the one game, the match taking place in the Kaliningrad Oblast, the most westerly of all the host cities. Then, when I was asked whereabouts in Russia that actually was, that's when things got interesting!

Ticket. Check!
Fan ID. Check!
Kaliningrad is both a city and an oblast (meaning a state) in Russia but it is sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic coast. The area was part of East Prussia, a unified German state, for 700 years before being annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of World War 2.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the neighbouring states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus gained independence, the Kaliningrad Oblast became an enclave, geographically separated from the rest of Russia.

Kaliningrad city is the administrative centre of the region and, when part of Germany, the city was known as Königsberg. It was renamed Kaliningrad in 1946 in memory of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR Mikhail Kalinin, with the majority of the remaining German population removed one way or another.

The plans for this trip were sown late last year when discussions over a pint (or three) took place to see who was up for a game at the World Cup. We all agreed that a trip to Russia would be expensive but would be doubly so for the World Cup.

The idea of just going to Kaliningrad was put forward as, obviously, this is not your normal destination when thinking of a visit to Russia, hence the appeal, plus costs could be slightly reduced by crossing the border via Poland. It was all agreed and we successfully applied for match tickets and then booked flights to Gdansk, where we would base ourselves for the weekend.

Our party of seven arrived in the city on the Friday, where there just happened to be a beer festival on (The Hevelka Craft Beer Fest) in the Gdansk Shipyard Centre. That got the weekend off to a flying start. I am sure Mr Wałęsa would have approved!

In order to get to Kaliningrad, one of our party, through Polish contacts, sorted out a mini-bus and driver who looked after us for the day.  We departed Gdansk around 8.45am and arrived at the border crossing (pictured below) around 10am. We had been warned by the car hire firm when we booked that this could take time. They weren't kidding!

It was a long and laborious process involving plenty of, what appeared to us, unnecessary bureaucracy. The border consisted of two checkpoints, a Polish and a Russian. It took about an hour to get through the Polish border then another two hours to get through the Russian border. Documents must have been checked about 5 times and even after being allowed through we were pulled over on the roadside for another check, just for good measure. Our Polish driver said this is the normal process the only difference is that today the Russian border officials were smiling!

We arrived in the centre of Kaliningrad around 2pm (after yet another check on the outskirts of the city) and we were dropped off by the Cathedral on Kant Island, which is all there is to see of the original city that was totally destroyed during the war. We walked along the river, where the fishing village is is located, towards the 'House of Soviets' which is a huge, and unfinished, concrete block built on the site of what was Konigsberg Castle. The adjacent square was being used as the Kaliningrad Fan Zone.


The final pre-match hour or so was spent in the wonderful Yeltzins Bar, where they had 20 different beers to sample plus some interesting cheese bar snacks. From there it was a short walk to Victory Square, where buses were waiting to take you to the ground. Within 10 minutes you were at the ground. The approach to the stadium reminded me of past visits to The Riverside in Middlesbrough.

Kaliningrad Stadium was purpose built for the World Cup on Oktyabrsky Island. When the tournament is over it will be the new home of FC Baltika Kaliningrad. The selection of Kaliningrad as a host city prompted the local authorities to develop the island, which for many centuries has been an untouched wilderness and was a natural habitat for wildlife.

After the 2018 World Cup, a new residential development will be built around the stadium, with parks, quays and embankments alongside the Pregola river. However, the stadium sunk in February, and could possibly sink again in the future, so the long term fate of these plans and indeed the ground could be in doubt, there is talk the ground could be knocked down after the tournament.

The stadium’s project manager was convicted of tax fraud, fraudulent conduct, and squandering billions of roubles meant for the construction of the stadium. This resulted in cost cutting and thus a thinner layer of soil beneath the stadium, which could be one of the reasons for the sinking. It is a case of what and see what happens post tournament.

When the tickets were applied for the draw for the tournament had not been done, so it was literally down to the luck of the draw that we ended up with tickets for Croatia against Nigeria. This was to be the first competitive game at the Kaliningrad Stadium. It is safe to say the Croatian support easily outnumbered the Nigerian support.

There was airport style security in order to enter the stadium surrounds, where my ticket and fan-id were scanned. This was an efficient process and allowed plenty of time to pick up some souvenirs, a tournament programme and spend ones leftover roubles on "the official urine of the FIFA World Cup" oh well, any port in a storm!

The game itself however turned out to be a bit of a damp squib. Croatia had far too much quality for Nigeria, though they really didn't have to get out of first gear to beat the lacklustre 'Super Eagles'. Ivan Perisic blazed over early on before Croatia opened the scoring on 32 minutes when a Mario Mandukic diving header was flicked into his own goal by Oghenekaro Etebo.

Both teams failed to register a shot on target in the opening half, giving you some idea of the standard of play.

The second half was marginally better with Nigeria managing to get near the Croatian area but chances were still difficult to come by. However it was Croatia who should have scored again when a Perisic cross was blazed over the crossbar by Ante Rebic, who was unmarked inside the box, when it looked easier to score.

Croatia did finally get their second goal after 72 minutes when Mandukic was fouled in the area and (my man of the match) Luka Modric stepped up to blast the penalty home.

After the match there were plenty buses to transport us back to where our mini bus was parked. We left Kaliningrad just after midnight and, after a repeat performance at the respective borders, we were back at our hotel around 5.30am.

Despite the tribulations, it was a very worthwhile trip. I am certainly now regretting not visiting more cities and grounds in this World Cup.