Lithuanian football feels the chill and Hearts fans know the feelingVladimir Romanov is too busy with the chaos at home to meddle at Tynecastle
The Guardian. 26 march 2009
It is entirely apt that temperatures as low as minus eight degrees have plunged Lithuania's World Cup qualifier against France on Saturday in doubt. The very fabric of the nation's football, after all, has disintegrated into a state of flux.
Hearts supporters relieved that their colourful owner, Vladimir Romanov, has refrained from nonsensical rants in recent times and, apparently, interference in team selection may have a degree of sympathy for their comrades in the eastern bloc.
Unless a serious amount of making up is done during a meeting of the Lithuanian Football Federation tomorrow, FBK Kaunas, the team subsidised by Romanov's banking business, will opt not to play in their country's top flight next season. As it stands, Kaunas will feature in lower division football and the Federations Cup, the latter tournament offering a potential route to the Europa League.
While Romanov has been quiet regarding matters in Edinburgh, he has been anything but in his adopted homeland. The source of his ire stems from referees and the appointment of them for the Lithuanian A League.
Proposals from the businessman – who has vociferously stressed his personal contributions to football in Lithuania, not least in sourcing coaches – that the association of clubs should appoint match officials were rejected by the federation. Matters came to a spectacular head at a meeting on 6 March at which Romanov, unannounced, turned up seeking change in the game.
"We did not want to turn the meeting into a boxing ring," said Liutauras Varanavicius, the federation president. As Romanov warned Kaunas could "shrink" from Lithuanian football, amid what he regards as "intrigue and hypocrisy", Varanavicius resigned his post as chairman of an advisory board to Ukio Bankas, a Romanov business. "It was a choice between the bank and football, I chose football," he said, citing constant criticism on football matters from Romanov as motivation behind a parting of the ways.
Romanov, in turn, has indeed overseen the shrinking of Kaunas while disputing his former close ally jumped rather than being pushed.
"We are pulling out of the A League because some things in the past year have shown it does not comply with sporting principles," Kaunas president Gintaras Ugianskis said. Ugianskis, incidentally, is also president of the body Romanov wants to see selecting match officials.
Fuelling the theory that those who work with, or have worked with Romanov in the past, retain some fear of the tycoon, Varanavicius firmly states "next question" when pressed on exactly from what these refereeing gripes stem.
"In no other country would the clubs pick the referees," he added. "We have accepted 90% of Mr Romanov's proposals for the league. We are all having a week to think about things and are hopeful there will be compromise."
This week, Varanavicius is in Copenhagen seeking election to the Uefa board, but faces troubles closer to home. While Kaunas are not the most historically significant club in Lithuanian football — Zalgris Vilnius are, but more of them later — their recent success is striking. They have been champions eight times in the past decade; is it significant that they were beaten into second place last season by FK Ekranas?
Kaunas were granted a licence to allow them to play professionally in the coming season — which is due to start on 5 April — only when they belatedly submitted audit reports. Their two most highly-paid foreign players, Pascal Mendy and Rafael Ledesma, have since been freed; the latter intriguingly joining Belarussian outfit MTZ Ripo, a team sponsored by Romanov companies.
Atlantas, another club believed to be funded by Romanov, have withdrawn from the A League. Only five teams, in truth, remain confirmed starters in what is routinely an eight-team division; poor crowds contribute heavily to harsh financial realities.
The troubles of Vilnius are straightforward; they seem destined for bankruptcy with their Ferrari-driving owner, Vadim Kastujev, currently in a Moscow jail facing bribery charges. "There are potential investors looking at the club," insisted Varanavicius, optimistically. "We are spending this time checking, club by club, who can compete in the top division in the new season."
As uncertainty clouds Lithuanian football, onlookers are left to wonder what Romanov will do next. With no local front-line club at which to showcase their talents, will more Lithuanian players arrive at Hearts in the coming months, or will the man who has claimed he wants to be the president of the entire country simply leave their football behind altogether? Whether that would create many shockwaves in what is a basketball-obsessed country is open to debate.
Romanov's plans to re-build the dilapidated national stadium, the Darius and Girenas in Kaunas, have failed to get off the ground. Whether that project will ever come to fruition, given the 62-year-old's apparent anger and antipathy towards Lithuanian football, remains to be seen.
So too does the effect this bitter row will have on the domestic season