The Big Four? Try the Only Four. If fans of the English Premier League are increasingly bemoaning the seemingly unshakeable dominance of the former, imagine the absurdity of a division comprised solely of four teams. Yet when the new Lithuanian football season finally kicked off at the beginning of this month, there was a profound sense of relief in many quarters that this bizarre scenario had — albeit by a hair’s breadth — been narrowly avoided.
When almost nobody takes an interest in something, it seems unreasonable to be picky about the few that do. Long labouring in the shadow of the country’s considerably more successful basketball teams — and a mass of pressing socio-economic priorities — football in Lithuania struggles on in the face of mass indifference. Average attendances of around 500 barely create an echo in crumbling stadia backing onto low-rise grey or deep forest green.
The inexplicably high numbers of games punctuated by stray dogs running across the pitch has never been satisfactorily explained. As a result, the involvement in Lithuanian football of self-made tycoon Vladimir Romanov, principal shareholder of the country’s first private bank Ūkio Bankas, reputed billionaire and undisputed winner of the local version of Dancing with the Stars in 2007, was for years positively encouraged by the authorities. Excessively so, some would say.
The Romanov Triangle
Romanov’s ownership of FBK Kaunas formed the initial point of the so-called Romanov Triangle, which subsequently stretched to include FC MTZ-Ripo in Minsk and, perhaps most infamously, Heart of Midlothian FC in the Scottish Premier League. However, his influence within the Lithuanian game soon began to extend well beyond its most successful club.
With Kaunas quickly established as serial A Lyga champions — 2005 was the only year between 1999 and 2007 in which they failed to take the title — Romanov, usually via the considerable clout of Ūkio, concentrated on cementing his grip on their competitors. A sponsorship deal with the bank resulted in FK Atlantas falling under Romanov’s sway, and his disproportionate buying power enabled Kaunas to immediately accumulate any remotely promising local players into an enormous squad — most of whom were then loaned back out to compliant clubs in the division. In fact, FK Šilutė began the 2008 season with an entire team on loan from Kaunas.
Naturally, the co-operation of the Lithuanian football authorities was essential to this rapidly-created hegemony. Whether rightly or wrongly, a popular consensus formed to the effect that the Lithuanian Football Federation (LFF), wholly unequipped to withstand Romanov’s money and connections, were completely in his pocket — and that an agreement was in place to guarantee the domestic dominance of Kaunas in exchange for a share in the windfall from a successful Champions League group stage qualification.
But the LFF was not enough for Romanov. He also lurked behind the scenes of the National Football Club Association (NFCA) from its foundation in mid-2004 — an involvement which almost immediately ran into bitter controversy.
In November of that year, Kaunas went into the final match of the season with FK Ekranas tied for points with their opponents. On the eve of the game, the NFCA announced that due to allegations of corruption against a number of Ekranas officials, who were claimed to have attempted to bribe Kaunas players, a 3-0 victory — and the league title — would be awarded to Kaunas by default.
Amid probably the sole media and public outcry in the history of Lithuanian football, along with heated denials of any wrong-doing by Ekranas, the LFF finally intervened to demand that the match went ahead as scheduled, with Kaunas going on to record a 2-0 win. The president of the body which had attempted to hand the title over to Kaunas? None other than deputy Ūkio CEO Gintaras Ugianskis. And the LFF president who successfully overruled him? His boss at Ūkio, the bank’s CEO Liutauras Varanavičius.
The precise role of Varanavičius in the 2004 title fiasco remains a matter of conjecture — was his move to overrule Ugianskis a genuine disagreement with the dubious manner in which Kaunas had been pushed to the top, or simply a damage limitation exercise by the Romanov empire taken aback by the ferocity of the public reaction? The fact that Romanov himself professed his satisfaction with the outcome probably suggests the latter. However, regardless of the accuracy of this supposition, recent events would suggest that the probability of Varanavičius towing the party line in the future is decidedly minimal.
Romanov has owned Lithuanian football for so long that a serious challenge to his hegemony was only a matter of time. That time has finally arrived. Despite his apparent compliance in 2004, mutual suspicions have long been building between Varanavičius and Romanov. These came to a head at the end of last year as Kaunas were finally dethroned as champions, finishing an unprecedented ten points behind Ekranas. Whispers abounded that Kaunas no longer enjoyed the unqualified favour of the federation — nor could they continue to count upon their traditional twelfth man brandishing a whistle. The same whispers added that Romanov was seeking firm assurances backstage that this alarming turn of events would be short-lived.
The End of an Era
The response of the LFF was reportedly firm that no such assurances would be forthcoming. Romanov swiftly upped the ante with a public demand, made with a commendably straight face, that all referees for the forthcoming A Lyga season should be appointed by his long-time stooge – and Kaunas president – Ugianskis at the NFCA. After the proposal was rejected out of hand by Varanavičius, Romanov turned up unannounced at an LFF meeting at the beginning of March with the bombshell that Kaunas, along with Atlantas, would henceforth be withdrawing from the league.
In terms of recent league dominance, this would be the rough equivalent of Jean-Michel Aulas pulling Olympique Lyonnais from next year’s Ligue 1 season. Romanov’s unprecedented decision means that the winners of eight of the past ten A Lyga titles are now competing with amateur sides at the third level of Lithuanian football.
Citing “intrigue and hypocrisy”, his break with the LFF hierarchy is finally complete. Varanavičius, for his part, has remained tellingly unrepentant about his role in the withdrawal of the country’s biggest team from his competition, and has refused to back down. Along with Atlantas, and given the forced demotion of financially-troubled FK Žalgiris Vilnius and question marks over the viability of several other sides, his power struggle with Romanov left him facing the daunting prospect of an initial eight-team division being slashed by half. Yet Varanavičius has achieved his real aim — getting rid of Romanov. The departure of the ever-obedient Ugianskis from the NFCA in the wake of the fracas has served as an unexpected bonus, and left his path almost completely clear. As a final punctuation mark, he has also left his position at Ūkio.
There is little doubt that Romanov’s proposals were untenable. Yet very little of the way he ran Lithuanian football for a decade satisfied any criteria of fairness or probity – and it has been a long time since he met with official defiance of any kind. So what is the difference between the Varanavičius of 2004 and 2009?
Two factors stand out. Firstly, Varanavičius is currently seeking election to the UEFA Executive Committee. An association with such a notorious operator as Romanov represents a direct threat to his chances of success, and a dramatic gesture to clearly distance himself the only solution. Secondly, he appears to have judged his resistance to Romanov to coincide with the latter’s moment of weakness. Not only has his waning influence over Lithuanian football left Romanov vulnerable, it coincides with a dramatic downturn in his business fortunes.
Holes are beginning to appear in the Ūkio accounts, and the auditors of the bank’s most recent report have highlighted breaches by management of just about every corporate governance law possible. Possibly in anticipation of an impending legal announcement, a release by the Vilnius Stock Exchange on March 30th informed the market that Romanov had ‘temporarily’ transferred his shares in Ūkio to long-term associate Rolandas Balčikonis. With Romanov’s attention focused elsewhere in his creaking empire, Varanavičius picked an ideal moment to strike back.
Future Full of Questions
What do all these shadowy maneuverings mean for Lithuanian football? The initial prognosis is less than positive, given that Kaunas were the only team capable of even attempting to compete on a European level – as their victory over Rangers in last year’s Champions League qualifiers demonstrates. Their ignominious departure from the scene leaves a deep vacuum in the Lithuanian game that none of their erstwhile rivals seem able to fill. Of the three replacement teams for the 2009 season, namely Banga Gargždai, LKKA ir Teledema and FK Kruoja Pakruojis, two have never played at the highest level before, and not a single Lithuanian side appears in the top 200 of the UEFA Team Rankings 2009. Nor should there be any illusions regarding the purity of Varanavičius’s motives – a powerful reason to dethrone the emperor coincided with a rare opportunity to do so, which he took with both hands.
Only time will tell if his reign will prove more benign than that of his predecessor. However, with Kaunas and Romanov gone there is a chance — a small one, but a chance nonetheless — to begin to tackle some of the deep, deep problems in Lithuanian football and restore some of the honesty and integrity to the game which has been so sorely lacking for so long. And if he can do something about those stray dogs, so much the better.
One week after his fateful appearance at the LFF, Vladimir Romanov announced his intention to run for the presidency of Lithuania. A ruling by the electoral commission that his Russian birthplace renders him ineligible to stand for public office was immediately challenged. Football, as ever, is the least of Lithuania’s problems.