Tuesday, September 05, 2006

FIFA World Ranking : Growth follows investment in grassroots

From cannon fodder to credible opponents, Lithuania's reputation as a football nation is growing by the day. Saturday's 1-1 draw with Italy was another benchmark of the dramatic progress they have made, but there are plenty of others.
Three and a half years ago, when Berti Vogts' side lost 1-0 in Kaunas, Lithuania were 97th in the FIFA world rankings compared to Scotland's 59. A steady improvement under Walter Smith has brought Scotland up 19 places to 40, but Lithuania have shown even greater signs of progress, jumping 32 places to 65th.

Liutauras Varanavicius, the president of the Lithuanian FA, welcomed the improvement at national level but feels the most significant work is being done at grassroots in a country where basketball has historically been the main sport.
"People who are working inside football can see the great progress we have made," he said. "The effect has been felt not only in our ranking, but in the standard of coaching and the development of players.
"We have managed to increase participation levels by 40% over the last four years and last year they [participation levels]

reached the same as basketball for the first time.
"Those who are playing in the national team are products of long-term investment which was undertaken before independence. But the products of the work we have done in recent years are seen in our 14 and 15-year-olds, of whom the standard is very high."
Government-funded training facilities and investment has been the bedrock of Lithuania's development and the country has started to make its name as an exporter of talent. Around half of the squad play overseas, including four Hearts players – Saulius Mikoliunas, Deividas Cesnauskis, Marius Zaliukas and Edgaras Jankauskas, who is the country's most famous export, but will miss out tonight through injury.

Copyright © 2006 Newsquest (Herald & Times)

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