Sunday 18 December 2011

Nebetyli Sirgaliai**

The mention of European basketball, in particular Lithuania, triggered this memory of a story from a few years ago which I found mildly amusing.
The Lithuanian love affair with the sport began in 1937, when the country, which often felt overshadowed by neighbouring Estonia and Latvia, won its first European Championship in Riga (Latvia). People here will tell you that the players spent dozens of hours returning home in a train which stopped in every small village so they could mingle with the crowds.

But the popular jubilation was to be short-lived. In 1940, the invasion of Lithuania by Stalin’s troops paved the way for 50 years of inhuman occupation, marked by the deportation of political dissidents to Siberia and the tyranny of the KGB. Everything had to contribute to the greater glory of the USSR. Lithuanian players, who excelled on the basketball court but harboured nationalist sympathies, were blacklisted. So it was that magicians like Algirdas Linkevicius were never allowed to play wearing the CCCP strip.

As a result, Lithuania’s clubs took on the role of Soviet giant killers. Chief among them the legendary Zalgiris Kaunas and Statyba Vilnius, whose battles with CSKA Moscow, the Red Army club, were the object of unbridled passion. In the late 1980s, according to one spicy anecdote, 5,000 Lithuanian fans without tickets traveled to Moscow to watch the final of the Soviet championship between Zalgiris and CSKA. Warned of the arrival of this horde of troublemakers, Colonel Gomelsky, CSKA’s coach, made sure that all of the seats were distributed to Russian soldiers. Unfortunately for him, the Zalgiris supporters went on an afternoon tour of the city’s barracks, where they traded litres of vodka for the precious tickets. When the time came, the Moscow indoor arena was completely won over to the Kaunas cause.
** "The fans are no longer quiet" - perhaps my Lithuanian isn't so bad after all...

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