Late on Thursday evening, Vilnius “Žalgiris” legend Mantas Kuklys shared his ten-year journey in European tournaments. That’s how much time it took for the current A League champion, who was reborn in 2009 and entered the UEFA tournaments three years later.
In 2012, when the team was represented by such footballers as Andrius Skerla, Ramūnas Radavičius, Andro Švrljuga, Kamilis Bilinskis and Callums Eliotas, “Žalgiris” drew 1:1 with the Austrian “Admira Wacker” club from Mädling. Although they lost 1:5 on the road, the debut of both Manta and Žalgiris on the European front was recorded. Not to mention, Mantas himself scored a goal in that match when the Austrians were leading 2-0.
That year, in the A League, “Žalgiris” was one step (and one point) away from the championship title, so they started the 2013 European odyssey from the first round of the UEFA Europa League selection. At least for me, that nine-year story reminds me of this year the most – a very difficult beginning, but then sweet fruits are written.
The first opponent of “Žalgiris” that year was the Irish “St. Patrick’s Club. A 2-2 draw was recorded in the first extremely low-quality match, but the students of the then head coach Marek Zub won 2-1 on the road. Again, M. Kuklys had an important word during the added time of the first half by scoring the first goal of the meeting.
That year, in the A League, the fight was not even until the last round, but until the minutes of the last round. Despite the fourteen-point lead at the start of the fourth round, “Žalgiris” narrowly became the champion. In the last round, Žalgiris lost 1:3 to “Sūduvai” at the LFF stadium, and the title was guaranteed to them by Aurelijus Staponkas, who belonged to “Atlantis” at the time, but represented “Bangai” against the goal of the same “Atlantis”. “Žalgiris” became the champion and started next year’s European season by qualifying for the Champions League.
As quickly as it started, it ended as quickly. The draw was not very successful then, and despite the fact that the team was represented by Daividas Šemberas, Pavel Komolovas, and Jakub Wilkas, we had to admit the superiority of the stronger Dinamo Zagreb team.
A similar story unfolded a year later, when the superiority of the “Malmo” team had to be recognized. This year’s scrapped Swedish champions won the series 1-0 on aggregate seven years ago. By the way, unlike now, the rules were still such that if you lose, the European odyssey ends.
“Žalgiris” had no equals in the A League. The second championship title was won by 20 points ahead of the nearest rivals, the third by 10 points, and the fourth by nine points.
Unfortunately, the situation in Europe did not change, and the defeats became even more painful. Over the course of the decade, Zalgiris would certainly like to erase 2016 from their minds, when the series loss to Astana was caused by a missed goal in the second minute of added time. D.Šembers, who had finished his career, was no longer in that team, but there were Donovan Slijngaras, Elivelto Andrija Kaludjerovičius, Marius Žaliūkas and Saulius Mikoliūnas, who joined the team that year.
Another year later, the European season for “Žalgiris” lasted only two weeks again. After a 2:1 victory at home against Razgrad “Ludogorec” (at that time M. Kuklys scored a fantastic goal), the Žalgiris team went to Bulgaria, got ahead there, but then conceded four goals and that was all.
An even greater tragedy befell the Vilnius team in the A League, where they failed to save their huge lead and were defeated by Marijampolė’s “Sūduva” in the final phase. The most painful thing was probably the fact that the players from Marijampoli were led to victory by the written-off players of “Žalgiris” Algis Jankauskas, A. Švrljuga and Semiras Kerla.
In 2018, the European tour of “Žalgiris” was different. First of all, we had to return to the somewhat forgotten UEFA European League, secondly, after six years, M. Kuklys, who had already become a symbol, did not represent the team, and thirdly, “Žalgiris” was led by a new coach, Valdas Urbonas.
That year’s trip was one of the more successful ones, as they defeated Klaksviakar from the Faroe Islands in the first qualifying round and Vaduz from Liechtenstein in the second. The draw then drew Žalgiris against Sevilla, who won the series 6-0 on aggregate.
“Sūduva” won the A League again, and “Žalgiris” 2019 European season again lasted only two weeks. At that time, the draw was with “Honved” Budapest, who won 4-2 on aggregate.
In 2020, M. Kuklys returned to “Žalgiris”, the team won back the championship title in Lithuania, and before that they lost in Europe to “Glimt” club from Bude.
The club welcomed 2021 with the former head coach of Marijampole “Sūduva” Vladimir Čeburin. Although there were conflicting opinions about his appointment, this coach proved that he knows how to achieve results both with Pakruoj’s “Kruoja” and the aforementioned “Sūduva”.
In his first year of work, Žalgiris was one step away from the new Conference League group created by UEFA. However, it was not possible to take that step either in the match against the Slovenian “Mura” or in the match against the same “Glimt” club.
And finally, the year 2022, when the ugly duckling became a swan. The first game against Kosovo’s Balkani club was indeed reminiscent of the Ugly Duckling, who managed to remain undefeated in an unfathomable way until now. After a week, the duckling’s wings began to strengthen, and in another two weeks (in duels with “Malmo”) it turned out that it was not a duckling at all, but a beautiful swan.
Victory. “Zalgiris” victory. The victory of all Lithuania.
PS: The story is not over yet.