What if Lithuania qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup™? Impossible? Think again. The small Baltic state with fewer than three million inhabitants has never reached a major tournament since achieving independence in 1990, but a route may just be opening up on the road to Russia. Although England remain heavy favourites in Group F, where they have yet to concede a goal, the race for runners-up spot has never been more hotly contested.
Despite that reverse, Lithuania are one of the sides now making impressive headway in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. Having climbed from 117th place to 98th, they have entered the Top 100 for the first time since 2014. They are still some way off the giddy heights of the 1990s, when the national team floated proudly between 43rd and 50th, but all the signs suggest that football is on the rise in a country more traditionally associated with basketball.
They key will be to build on that momentum, as various Lithuania sides down the years have turned heads with brief moments of promise. Take, for example, their 1-1 draw in March 2003 away to then World Cup runners-up Germany, or the night they recorded the same result away to recently crowned world champions Italy in September 2006. And while both those games came in UEFA European Championship qualifying, Lithuania also missed out on a World Cup play-off spot by a single point ahead of France 1998. Since those eye-catching results, however, they have increasingly fallen behind the continent's heavyweights.
Period of transition
The task of reducing the gap is now in the hands of one of the young nation's most famous ex-footballers – and a man who knows all about upsetting the odds after helping Jose Mourinho's Porto win the UEFA Champions League. "I see where we are and I know what we're capable of," says Edgaras Jankauskas, who took over the reins in January. "I'm a realist." He has needed to be too, with Lithuania still coming to terms with the retirements of all-time top scorer Tomas Danilevicius and Andrius Skerla, their most capped player. Overseeing the period of transition has been no easy feat.
"When I was an international, there were only one or two players from the domestic championship in the national team," he adds. "Today, we have 14 or 15 out of 23. I don't have the impression that standards have improved that much. There are fewer and fewer Lithuanian footballers in the big leagues, and that's bad news. I'd like to change that. We still have a huge amount of trouble against opponents with players based in Italy, Spain, Germany or England."
For Jankauskas, the players at his disposal are often lacking in stamina, top-level experience and physical fitness, but their first three World Cup qualifiers and an earlier draw with Poland have spread optimism. "They've given us hope, confidence and foundations that we can build on," says the 41-year-old. "Every game is a final for us. There's no mystery about it. Against Slovenia, we were able to dictate play from time to time. I want to build on that. We have to know who we are, what we're capable of, and give everything. Otherwise, we'll never achieve anything."
If Jankauskas succeeds in passing on his message, further surprises could lay ahead, and perhaps even away to England in March. A positive result there would take Lithuania a step closer to Russia 2018 – and surely nothing can be ruled out in an era when so many small nations have sent shockwaves through the established order.