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FK Suduva: Lithuanian football pride

Glascow, September 19th 2002: FK Suduva debut match on European football competition has ended in a complete disaster: A record 8-1 loss by powerhouse Celtic, ending all hopes of a decent European trip and nurturing a long-lived cliché: Lithuanians, especially from Sudovia’s region Marijampole, where FK Suduva comes from, are good only in basketball.

In fact, the city of Kaunas, lying just 50 km. east of Marijampole, is a symbolic basketball town. Zalgiris, a fierce Lithuanian champion over the years and the only Lithuanian club competing in basketball Euroleague, is the absolute sign of basketball prosperity over the region.

All myths once come to an end. FK Suduva made history at home soil on Thursday 15th August 2019. Their 2-1 win over Israeli champions Maccabi Tel Aviv not only saw them off the Europa League playoff stage, but also proved that Lithuanians can compete effectively at football as well. Opponents’ name is symbolic too: Maccabi Tel Aviv, above from football domination in Israel, is also a basketball powerhouse, having a long-year basketball rivalry with Zalgiris.

FK Suduva’s historic win came in their 52nd European match. During this long-year challenge they’ve shown a steady improvement. They’re good at it, starting low and climbing all stairs to the top. That’s what happened to the local league as well. The club was founded during very difficult times (1942), early after Soviet invasion in then-independent Lithuania. After little local success, the club was struggling and nearly ceased to exist up to 1968, when they were re-founded. Howevver, they didn’t compete in other than local leagues up to Lithuanian independence from the USSR in 1990. Their only highlight was a local (Lithuanian) cup final in 1975, which they lost.

In their top-football debut, FK Suduva decided to join the Baltic League, a football championship organized in the region, consisting of 17 clubs from all three Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). Guess what: They finished in last position, winning only once in 32 matches. Next year they joined the inaugural edition of the local LFF League, consisting of 8 teams. Their result was even worse: zero wins and only five goals in 14 ties.

Less than 30 years later, the club has already celebrated two consecutive A Lyga titles (2017, 2018) and is undoubtedly considered a strong favorite of making it three in a row. There’s an absolute balance between local and foreign players, each side counting 11 professionals. League rivals Zalgiris from capital Vilnius field even more foreign players in their roster.

FK Suduva comes from Marijampole, a town with a strong educational system and cultural capital of the country during 2018, in the 100th anniversary of the restoration of Lithuanian independence. During the tsarist era, the town became the centre of the Lithuanian cultural revival. The proximity of the Prussian border helped the smuggling of books in Lithuanian language, which were banned in imperial Russia. Apart from famous scholars, the town could eventually be proud about football…

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