Basketball not the only game in town – there’s rugby

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

Now a modern-day capital of an independent Lithuania, Vilnius has a football heritage that reflects its patchwork history since the game first took root here.

Today, Vilnius is where you’ll find the LFF Stadium, south of the city centre near the main train station, a 2004 rebuild. Home to both the national team and leading club sides, Žalgiris Vilnius and Trakai, the compact LFF perfectly suits domestic needs.

Champions and runners-up in 2015 and 2016 respectively – Lithuania’s is a summer season, structured in two rounds from spring to late autumn – Žalgiris and Trakai have superceded previously dominant FK Ekranas from Panevežys and FBK Kaunas, title winners from 2000 to 2012 consecutively, but both now defunct.

Welcome to Vilnius/Matt Walker

Sporting rivalry with Kaunas typified the domestic soccer scene after independence in 1991 and, indeed, before it, when Lithuania had a league within the Soviet structure. Back then, Žalgiris had their own stadium of the same name, over the Neris river on Rinktines gatvé. It is currently being knocked down and converted into flats but visitors coming here in 2017 can still make out its key features before they disappear forever.

Before World II, the Vilnius-Kaunas rivalry simply didn’t exist. Kaunas was the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius was named Wilno and under Polish rule.

Therefore, Kaunas was where the Lithuanian Football Federation was created and its first international played, both in 1923.

Welcome to Vilnius/Matt Walker

Over in Vilnius, football was developing as a Polish pastime with Polish clubs. These included Pogon Wilno, based at the Stadion na Pióromoncie (later becoming the Žalgiris Stadium), and Smigly Wilno, formed in 1933 by officers of the Polish garrison stationed in town.

After five play-off attempts, Smigly reached the top-tier Polish Ekstraklasa in 1938, winning five games in 18 and finished bottom. The club’s last match was a 5-1 win over Legia, ten days before the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939. The next fixture at Drohobycz never took place.

The Soviets soon took Vilnius, which became the capital of Lithuania, a republic within the USSR.

In 1945, officers stationed in the city formed Karininkų namai (‘House of Officers’), KN Vilnius for short, and competed in the Lithuanian Soviet Republic League and Tiesa Cup, also just state-wide. Just as Kaunas clubs had dominated the pre-war Lithuanian League, so its hegemony continued in Soviet times until KN Vilnius did the double in 1952.

Amatininkų užeiga/Matt Walker

Meanwhile, German POWs had been put to use, converting the former home ground of Pogon Wilno into the Spartakas Stadium. It was later renamed after the epic defeat of Teutonic forces in 1410, Grünwald to German historians, Žalgiris to Lithuanian.

Equally, the club rebranded Žalgiris at the same time in 1962 had started life as Spartakas – in fact, Spartakas and Dinamo, players from both teams being moved from Kaunas to Vilnius in 1947, a ploy by Soviet authorities to strengthen Lithuanian identity in the new capital of the republic.

The Žalgiris glory years came near the end of rule from Moscow. In 1987, the club finished third of a strong Soviet League, above Dynamo Kyiv and Dinamo Moscow. They then twice represented the USSR in Europe, before the establishment of the breakaway Baltic League in 1990.

A year later, Žalgiris won the first all-Lithuanian League to involve clubs from Vilnius and have gone on to win seven titles in all, up to and including 2016.

Europa Royale/Matt Walker

Before 1990, only Žalgiris featured prominently in Soviet competition, taking on the best from Moscow and across the USSR. Smaller clubs such as KN Vilnius, later called Saliutas, stayed at a lower level within the Lithunian Soviet Republic. After winning a third state title in 1967, Saliutas were mysteriously usurped by Pažanga Vilnius. Double-winners in 1971, Pažanga won two more titles in the early 1980s before making way for SRT Vilnius, champions in 1988.

By the mid 1990s, just as Žalgiris were surpassed by clubs from Kaunas, so their Soviet-era stadium was overlooked by the national side, happier to play in Lithuania’s second city.

Around the same time, a new club, Vetra, was formed in Rudiškes, near Trakai, in Vilnius County a short drive west of the capital. Consistently placed in the top four of Lithuania’s A Lyga and taking on Hibernian, Blackburn and Fulham in Europe, Vetra took the brave step of moving up to Vilnius in 2003. Buying and converting the former Lokomotyvas Stadium near the train station, Vetra pointed to a bright future for Lithuanian club football until becoming financially overstretched and being forced to fold in 2010.

Welcome to Vilnius/Matt Walker

The Vetra Stadium first hosted the national team in 2005. After 2010, it was taken over by the Lithuanian Football Federation (LFF) and renamed accordingly. Their own stadium no longer suitable, Žalgiris moved across the river in 2011.

Meanwhile, back in Trakai, Vetra’s move into the capital allowed a new local club, FK Trakai, to be formed in 2005. Concentrating on youth football and climbing up the league pyramid, FK Trakai gained promotion to the top flight in 2014, and also moved up to the LFF Stadium in Vilnius.

Reaching the Lithuanian Cup final in 2015, Trakai twice finished runners-up to groundshare partners Žalgiris, before beating St Johnstone in the Europa League of 2017-18.

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Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

Vilnius Airport is 6km (3.5 miles) south of the city, connected by shuttle train. ‘Airport’ is the first suggestion given on the online timetable – trains run about every hour, tickets €0.66 online or €0.70 from the station alongside the airport terminal.

Journey time to Vilnius train station is 8mins. Alongside, Vilnius bus station is slightly closer to town, 10-15mins away. The Vilnius Airport shuttle minibus (€1 on board) is more frequent than the train, and run every 20min to the bus station, journey time 10min.

From either station, the LFF Stadium is a 15min walk, in the opposite direction to town.

If you would rather go straight into town from the airport, then frequent express bus 3G runs through the city centre, alongside the Old Town. On local schedules, Oro Uostas is the airport. Tickets on board cost €1. A network of buses and trolleybuses serves Vilnius but most of the centre, particularly the Old Town, is walkable. You can plan any journey online.

Standart Taksi (+370 5242 4242) has reasonable rates and offers airport transfers. The eTaksi app allows you to book cabs and estimate fares. Hotels offer airport transfer services for about €15, but most rides into town should be nearer to €10.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for football fans

Long a popular choice for stag parties, Vilnius is pubtastic. Cutting through the bar-starred Old Town, Vilniaus gatvé is the best strip for beer and sport-gawping. Weekend nights, it heaves. Venues include RePUBlic No.4 (Nos.1-3 are in Kaunas), a UK-style place and solid choice for TV football, with a little paraphernalia on display. Alongside, La Birra Pub runs from 5pm to silly o’clock, with a good range of beers, table football and sport on multiple screens. Groups of mates tend to occupy the cavernous basement.

Nearby Gringo keeps up a Latin theme and broadcasts sport on two big screens.

Šnekutis at Šv Mikalojaus gatvé 15 has a cracking range of craft beer at reasonable prices, though doesn’t screen football despite the odd scarf on display. Nearby, you’ll find major sporting events on big screens at popular restaurant Amatininkų užeiga (‘The Craftsmen Pub’) on Didžioji gatvé, with attractive outdoor seating. Hearty Lithuanian fare may accompany your match watching.

Further down towards the stadium, The Portobello at Ausros Vartu 7 looks more pub-like from the outside than its attractive outdoor courtyard would suggest, but offers English food and beer, and shows football.

Where to stay

The best hotels for the stadium and city centre

Vilnius Tourism has a hotel database and booking site.

Given the stadium’s location near the train station, there are a few lodging options within walking distance. Opposite the station, the 224-room Panorama represents a good budget option (rooms from c£35) for those arriving late or needing to make a quick getaway the next day.

Under the same umbrella and in the same price range, but small-scale, the convenient two-star Mikotel Hotel, should suit most basic needs.

Also close, by the Gates of Dawn, the Domus Maria is an atmospheric renovation of a former monastery, now a modern-day, mid-range hotel with a choice of bright rooms from single to quadruple.

For an Old Town location, the three-star Amber Apple Guesthouse embodies the word ‘cosy’, just above a terrace café/restaurant. Availability might be an issue, though, with only seven rooms.

Most international chains are in town, some occupying ornate buildings. The Radisson Blu Royal Astorija is both an architectural showcase and quality lodging, an authentic façade from 1901 hiding a steam room, pool, gym and French restaurant. The Imperial, until recently known as the Ramada, is where Sting stays when he’s in town, all gilded decoration and luxurious lodgings, with a spa to boot.

Nearby and equally handy for the stadium, the Europa Royale fills a 19th-century mansion with 54 elegant rooms and a destination restaurant.