A club that is still a child and two Portuguese people who make history there
Created just five years ago, FK Panevezys is a small Lithuanian club that has been growing at a very fast pace and that this season, under the command of Portuguese coach João Luís, former glory of Marítimo, and with the help of his compatriot Rafael Floro, won his first Lithuanian Cup in history.
If that weren't enough, this Lithuanian football kid also qualified for the first time for the Europa League, where he will debut in next season's edition. The zerozero been chatting with the duo of Portuguese to get to know this club and talk about their achievements.
A child born from the ashes of rivals
Born in 2015 in the same city that gives it its name, Panevezys - the 5th largest city in Lithuania, with a population of around 113,000, according to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics -, this young club was born authentically from the misery of another team .
In that year, the one who was the representative of the city, FK Ekranas - national champion who came to dispute the qualifiers of the Champions League -, failed to fulfill the financial criteria of A Lyga and declared bankruptcy (the club was restored this year, playing currently in the 3rd division of Lithuania). To fill the gap left by Ekranas in the city's football, FK Panevezys was born, who made his debut in Lithuania's second division that year by finishing in 8th place.
The rise of the Panevezys was quite rapid and after three more seasons at I Lyga he managed to rise to the top echelon of Lithuanian football. In the debut season, he achieved an honorable 5th place - in a total of eight teams - and this season, when only one game remains to be played - the season in Lithuania is per calendar year - he is in 6th place, thus being able to climb one place in the table qualifying if wins versus Banga Gargzdai on the last day and FK Riteriai does not win at FK Kauno Zalgiris.
History to be written in Portuguese
If the Panevezys did not achieve a better ranking, it was largely due to the slow start they had in the league this year. Although he was responsible for the promotion to the First League, Romanian coach Alexandru Curtianu had a negative start, with four losses in four league games. Faced with this start of the championship, and after a long sporting interruption due to the covid-19 pandemic, the leaders of the Panevezys chose to end their connection with Alexandru Curtianu and called in his place a well-known player of the championship: the coach João Luís Martins.
Known for his playing time at Marítimo - where he did all his training and played professionally for 11 seasons - the 53-year-old Portuguese has been training since 2003/04. After stints as assistant coach for Recreativo Libolo, from Angola, Al-Ahli, from Qatar, and Al-Qadisiya, from Saudi Arabia, João Luís traveled to Lithuania in 2016 and never left there at a professional level. He managed for FC Stumbras and FK Zalgiris, two of the biggest clubs in the country, and landed in early July in Panevezys, where a squad with left winger Rafael Floro and Portuguese-Brazilians Rafael Broetto and Matheus Bissi was waiting for him.
If, in the championship, so far, there has been one victory, four draws and six defeats - all of them by the minimum margin - in the cup the story was definitely happier. When he arrived, Panevezys had already guaranteed his presence in the semi-finals of the Cup, where he thrashed FK Riteriai by 4x0 , with one of the goals to be scored, free kick, by Rafael Floro, who recalled that moment in conversation with our newspaper : «We always hit free kicks before the game and I had made a bet with my teammates. I was confident in that game and the free kick came. I said that I wanted to hit and it went well, I scored a goal, recalls Floro who, in Portugal, has played for clubs like Belenenses, Gil Vicente and Olhanense.
Four days later the final was played against FK Suduva. Floro leaves memories of a confident team: «We had a very good result against a team in our league. The team was all focused, even more so the final and the cup was an objective in itself, as well as going to the Europa League. We were focused », describes the 26-year-old.
Focused or not, the final had to be decided on penalties, after equalizing a ball in regular time. João Luís gives us the coach's view of that match: “Things went very well, from a strategic point of view and from a general point of view. The team defended very well, without putting the bus, as they say. It was not easy, it is a difficult opponent and my team was unable to play their entire game ».
Arriving at the decision through the penalties, the two confess that they were quite confident. Rafael Floro was one of the chosen ones to beat and says that "I was not nervous at all" and proof of that was that he scored. His coach, on the other hand, seemed to be waiting for a moment like this, having even intensified his training a month before the semi-final: «We trained penalties a lot throughout the season».
Lottery or not, Panevezys would eventually win by 6x5. João Luís says that his goalkeeper, Rafael Broetto, “broke a finger during the game and when he saved the decisive penalty it was the explosion of joy”. "I can say that I experienced the penalties in the same way that I experienced the rest of the game, I was confident in my team, but as soon as it ended there was a bomb of emotions that I couldn't control myself and I even raised my collar to cover my face", describes the Portuguese coach.
Rafael Floro corroborates this feeling: «I had already qualified for the Europa League with Stumbras, but the taste is not the same now. I had only been there for two months, I was here almost 10 months without going to Portugal, without seeing my family, my wife. It was a difficult time with the situation of changing the coach and the pandemic. I remember that when we won the Cup on penalties the players all broke free, everyone was crying. People may even think "it looks like they won the Champions League", but what matters is what's going on inside. We suffer a lot, people do not see what is behind. It was a party day, a spectacular feeling ».
From sweet potatoes to training
We were unable to speak to Panevezys fans, not least because the language barrier would not allow it, but if there is something that the club lives on, it is that the Panevezys that we knew a few months ago is not the same as now and there is a great responsible that is why.
«The coach has given a few touches here and there that have been helping us to professionalize more football», guaranteed Rafael Floro. After all, what are these points? João Luís's answer was enlightening.
«When I arrived the team was not destroyed, but it was very far from what I advocate for my way of playing, but at the same time the players were very open to receiving new game ideas. It was a gradual process and today we are much more identified, I even have much shorter messages on game days than I had at the beginning. The ball circulates much more, we play the way I want, we create many chances for goal ».
However, the changes go far beyond the implementation of a style of play based on ball possession - according to João Luís, since his arrival Panevezys is one of the teams with the highest average percentage of ball possession. According to the former glory of Marítimo, one of the points that differentiate a Lithuanian club that intends to have a long-term and ambitious project from one that is in danger of collapsing sooner or later, as was the case with Ekranas, is the organization and the focus on training.
«We are now a very competitive team, which likes to have the ball, but these changes are not the most visible. The preparation of the game, the game itself, a series of situations in which the club is growing and which I hope will become part of the methods of the club and the way of acting from now on. Training is now also a gamble, we have interesting kids, I added one from 2003 in this last game and we have been looking at them more. Training is the future and with your organization the club will win more », he explains.
When asked about these same changes, Rafael Floro laughs while telling a curious story where the main ingredient was nothing but sweet potatoes: “We had a funny situation, when the coach talked about the team's food and talked about sweet potatoes. Some kids aged 15/16 did not know what that was and the coach brought sweet potatoes to eat, some people did not want to ».
Next, João Luís clarifies that, in addition to reinforcing the importance of resting properly among his squad, food was also very important and that is why he spoke to a nutritionist friend, who advised him to introduce sweet potatoes in the food of his players . «I suggested that the players consume on those days and it turned out to be the reason for a song on the day of dinner, they got a chorus with the sweet potato and everything», he says between laughs.
The true essence of the club
Its clear youth as a club makes it difficult to create a true essence and mystique of FK Panevezys as a club, but, according to Floro and João Luís, it is still a club with some characteristics of its own. Both have passed through other Lithuanian clubs, including Stumbras, where they were together in 2018, so they already have a term of comparison.
The Portuguese player highlights, above all, the honesty of those connected to the club: «Everything that speaks, fulfills. If they say it's x, that's exactly what happens. If players need anything, they don't fail at all. They are fantastic in that », he says.
Both agree when they say that in Lithuania the king sport is basketball, which makes football a bit of a second place. However, both of them also feel that the city of Panevezys is the place where football is most felt in Lithuania: «In Lithuania we live a lot more basketball than football and I was very pleased to get to Panevezys and football was a little more interesting by the fans of what he had seen in other cities », points out João Luís.
The Portuguese coach also highlights the direction of the club as "a little bit ahead of what was used in Lithuania" and as a group of people who easily accepted his suggestions to change the direction of the club to something more sustainable and lasting over time. In addition, he highlighted three specific people who clearly represent the club's (still short) mystique. From the captain who “went to receive the key to the apartment on the first day”, something he considered unusual, passing through his deputy, the Lithuanian Dainius Glaveckas, who “does not let this be one of those clubs where the players come, pass and leave ”, and finally, the club director, who is with the team every day and“ lives the club in an incredible way, because he just wants your success ”.
Neither of the two Portuguese are yet sure where they will be in the next season, but both guarantee that the will is to remain at Panevezys and continue to make history in this small great club in Lithuania.