The Lithuanian Football Federation (LFF) national academy in Kaunas is bearing fruit, with the best of the centre's teenage talent being courted by some of Europe's top clubs.
Opened in February 2007 with the help of funding from the UEFA HatTrick and FIFA Goal programmes, the academy is dedicated to developing young talent, with plans afoot to create a further five similar football schools across the country.
"We adapted the experience of the leading football nations and used it to tailor our work more methodically and scientifically to the demands of modern football," academy director Raimondas Statkevičius told UEFA.com.
"The players have a pre-selection period and then join three groups from the age of 14 to 17. The academy members live together and we try to provide the best possible conditions to develop their skills.
Education is also important and the players have a special school timetable adjusted to their training schedule."
The academy has been operational for three years, but one of the first generations to come through its doors – players born in 1993 and who played in last year's UEFA European Under-17 Championship qualifiers – are already in demand.
Defender Aurimas Vilkaitis, who recently turned 17, was invited to train with S.S. Lazio in late 2009 and now has a five-year deal in Rome. He will hope to follow in the footsteps of Lithuanian international Marius Stankevičius who shone for Brescia Calcio and UC Sampdoria in Serie A before joining Sevilla FC on loan. "To have a trial at a club like that was a rare opportunity, and to be asked to sign for them was absolutely fantastic," Vilkaitis said.
Lazio were particularly impressed by the tall teen's exceptional balance, which came from five years of dance as well as other sports before he decided to focus on football. "He is also very calm and intelligent, having got the best grades of all the youngsters in his school," academy coach Rolandas Čepkauskas told UEFA.com.
Others may follow Vilkaitis abroad. Goalkeeper Lukas Lidakevičius is training with Barnsley FC in England, midfielder Martynas Dapkus tried his luck at Lazio but moved on, and another goalkeeper, Paulius Toleikis, has had trials with five Italian teams. Other academy members are being monitored by the likes of Arsenal FC and Liverpool FC.
To give the players more experience, an academy-based U19 team has been fielded in the Lithuanian second division this year, but with so much interest in the talented tyros they may struggle to keep the squad intact. For Statkevičius, that is flattering yet problematic.
"Not everyone is ready to move abroad at such a young age, and even if they do leave, no one signs lucrative contracts straight away," he said. "You have to work very hard to make it, but it's a great opportunity for the young players to get experience and they might return some day as better players to help the national team. That is our main goal – we are not in it for financial gain."
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