By Kestutis Gimbutas
Securing a job with a top Russian club straight after retiring as a player is an incredible coup for any player from the small Baltic country of Lithuania. As a former national team captain, however, Raimondas Žutautas has pulled it off in some style.
Žutautas, who is still only 33, will be working at FC Alania Vladikavkaz alongside famous Israeli coach Itzhak Shum, who has just taken charge of the Premier League outfit. For Žutautas, who played for Alania for three years from 1997, this marked a return to the first city of his career abroad.
Žutautas and Shum linked up again when the Lithuanian joined Maccabi Haifa FC, a place where the Israeli coach oversaw domestic titles in 2001 and 2002. The following year, Žutautas signed for Panathinaikos FC soon after Shum took control of the Greek giants.
Žutautas was still with the Greek side last season but could not play due to a persistent knee injury. "
The doctors were clear that if I played on, I would have to have a plastic knee one day," he said. "There was hardly anything left there after a few big operations. I could not risk my health anymore."
The midfield player, who won 41 caps for his country and was named Lithuanian player of the year in 2002, was pondering a career in coaching, but never expected it to start so soon. Žutautas, who has already graduated from the Academy of Physical Education of Lithuania and has a coaching license, was invited by Shum to become his assistant until the end of the year, with the option of an extension should things go well.
The only previous coach from Lithuania to have worked in Russia is Benjaminas Zelkevicius, currently in charge of Latvian UEFA Cup contenders FHK Liepajas Metalurgs. Zelkevicius has coached FC Kamaz Naberezhnye Chelny and FC Baltika Kaliningrad, and was an assistant at SC Rotor Volgrograd. Lithuanians regard it as a major honour to be given the chance to coach in Russia, a point perfectly illustrated by Zelkevicius's decision to resign from the national team to take up the post at Baltika Kaliningrad.
Against the odds
After Zelkevicius's departure, the national job was given to Algimantas Liubinskas, once the youngest-ever coach in charge of a Soviet Supreme League club. In 1983, when Liubinskas was about to turn 32, he took charge of FK Žalgiris Vilnius and against all odds guided the relegation-tipped Lithuanians to fifth place in the league.
Liubinskas's example will surely be mentioned to Žutautas, who is a great admirer of the work he did while in charge of the national team. Lithuania have only lost once in 2006 FIFA World Cup qualifying, away to Spain. "Our players have now grown confident enough not to be afraid of any opponent," he said. "Our mentality and self-confidence is a very important factor in the success."
Should Žutautas do himself justice in his new role, perhaps one day he will be given the chance to take charge of the team he once captained.
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