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2020.09.27 10:00

Soviet spirit on basketball court: how did the VTB league become a political tool?

Paulius Cubera, LRT.lt2020.09.27 10:00

In 2008, Russia founded an international VTB United basketball league that eventually undermined the country’s national tournament. But the league that attracted teams from mainly post-Soviet countries has been on the decline in recent years because of its political side.

VTB was more a show than a serious basketball tournament back in 2008. The league took place before Christmas, on December 20-22, and attracted eight teams from Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. Lithuanian champion BC Žalgiris also participated in the tournament.

Next year, VTB already evolved into a league with a regular season and playoffs. The tournament reached its peak in 2012–2013 when it attracted 20 teams from nine countries. Besides Žalgiris, Lietuvos Rytas from Vilnius and Neptūnas from Klaipėda also competed in the tournament.

Gediminas Navikauskas, a former Executive Director of BC Žalgiris and one of the VTB founders, said that the league was conceived in Kaunas but soon became a Russian political instrument.

“The idea was simple – to fill the schedule of Žalgiris arena that was being built at the time. We thought that the tournament could fill the gaps in between the Euroleague games,” Navikauskas explained.

“We reached out to the Russian basketball federation […]. But later, the politicians came in and tried to turn the tournament into the USSR championship,” he added.

Despite the political influence, VTB was expanding successfully as it lured basketball clubs with large cash prizes and other financial benefits.

“They bribed clubs with money,” Jonas Miklovas, an editor of Basketnews.lt, said. “VTB [allegedly] gave a special cash prize to Žalgiris for attracting the most fans to their games. They were thinking of how to give more money to Žalgiris and created this nonsensical prize.”

But according to Paulius Motiejūnas, the current Executive Director of BC Žalgiris, the financial benefit to the club was not that significant.

“It only covered travel costs, but we did not get much more from the league,” he explained.

When VTB started, Lithuanian basketball clubs were criticised for taking part in the so-called Kremlin’s league. But according to the political analyst Rimvydas Valatka, the geopolitical situation was different 12 years ago.

“Back then, we were more naïve. In 2008, Russia started a war against Georgia, so it was a signal. But the sportsmen did not want to recognise it,” Valatka said.

The resurrection of the USSR league

According to Navikauskas, VTB organisers sought to attract clubs that formerly played in the USSR basketball championship.

“Clubs from Finland and Czech Republic were only invited to repudiate the criticism that it was a USSR championship,” he said.

In 2008, Navikauskas became a General Manager of BC Budivelnyk in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. Motivated by political reasons, the club was the first one to leave VTB before the 2012–2013 season. Next year, Žalgiris followed.

When Žalgiris played in VTB, the club owner was a Russian businessman Vladimir Romanov, who departed Lithuania for Russia when the embezzlement case was launched against him. In Kaunas, he often watched matches with Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB general and trustee of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“It is dangerous because sports encompass other things as well. Normally, nobody would invite the former KGB general Ivanov to Lithuania. But he was in the arena together with our politicians when the league took place,” Valatka said.

The decline

Soon after VTB was founded, it turned into a partial Russian basketball league, as its national championship was cancelled. The Russian club that performed best in VTB automatically became the national champion.

But some foreign clubs did not see a problem with the league, which only started to decline after Russia annexed Crimea and the military conflict broke out in Ukraine in 2014. Then, all Lithuanian and Ukrainian teams left VTB.

In the 2019–2020 season, 13 clubs competed in the league, nine of which were Russian. Estonian champions Kalev/Cramo from Tallinn, as well as clubs from Poland, Kazakhstan, and Belarus also played in the tournament.

In the end, the quest to resurrect the USSR championships was unsuccessful, as VTB is now nothing more than the Russian league with a few international teams.

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