Malasinskas’ goosebumps make for hearty Lithuania comeback
As the bus made its way from Vilnius to Košice in a 15-hour drive to bring the Lithuania national team to the Men’s EHF EURO 2022, the players were killing time by playing cards or thinking about their journey in the tournament.
To prevent any other Covid-19 infections that could derail Lithuania’s first participation in the tournament since 1998, they decided to drive to Slovakia instead of flying, leaving the Lithuanian capital at 22:00.
“We managed to get a full seven hours’ sleep, therefore it was not that much of a nuisance for us. It was a bit difficult, but I would not say it was impossible to do, especially in these conditions,” says Aidenas Malasinskas. The centre back is the most experienced player in the squad, capped over 90 times for the national team.
In fact, the bus trip is something of a symbol of Lithuania’s journey to the EHF EURO 2022, after missing a berth for the final tournament for the last 24 years. At Italy 1998, Lithuania finished ninth, with only one win in five games and it looked like the future was bright.
“I did not watch the games live, but, of course, I know something about that tournament. It was something special for Lithuanian handball and we were always trying to get back between the top teams in Europe,” adds Malasinskas.
Indeed, now they are back, as an underdog who is always trying to spring a surprise or two. They were close in their maiden game in Košice, after rallying back from a 1:7 deficit against Russia, only to lose the game by two goals, 27:29. Yet the defeat gave Lithuania exactly what they needed.
“Were the game to have a few more minutes, I think we would have taken something from it. But we were over-motivated in the start, the lack of experience for many of us at this level was there on display. However, it was an amazing feeling to be here and represent the national team,” says the 35-year-old Malasinkas. He scored five goals and dished four assists during the match.
Malasinskas, who is having a stellar season in the EHF Champions League Men, scoring 47 goals for HC Motor in 10 games, is adamant that Lithuania are not a one-trick pony, where he is the mastermind behind the attack. He points out, repeatedly, that handball is a team game, where a player cannot influence the outcome by himself.
However, his experience is overwhelming, as he is the only player from the current roster to be plying his trade in the European premium competition. The only other Lithuanian player to be at this level, back Jonas Truchanovicius, who is Malasinskas’ teammate in Motor, is out of the EHF EURO 2022 due to an injury.
“Of course, opponents probably have their eyes on me, because they know how I play. But, really, and I cannot underline this enough, this Lithuania team is about all of us who are here, trying to win some games. I am very proud of what we achieved and how everything panned out,” the centre back says.
A stellar career
Malasinskas started handball when he was only seven years old and his career took him to Spain, where he played for BM Granollers and Logroño, before signing for Ukrainian champions HC Motor in 2015. He has scored 434 goals in the EHF Champions League Men for Granitas-Karys, Logrono and HC Motor, but he has never had any meaningful success with the Lithuania national team until now.
Named the Lithuanian Male Player of the Year four times, in 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2021, the centre back is also the best all-time scorer for Lithuania, with 432 goals. One might say he has seen everything in his career. Yet he still felt goosebumps when he took the court in “Steel Arena” in Košice for the maiden game of the EHF EURO 2022, against Russia.
“Before the game against Russia, when we were warming up, I saw so many Lithuanian fans in the stands. And they truly motivated us, because they could not stop singing and cheering, even when we were down by seven goals,” Malasinkas says.
“Now, against Slovakia, I heard that many more will come to support us, which is exactly what we needed. Because now we had the experience of the first game and we will be even more prepared for the match,” adds Malasinskas.
Indeed, the match against the hosts, scheduled for Saturday, will be paramount for their future in the competition. Lose and the main round berth could be mathematically out of reach, therefore adding a win to their column is mandatory for Lithuania.
For that, Malasinskas might pull an ace out of his sleeve. He is a psychology aficionado and always reads the room before a game. And he knows a thing or two about calming down his teammates, to prevent any over-excitement like in the game against Russia.
“I think it helps, because you can see things that can help improve the team or even yourself, as an individual,” concludes Malasinskas.
One thing is certain, though. Lithuania could not have come this far without Malasinskas and he would not be here if not for his great teammates. Now, 24 years since their first participation at the EHF EURO, the Baltic side are back and trying their best to rewrite history.