Paralympic champions Lithuania are targeting their third world title at the 2018 IBSA Goalball World Championships in Malmo, Sweden, from 3 June.
Having secured gold in 2006 and 2010, Lithuania’s form came to a grinding halt at the 2014 World Championships in Espoo, Finland. The team missed out on the podium – losing 4-2 to the USA in the bronze medal match.
But in 2016 they returned to the top after claiming the Paralympic crown in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The team is also No.1 in the current world rankings.
Since finding their groove again Lithuania have changed their coach. Last year they welcomed 23-year-old Sarunas Jukna to lead their efforts following a chance meeting between him and team legend Justas Pazarauskas.
Without any prior experience, Jukna had to learn on the job but he still managed to lead his team to gold at the 2017 IBSA European Championships.
“The first year was hard, because I didn’t know anything about goalball, so every training was a challenge,” he said. “Now I am more confident of myself and got a lot of experience during this year. It was hard, I wanted every training to be perfect, but due to my lack of experience that was just not as I wished.”
With a European title now under his belt, Jukna has high hopes for June when Lithuania will try to reclaim the world title:
“We are going for gold at the World Championship. Before that we have several tournaments to prepare and a month-and-a-half sports camp; there we will be working even harder. But as this sport is so unpredictable, one can never know. I hope we will play as good as we can. Of course, we hope for the highest position.”
In contrast to Jukna, team captain Marius Zibolis has a wealth of experience behind him.
Zibolis began playing goalball when he was 13-years-old. In September he will celebrate 30 years of playing the sport.
“Winning the Championship comes with good defense, so I focus more on the defense skills,” Zibolis said.
“For the upcoming World Championships we are focusing on strengthening our defense and we want to achieve at least one of the first three places.”
Lithuania will also rely on key players such as Pazarauskas, who finished as the third highest scorer at Rio 2016 with 22 goals.
However for coach Jukna, the joy of goalball comes not from the silverware but from contributing to a higher purpose.
“Sport for disabled athletes means much more than just the competitions and trainings. It is the possibility to be a fully-fledged member of society. It is the possibility to forget your disability and concentrate on your strong sides.
“I enjoy seeing how athletes work hard for their goal, and I am glad to be a part of the team.”
Lithuania will be hoping their mix of youth and experience will guide them to the top of the world once again in Malmo from 3-9 June. The tournament will feature some of the world’s best men’s and women’s goalball teams, including defending champions Brazil and the USA respectively.
Further information, including tickets and the game schedule, can be found at the official 2018 IBSA Goalball World Championships website.