Romanov: Can you keep a secret?

Just when you think things at Zalgiris Kaunas can’t possibly get crazier, Mad Vlad comes through with a heavy dose of weirdness for observers to goggle over – though surely jaded Lithuanian fans aren’t surprised one bit by the Green barrage of oddity now commonplace in the Vladimir Romanov Era.

What American media types might call “Sub-gate” began with the typical rumors growing fungally to a national level: In this case, the theory was that owner Romanov was actually taking slightly less than a hands-off approach to player substitutions. All remained innuendo until one local clip raised the paranoia levels and a second sports station accidentally showed damning footage of Romanov’s game plans.

During last week’s Euroleague match with Power Electronics Valencia, Ilias Zouros (Zalgiris’ third this season, for those of you keeping score at home) was spotted on camera more than once conspicuously consulting a scrap of paper, then re-tucking it into an inside jacket pocket.

More recently, sports journalist Vidas Mačiulis held a 15-minute interview with Romanov which went out on the local Sport1 network. Unfortunately for the Zalgiris front office, a few seconds of very revealing footage shot in Romanov’s office was used as bumper material for the piece. A representative screenshot:

Soon figured out by any number of Lithuanian basketball nuts was what these numbers represented, actually. The first column at top left on down reads:

C 3, Kal 5, C 2.
M 5, De 5.
W 5, Ma 3, Om 2.

And so on, where “Kal” is “Kalnietis,” “Om” is “Omar Samhan,” “De” is “Delininkaitis,” “Ma” is “Marjanovič” and so on. The numbers? They represent minutes played, of course. The bloke in the picture is Rimantas Grigas, Zalgiris’ second head coach this season and the only one given the courtesy of the “interim” label. This image was taken post-coaching stint, however, as Grigas is currently serving as club sports director.

When questioned by Lithuanian media about the suspicious scrap, Zouros stated that, as a new coach, he still hadn’t memorized some set plays and so wrote them down. Zouros’ purported naivety with the squad made for stark contrast for the eye-popping 42 substitutions Zalgiris made during the match.

Zouros’ cover was soon blown at a “Zalgiris Members Club” event. At a Q&A session for club members, one early query centered on *that* paper. Zalgiris general director Paulius Motiejunas dodged the question a bit as he explained that “the owner’s position is to balance the players’ physical condition [while] letting others improve. To accomplish these goals, he contributes to the preparation of the game plan and its execution is ensured by coach assistants.”

Such tomfoolery is also old news to backers of Romanov’s other professional sports franchise, the Scottish soccer club Heart of Midlothian FC, a.k.a. Hearts. Romanov has been accused of interfering in substitution plans on the football pitch as well and his record with football managers is even more legendary, finally peaking (or maybe that should be “bottoming out”) with the sacking of George Burley in 2005, as the team stood at 11-0-0 on the season.

However, something came over Romanov before this year, apparently, and the owner has stuck to a policy of non-interference vis-à-vis on-pitch operations. The result? Hearts enjoyed a 4-0-2 run in December, the team and none other than Lithuanian footballer Marius Zaliukas has proclaimed the secret to be Romanov’s invisibility. “Maybe Mr. Romanov wanted to rule the team more in the past. Now he gives responsibility to [manager Jim Jefferies], who has done a good job. … Previously there were a lot of groups but now everyone is just like one big happy family!”

To his credit, Romanov’s era has seen a return to profitability and bigger budgets for the storied Lithuanian club. Just two problems: Hearts is reportedly currently accumulating debt and, despite his majority ownership in Zalgiris, Romanov is not the club’s sole owner. With up to 25% of the club’s budget contributed by the municipality of Zalgiris led by a mayor who has threatened to withdraw financial support if sufficient evidence of shenanigans exists, one has to wonder if Romanov won’t eventually overturn the gravy train in pursuit of … ah, whatever the man’s pursuing.

Stay tuned. Things can only get weirder.

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