Category: Archive

Georgians draw inspiration from glory days

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Moscow Spartak, though they’d lost the first leg 4-2, had a realistic target to aim for on home turf — if they could get a 2-0 result, those away goals would put them through.
However, because of heavy snow in the Moscow region and in much of western Russia, the game was moved to Tbilisi, the capital of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, 1,000 miles to the south.
Some readers will be ahead of the story and have guessed that the Tbilisi crowd got behind the Belgians, which is indeed what happened.
But Georgi Katsitadze, who until recently organized fan clubs for the Georgian Football Federation, emphasized the unexpectedness of this development. In his telling – he was 11 at the time — it becomes a Roy of the Rovers-like comic-strip plot twist, with Spartak disorientated by the locals’ attitude.
“‘What’s this?'” Katsitadze said, mimicking the “home” players’ reaction, his shoulders hunched and open palms faced upwards.
“They couldn’t understand why the crowd was supporting Anderlecht,” he said, shaking his head.
Spartak did go 1-0 up, but they couldn’t close the deal and Anderlecht marched on to a semifinal game against Nottingham Forest.
The Tbilisi crowd’s negative reaction to Spartak, according to Katsitadze, had nothing to do with intercity or interclub rivalry, which in his view would be bad manners in the face of international competition. The fact that one of their heroes, Alexandre Chivadze, the captain of Dinamo Tbilisi, was also captain of the soccer team of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was irrelevant. Russians, from the far side of the Caucasus Mountain Range, were as “foreign” as Belgians.
The following year, 1985, reformer Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Moscow, initiating the process that eventually led to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Since independence,, the Georgian Football Federation has had a “very hard period,” according to press officer Alexandre Tsnobiladze. “The organizational problems, infrastructural problems still exist,” he said.
To get to Tsnobliadze’s office you must walk through a series of corridors that suggest the building, like so much else in Georgia, is a work in progress,. Outside, though, the large rectangular gray-colored structure is handsome enough. It announces itself in the native language on one side and on the other as the “Georgian Football Federation.”
Russian is being pushed to one side as a second language in favor of English. Georgia looks West now. European Union flags hang from public buildings, but even before the outbreak of war with Russia this summer, most experts were agreed the nation was at least five years away from membership.
And it is economics that separates the Georgian soccer team from the Republic of Ireland’s, whom they play in Germany on Saturday – specifically the sort of cash that can buy the services of someone like Giovanni Trapattoni (though a month ago the GFF acquired Argentine Hector Cuper).
Nonetheless, the nation’s soccer culture has a brashness and confidence that belies the nation’s size. “We were known as the ‘Brazilians’ of Soviet football,” said TV sports reporter David Eradze.
If the USSR were the great underachievers of world soccer, then you can’t blame the Georgians, he argued. Like many fans, Eradze has “13 May” etched onto his heart. That was the date in 1981 when Dinamo Tbilisi won the European Cup Winners Cup in Duesseldorf against East German side Carl Zeiss Jena.
“It’s the biggest win in our whole history. I remember it very well. I was 9,” Eradze said. “My father and I went into the city center to join in the celebrations after watching the game on television.”
A few days later, torch-lit processions of supporters converged on and filled the then 80,000-capacity club stadium to greet the returning heroes.
“When I was a child, there was only one team and that team was Dinamo Tbilisi” said the GFF press officer Tsnobiladze. “All of Georgia supported Dinamo. It was like our national team.”
The club had a style of play that still defines the national approach to the game. “Typical Georgian football is attacking football,” Tsnobiladze said.
“Technical. Very quick passes, playing with wingers, left and right. We always have good wingers. But also the No. 10 position is very important.
“There is a legend in Georgian football, David Kipiani. He was an attacking central midfielder,” Tsnobiladze said of a former star who died in a Tbilisi car accident in 2001.
Kipiani was a member of that cup-winning team in the 1980-81 season that beat Waterford FC twice in the second round – 1-0 at Kilcohan Park, and then 4-0 back in Tbilisi. In the quarterfinal, Dinamo tore West Ham United to pieces at Upton Park. At the end of a YouTube clip of that 4-1 win, the Hammers’ fans seem to be magnanimously applauding the visitors off the pitch. But the Georgian club had given notice in the European Cup two years before. Liverpool took a 2-1 lead to Tbilisi only to be beaten 3-0 in the stadium where Scotland came unstuck in the European qualifier last year.
For all the admiration for the heroics by the late Kipiani and skipper Chivadze, and the present-day adoration for AC Milan’s Kakha Kaladze, it was another Dinamo star, Murtaz Khurtsilava, who was voted recently as the greatest Georgian player of the past 50 years. Khurtsilava, a deceptively hulking defender who could be brilliant in attack and graceful in any part of the pitch, was a member and sometime captain of the USSR side that finished second in the 1972 European Championships, third in the Olympics of the same year and fourth in the 1966 World Cup.
Georgians believe stars like young sensation Levan Kenia of Schalke 04 will be gracing a World Cup tournament before too long. Kenia, an attacking midfielder in the Kipiani mould, was still 16 when he played in the victory over Scotland. Though yet to play in the Bundesliga, he’s doing well for Georgia. He scored the equalizer in the 2-1 win against Wales in Swansea on August 20.
“We have some world quality players, high-quality players,” said press officer Tsnobiladze. “We must find a way to get them together and be one team. If they play as one team, then they can do it.”
Of the qualifiers, he said: “It’s a group where every team can win every match and every team can lose.” Tsobiladze, though, added that it’s his view Italy will top the group.
“It will be a success for us if we can come second and get to a playoff,” he said.

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