Corruption, maimings, murder – football is a risky business in some countries. As Dan Brennan explains, success can come with an unbearably heavy price in Tbilisi
Football, for Georgians, is the source of extreme and conflicting emotions. On the one hand, this country of barely five million people, with an economy still struggling to find its way out of the doldrums 12 years after independence, has a remarkable track record of producing wonderfully skilful footballers.
Manchester City fans hardly need to be reminded of Georgi Kinkladze, who in leaner, meaner days mesmerised Maine Road. In recent times, Shota Arveladze, Georgi Nemsadze, Zurab Khizanishvili and Temuri Ketsbaia have also made their mark in Britain. Georgians have prospered elsewhere, too, notably in the Netherlands, Germany and Russia.
Back home, though, there is less cause for rejoicing. The seamier side of Georgian football revealed itself most recently in December. Merab Jhordania, head of the football federation, was arrested on the runway of Tbilisi Airport on charges of tax evasion as he was about to board a plane for Paris. He had apparently forgotten to pay 741,000 laris (about £200,000) in taxes while president of Dinamo Tbilisi. In January, Jhordania dispatched said sum to the taxman but, at time of writing, remains in custody awaiting trial.
Football here has long lived under the shadow of corruption, so this latest incident caused little more than raised eyebrows. Corporate sleaze and backhanders, though, are the thin end of the wedge. Football in Georgia is a risky business and the stakes can be very high. The Kaladze family know this better than most.
Perhaps Georgia’s most successful export, Kakha Kaladze, a Champions League winner last year, has been a fixture at left-back for AC Milan since his move from Dynamo Kiev in 2001, for a Georgian record of £10 million. His success has brought much acclaim back home, but not all of the attention was welcome.
In May 2001, Kakha’s brother Levan was kidnapped in Tbilisi. His abductors demanded a ransom of around £400,000. Kidnappings have become increasingly frequent in Georgia recent years. In 2002, British banker Peter Shaw endured a five-month ordeal in the Pankisi Gorge, a notorious hotbed of criminal activity, before managing a miraculous escape. Despite Kakha’s agreement to pay the ransom and the personal intervention of Italian president (and AC Milan owner) Silvio Berlusconi, who took it on himself to lobby the Georgian government, all attempts to negotiate Levan’s release failed. At one point, disgusted at the empty efforts of the Georgian authorities, Kakha threatened to boycott the national side, and even considered switching his allegiance to Ukraine. “It’s disgusting,” he said, “that every official considered it necessary to declare his personal participation to help find him but their interest is nothing but populism.”
Almost three years on Levan remains missing. However, there could finally be good news on the horizon. In a sudden development, the kidnappers now seem willing to let their captive go. “I have spoken to the authorities in Georgia,” revealed Kakha last month, “and it is 90 per cent certain my brother is alive.”
Others have not been so lucky. In November 2002, ex-Dinamo player and coach Kakha Asatiani was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Tbilisi. Last May, Georgia Under-21 defender Sergo Orbeladze was shot in the leg by masked gunmen as he was walking home.
Orbeladze played for Lokomotiv Tbilisi, Khizanishvili’s old club – and many felt he could follow the latter into the senior national side. The word was that the attack was connected to a dispute over a proposed transfer. What is certain is that it was no random act. The shooting was a virtual carbon copy of earlier attacks on ex-internationals Mamuka Tesereteli (who now lives in self-imposed exile in Cyprus) and Akaki Devadze.
The sanctioning of Jhordania’s arrest was one of the first acts of Georgia’s new president, Mikhail Saakashvili, who ousted Eduard Shevardnadze in November’s “Rose Revolution”. The recent arrival of Frenchman Henri Michel as national-team coach, after Jhordania himself had taken interim control of team affairs, is an early sign of positive changes afoot.
For anyone wondering about the whereabouts of another disappearing Georgian, Georgi Kinkladze has been scouring the length and breadth of Europe for a new club. He was last seen being laughed out of the Leeds training ground for being too fat, just days into a two-week trial. But if he’s in no hurry to try his luck back home, it’s not hard to understand why.
From WSC 205 March 2004. What was happening this month