Georgia's football frailties
Wednesday 13 August ~
The hostilities in Georgia may lead to the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup qualifier in September being switched to a neutral venue, while there are doubts over whether the Georgia squad will travel to Wales for a friendly next week. If it goes ahead, that fixture in Swansea will be the first meeting between the two countries for 13 years. Georgia won 1-0 in Wales on their only previous trip in a Euro 96 qualifier, having thrashed the Welsh 5-0 in Tbilisi in their first meeting in November 1994. Given that Georgia provided a steady supply of players for the USSR national side, it had been expected to develop into one of their stronger football teams from among the constituent republics of the former Soviet Union. However that Euro 96 campaign highlighted the trend for inconsistency that has dogged Georgian football since. The team finished third in their qualifying group behind Germany and Bulgaria, but as well as their two wins against Wales they also lost twice to Moldova.
Regional politics had an impact on the Georgian football squad from the outset. Central defender Akrik Tsveiba began his career with the country’s top team, Dinamo Tbilisi, but he was from Abkhazia, one of the two breakaway regions that has featured in the recent conflict with Russia. In the mid-1990s he became the first player in nearly 50 years to play for three different European national teams. After leaving Tbilisi for Dinamo Kiev, he turned out for the reduced Soviet Union, then known as the CIS, at Euro 92, and played one friendly for the Ukraine later that same year. When players from the ex-USSR were required to make a definitive choice of which national side to represent, he opted for Russia, winning the last of his eight caps in a World Cup play-off with Italy in 1997. Tsveiba was with a club in Japan when capped by Russia but he did later play for teams in the Russian league – including one from Ossetia.
The team in question was Alania Vladikavkaz, from North Ossetia. Heavily backed with funds from the regional government, they won the Russian league in 1995 with a squad assembled from around the former USSR including five Georgians, two of whom, defender Murtaz Shelia and striker Mikheil Kavaleshvili, went on to play for Manchester City alongside their compatriot Georgi Kinkladze. Alania lost to Rangers in the first round of the Champions League in 1996, collapsing 7-2 at home after a 3-1 defeat at Ibrox. In their title-winning season they performed much more creditably in Europe, losing 2-1 on aggregate to Liverpool in the UEFA Cup. Unable to compete properly with the oligarch-backed Moscow clubs, Alania dropped out of Russia’s top division in 2005 and have since survived a financial crisis to resettle at the second level; their current squad is multi-ethnic but doesn’t include any Georgians.
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