One-team dominance has been broken in Georgia but, as Margot Dunne finds, football's continued revival depends on peace and politics
On a warm August evening in Tbilisi's Boris Paichadze National Stadium, a crowd of over 20,000 is roaring on the Georgian champions Zestafoni in their Europa League play-off against Club Brugge. But, strangely, the majority aren't supporters of either of the teams involved in the tie. Most are fans of Zestafoni's main domestic rival and Georgia's biggest club, Dinamo Tbilisi.
"This isn't unusual here," says one Zestafoni fan. "Tonight, Dinamo are playing away in Athens. Next week when AEK Athens come here, our fans will turn out to support Dinamo. We may be enemies in the league but when we play outsiders, we are all Georgians and that's what matters."
In the Caucasus political tensions are as inextricable from sport as they are from everyday life. The emotions of football rivalry are spiced with fresh memories of ethnic violence and the complex tangles of claims and counter-claims that characterise politics in this region. It has been that way ever since Georgian clubs broke away from the Supreme League in the dying days of the Soviet Union in 1990 and established their own competition, the Umaglesi Liga. The transition was far from easy.
In a pattern repeated right across the former USSR, each newly established league had one, or perhaps two, big clubs who would win every year. In Latvia it was Skonto Riga (14 times in a row), in Armenia FC Pyunik won it 12 times and Dinamo Tbilisi were Georgian champions for the whole of the 1990s. This was hardly nail-biting stuff for the fans, who began to drift away in droves.
Deprived of state support, many smaller clubs in the new republics were simply unable to cope with the realities of football as a commercial venture. The fledgling economies were too weak to provide much in the way of sponsorship money and even those clubs that didn't go under completely struggled with an exodus of players to the West, crumbling infrastructure and persistent allegations of corruption.
In Georgia, this was compounded by a decade of chaos and bloody conflicts over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that claimed thousands of lives and refugees. As Dinamo's head of PR, Levan Gvinianidze, explained, football wasn't uppermost in anyone's mind. "It was very bad. There was no electricity, almost nothing in the shops. We really struggled. Back in Soviet times the stadiums were full but in the 1990s it was almost impossible to establish football here and we've faced an uphill task to build a proper fan culture again."
But it is a battle they are slowly starting to win. Among the ubiquitous Barcelona and Manchester United shirts on kids kicking balls around the streets of Tbilisi you are beginning see Dinamo colours again, partly thanks to a new city-centre fan shop. The club is also extremely proud of its "Future Tribune" an area of the stadium specially set aside, where children can get in for free.
As in other parts of the former Eastern Bloc, the past few years have seen increasing private investment in the game here and the results are beginning to show. Zestafoni are a prime example. Founded in 2004 and owned by Austrian-based steel magnate Ilia Kokaia, the club has invested heavily in youth football, stadium infrastructure and training facilities. Their young, entirely Georgian squad has set the league alight and looks like providing a serious and sustainable challenge to the dominance of Dinamo.
It is a model that could become the future of football in this part of the world – but only if geopolitical stability allows. As recently as 2008, Georgia found itself at war once again over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Backed by Russia, the two regions unilaterally declared independence and ethnic Georgians were again forced to flee, among them the football club Spartaki Tskhinvali, from the South Ossetian capital. They have spent the past three seasons playing their fixtures wherever they could borrow a pitch. Now at last they have found a permanent stadium in Tbilisi, to which their fans will be bussed from the hastily built refugee settlements along the Gori highway.
As even national coach Temuri Ketsbaia, himself a refugee from Abkhazia, admits, it is hugely important to Georgians that Spartaki continue to play in the Umaglesi Liga. Spartaki Tskhinvali are as much a political statement as they are a football club. In Georgia, you really can't expect anything else.
From WSC 298 December 2011