Battle grounds

The conflict with Russia placed Georgian football in the forefront of the struggle to maintain morale, as Jonathan Wilson explains

Under normal circumstances, Wales’s friendly against Georgia in August would not have been of too much concern to anyone – perhaps not even those playing in it. As Russian military support for the separatist regions of South ­Ossetia and Abkhazia continued, however, and threatened at one point to escalate into a march on Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, it became for the visitors a rallying point.

“This is a special game for the country,” said Petar Segrt, the FA’s technical director. “No one from Russia believed it was possible to bring 18 players with us from a war-torn country. The president told me to come out with these players. He told me that the result wasn’t important. This game showed Russia that you can bomb us and you can send tanks into our country, but you will never stop our people. This is a symbol that they will not defeat us.” As, perhaps, was the way the game went, as Georgia, having gone in 1-0 down at half-time, came back to win it in injury time. If their players hadn’t been so determined to make a point, would they still have been surging forward that late in the game?

A number of players were unable to travel from Russia to Cardiff and now face the difficulty of trying to continue their careers in a country that is effectively occupying parts of their own. Those in the top flight have so far remained silent – no protests in the style of Sasa Curcic’s campaign against the NATO bombing of Belgrade while he was at Crystal Palace – but after Anzhi Makhachkala went down 1-0 to Volga ­Ulyanovsk in a Russian First Division match on August 14, their coach, Omari Tetradze, blamed the conflict. “Of course events in South Ossetia affected our players,” he said. “We lost because I have seven Georgian players. They haven’t slept for days. They’ve been calling their relatives and friends at all hours. You can’t speak about serious preparations in such conditions.”

Tetradze is a Georgian, but when the USSR broke up he opted to play for Russia, which had taken on the USSR’s coefficient and so was seeded more favourably. As a player, he won the Russian League in 1995 with Alania Vladikavkaz, a team from North Ossetia. Among four other Georgians in that side was the central defender Akhrik Tsveiba, who holds the distinction of having been the first player in almost half a century to represent three different UEFA countries. He played at Euro 92 for the CIS, the untidy compromise that was the USSR’s immediate successor, then turned out in a friendly for Ukraine before committing to Russia. He was actually from Abkhazia, but turned his back on Georgia after beginning his career with Dinamo Tbilisi.

Makhachkala, meanwhile, is the capital of the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, which has had its own problems with Chechen-backed separatists. Two days after the defeat in Ulyanovsk, in a game that became a confusing melting-pot of sympathies, Anzhi beat Alania 2-0, with one of their goals coming from Mikheil Ashvetia, a former Georgia international.

The conflict has delayed the start of the Georgian domestic season and it seems impossible that, when it finally gets under way, Spartaki Tskhinvali, from the capital of South Ossetia, can be involved. Games, obviously, have had to be moved out of Georgia. WIT Georgia Tbilisi’s UEFA Cup tie against Austria Vienna was played over only one leg in Austria, while the national team’s opening World Cup qualifier, at home to the Republic of Ireland on September 6, was rearranged for Mainz in Germany.

Perhaps most intriguing, though, was the Under-21 qualifier against Russia that has been shifted from Moscow to a neutral venue. “We beat the Russian Under-21 side 2-0 in Georgia eight months ago,” Segrt said. “At the worst time of the war they sent us a fax saying that it was fine for us to come and play them on September 5. I sent one back saying that we’d be there. We are a country of 4.5 million people. Russia is a country of 120 million. We have no chance of beating them in a war. But it’s 11 versus 11 out there. We have a chance to beat them on the ground.”

Deadlines, unfortunately, mean WSC went to press before the outcome of that match was known, but whatever the result, even playing the game allowed Georgia to make their point.

From WSC 260 October 2008