Walking around Tbilisi’s sun-bathed streets, evidence that Georgia’s football team are days away from a crucial Euro 2016 qualification opener against the Republic of Ireland is scarce. There isn’t so much as a poster in sight and any pre-match buzz will likely be supplied by the green-clad Irish supporters who are expected to arrive in their hundreds, if not thousands. For Georgia, football’s place as the number one sport in the country has come under threat as other sports, namely rugby and basketball, bring the country’s patriotic fans considerably more joy than the cycle of false dawns and disappointments in which Georgian football has long been mired, writes Alastair Watt.
Alastair Watt (@tbilisidon) is a Tbilisi-based Scottish sports reporter working for Georgia Today newspaper and is also co-founder of www.futbolgrad.com– a website dedicated to football and contention in the post-Soviet space.
While Georgia’s basketball team recently reached its third successive European Championships, and the nation’s rugby side prepares for its fourth World Cup appearance next year, reasons to be cheerful have been few and far between for Georgia’s football followers. It is a sad state of affairs for a country which boasts a proud football heritage. The first ever European Championships in 1960 was won by a Soviet Union side containing three Georgians, while a famous all-Georgian Dinamo Tbilisi side tore apart West Ham United at Upton Park on their way to winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1981. But these memories are fast fading.
Former Newcastle United, Wolves and Dundee striker Temur Ketsbaia is in his fifth year in charge of the national team and while this reign has brought highlights, most notably a win over Croatia in 2011, there has been one constant shortcoming – goals. In his playing days, Ketsbaia lashed home 18 goals for his country during a relatively golden period for Georgian football post-independence. In the 23-man squad picked to face Ireland, his top scorer is defensive midfielder Jaba Kankava of Ukraine’s Dnipro with four goals.
Most fans in the British Isles were probably first alerted to the very existence of the Georgian national side with grainy footage of them thumping Wales 5-0 in Tbilisi.
That was during qualification for Euro 96, where Georgia finished third behind eventual winners Germany and Stoichkov’s Bulgaria. The same result this time would see the Georgians reach a play-off for the finals in France which, for the first time, will be contested by 24 teams. But hopes of emulating the mid-90s achievement are slim. Put simply, winning games requires goals and these have been exceptionally hard to come by for Ketsbaia’s Georgia.
In their latest qualification campaign, for World Cup 2014, Georgia scored just three goals in eight qualifiers – none of them by a striker. Indeed, Georgia have not scored more than one goal in a competitive match since 2009, a comprehensive 6-2 defeat to Bulgaria. Selecting only two strikers in his squad – Levan Mchedlidze of Italy’s Empoli and Niko Gelashvili of Albania’s Flamurtari – Ketsbaia has dismissed the lack of firepower as a concern. He claimed: “Spain won the World Cup without a forward, and even from 200 million Brazilians a striker could not be found.”
Both points were valid but Georgia’s frontline is not, unlike the Spanish, backed up by a free-scoring midfield. Against Ireland, Ketsbaia will opt for a midfield five with two holding midfielders, and two wingers either side of playmaker, Spartak Moscow’s Jano Ananidze. Aged 21, Ananidze is a central part of Ketsbaia’s side but he has not quite lived up to his early promise which had yielded interest from the likes of Arsenal and AC Milan. His style is nimble and languid, using his 5ft 8in height to deceive defenders with quick turns and clever dribbles. Having fallen out of favour under Valeri Karpin at Spartak, Ananidze spent last season on loan at another Russian Premier League side, Rostov. The campaign was something of a revival for the Georgian, as he played most of the club’s matches and scored two goals on their way to winning the Russian Cup. Returning to Spartak, he remains on the fringes though under new Swiss head coach Murat Yakin, especially after the arrival of Dutch starlet Quincy Promes.
If Georgia are to be competitive in Group D, a rejuvenated Ananidze would need to play an integral part so his lack of first-team action at club level remains a concern. To his left, Ketsbaia has frequently favoured Tornike Okriashvili who this summer joined Belgian club Genk, now under the stewardship of former Scotland manager Alex McLeish. Okriashvili is a keen dribbler and a reluctant passer, a not uncommon combination among Georgian players. However, he has started brightly at his new club and scored a wonderful free-kick against Saudi Arabia in a summer friendly win for Georgia. At 22, his best years should still be in front of him having floundered somewhat in various loan spells in the Ukrainian league.
On the opposite flank, and with a head of red hair of which many an Irishman would be proud, Sandro Kobakhidze completes the attacking trio behind the central striker. He recently joined Ukraine’s Volyn Lutsk and, worryingly for Ketsbaia, appears to have fallen out of favour already. Kobakhidze started the club’s first three league matches but has since been left out and the 27-year old can count himself slightly fortunate to remain a mainstay in the national set up. His main threats are pace and long-range shooting with his finest moment for Georgia a fine consolation goal against France in 2013.
In front of this inconsistent trio will, most likely be Mchedlidze and the striker’s goal-scoring record for club and country will not have Irish defenders quivering. The Italy-based forward scored the first of his professional career for Georgia as a 17-year old in a 2-0 win over Scotland in 2007 – a result which severely damaged the Scots’ Euro 2008 ambitions. It was a sensational start and helped earn him a move to Italian side Palermo after which he joined recently promoted Empoli, where he is spending his fifth season. Playing in Italy’s second tier, Mchedlidze scored seven times in 91 appearances, a strike rate of one in 13. However, such is the dearth of Georgian strikers, the not-so-prolific Empoli man is almost certain to start ahead of Gelashvili who has failed to score in 19 appearances for his country.
“In truth, Ketsbaia’s gameplan has largely relied on defensive tactics as well as the occasionally heroic performances of goalkeeper Giorgi Loria.”
The stopper was released abruptly by Dinamo Tbilisi this summer, where he had been captain for a few seasons, as part of an incredible cull which followed their disappointing Champions League qualifying defeat to Kazakh side Aktobe. Loria eventually found a new home, at OFI Crete in the Greek Super League and he will need to reproduce the type of displays that helped Georgia to a 0-0 draw with France a year ago if Ketsbaia’s Euro 2016 mission is to be successful.
Among the public, there is precious little optimism but Georgia’s management and players have consistently claimed that they are capable of beating every team in the group except Germany. Vitesse Arnhem centre-back Guram Kashia, Georgia’s player of the year for the last two years, stated that four teams in the group (Ireland, Poland, Scotland and Georgia) were of the same level.
Talking specifically about the Irish match, Ketsbaia added: “Of course it will be a tough match but we play better football than they do.” The Georgian head coach’s assertion that his men would reach Euro 2016 was met with some laughter among gathered journalists. Perhaps Ketsbaia can have the last laugh. However, if Georgia are to reach a major finals for the first time as an independent nation, an opening game victory over the Irish looks imperative.
Anything less and the pessimism among Georgia’s fans could turn to complete indifference.
Images: Billy Galligan/amanwithhiscamera.com