Irish supporters never made it to Tbilisi when the Republic faced Georgia under Giovanni Trapatonni. Political instability moved the World Cup qualifier to Mainz, Germany. Last weekend, as the green jerseys touched down beneath the Caucuses Mountains, Tbilisi-based Mory Cunningham wondered if it was just another away match location or if the fans felt further East in this still emerging nation of stark contrasts?
I jolt awake as my plane touches down at Tbilisi International airport at 4 am, almost 12 hours after we left Dublin where I just spent one week at home. As I attempt to pull my exceedingly overweight carry-on bag down from the overhead bins, (it has been stuffed full of Mature Irish Cheddar, crumbed ham, sausages and black pudding) a young man helps me and says, “There you go”.
“Thanks a million”, I say.
“Are you Georgian?” he asks me in a definitively Dublin accent.
“No, I’m Irish” I say.
“Are you Irish?” I ask.
“No, I’m Georgian” he replies with a smile, “I’m just back for the match”. “I live in Dublin”. “Are you here for the match?” he asks.
“No, I live here” I say, “but, I’ll also go to the match”.
We part, smiling at our mirrored lives.
About a year ago, if you asked me, do you know Georgia, the country, not the State (as always has to be prefaced) I would vaguely have alluded to knowing about their not-so-bad-at-all-rugby team, having seen them play in Lansdowne road in 2007. They gave Ireland an unexpected challenge in what was supposed to be an Irish thrashing, and the country stuck in my mind despite my confusion as to why they played rugby. Wasn’t that a small country that used to belong to Russia? Eight years on and having lived in Tbilisi for a year, I know a little more, but only this weekend discovered why they play rugby.
At first glance, Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is not unlike most European cities. A closer look reveals it to be a little more rustic and with a skyline dotted not with Gothic churches or new skyscrapers but with massive, Soviet-era apartment blocks that are so jam-packed with clothes lines and satellite dishes that they look partially exploded.
“Nestled beneath the mighty Caucuses Mountains, Georgia is a breathtaking country, with so much natural beauty that the Rough Guide named it amongst the top five countries in the world to visit this year. That’s no small feat considering the country was defined as a ‘failed state’ only ten years ago.”
Since emerging as an independent state in 1991 from the crumbling Soviet Union, Georgia has suffered through considerably high levels of poverty, conflict and soaring crime rates. Remarkably it is now considered one of the safest countries in the world to live in.
That said it is still quite visibly a country of complete contrasts. Under former President Saakasvili Georgia enjoyed rapid progress, tackling rampant corruption, unreliable basic services and crime. And while you can shop in Mango, Zara and Burberry and drink skinny mochachinos in the numerous trendy cafes along the leafy streets, once you step outside the city, a stark and impoverished reality emerges. Agricultural practices are from a quaint but long-gone era and unemployment levels for the entire country are estimated at 15%. The country’s roads are an ongoing battle and reminiscent of parts of rural Africa, making trips from the capital to almost anywhere else within the country long and arduous.
The day before the match I take a walk around the Vera neighbourhood, one of the prettiest areas in Tbilisi with steep, cobbled streets through leaning ancient houses with creaking balconies. I catch a glimpse of green out of the corner of my eye. I look around and see groups of people wearing Irish football jerseys. There are a lot of them. I wonder what they make of Georgia. Is it just another away match location? Or do they feel they are further East than before? A few look as though they may have sampled the local wine the previous night; a formidable task. Almost every Georgian drinks homemade wine and Cha Cha, a drink similar to Grappa. Some taste great, others not so. All are strong. I go over to three young guys and ask them do they like Georgia. “Lovely place”, they respond, “great weather”.
“How do you think Ireland will do tomorrow?” I ask.
“It will be difficult, but they will win”, a guy with the Irish flag hung like a cape around his shoulders responds.
“Are you on the way to the match now”, I ask pointing at the flag.
They laugh and say no, they are on the way to Hangar, an Irish pub they heard about.
“Do you know how to get there?” they ask.
I tell them hop in a taxi and tell the driver to take you to the Pope’s Residence. All taxi drivers know it and from there it’s a short walk. The majority religion in Georgia is Georgian Orthodox and the head of that is called the Pope. He lives in a very impressive walled palace in the centre of the old city.
Soon after, I bump into a Georgian friend. He nods towards the Irish supporters and says they will win tomorrow.
“Are you sure?” I ask
“Yes, he says”. “Football isn’t Georgia’s game. Rugby and basketball are”. He puts his hand into a fist, pumping it a couple of times to emphasise the country’s strength here.
“Why does Georgia play rugby?” I ask
“Because we are good”, he replies.
“No, but why does this country, very far from Rugby in England, play Rugby?” I say.
He doesn’t answer.
It’s a hot day with highs of 32 degrees and it’s not going to drop below 22 at night. I text my brother, whose knowledge of and love for football stems significantly beyond my Packie Bonner-era following of the game.
“How do you think the match will pan out tonight?” I write.
“It’ll be tough” he says.” I think it will be a draw”
“Are we that bad?” I respond. “Football isn’t even Georgia’s game”, I repeat, thinking it will impress him.
“They have a half decent team”, he replies confidently.
At 7:30pm my fellow match-goers and I, wearing green, hop in a taxi. The driver immediately says “Ireland win. Georgia no win”. “Georgia Rugby” he says and pumps his fist in the air. A common understanding as to their country’s strengths in football is evident.
He drops us off and there is a chaotic buzz as we walk between cars, police and people. When we get to Dinamo Stadium we can’t figure out where we’re supposed to sit. We ask an official, showing him our tickets. He doesn’t look at the tickets and just points to the right. We head right for a while and ask someone else. He again doesn’t look at our tickets and points right. This happens about five times until we reach the interior of the massive stadium and see why. Amidst an entire stadium of red and white supporters is a tiny sea of green surrounded by riot police. We are shoved into this section and immersed in delighted Irish fans. There are no more than 500 of us.
“Just sit wherever you can” a lady from Tipperary shouts over the noise at us. “They won’t let us find our seats”, she says rolling her eyes towards the stern looking riot police, as though she was trapped in Titanic’s steerage.
The game soon kicks off and the Irish fans explode becoming the most audible in the stadium. The game to start out is disjointed. Just as the mood flattens McGeady scores and the Irish block erupts. The riot police immediately stand and slam their shields to the ground forming what can only be described as a Spartan 360 degree tactical defense around the Irish fan’s block.
“My god, we might be attacked”, I say to a friend
“They’re not worried about the Georgians attacking us,” he responds, “They’re worried about us causing trouble.”
At half-time it’s a disappointing 1 all after a spectacular goal from Georgia’s Okriashvili who is so far the most impressive player on the field.
The second half kicks off and Ireland miss a few chances on goal and the Georgians look threatening at times. By the 90th minute it looks like it’s going to be a draw and just as I nod thinking my brother is always right, McGeady does it again and smacks one in the back of the Georgian net. Phew! Ireland wins, the fans are wild, the riot police look very nervous as they re-assume their Spartan defense shield. The stadium empties of Georgian supporters but the Irish need to wait 15 minutes before they can leave. Probably best.
We finally are allowed to leave and as we head towards the sure-to-be-packed-Hangar pub, I call a Georgian friend of mine who I know used to play rugby.
“Congratulations” he says upon answering.
“Thanks”, I say, “it was close”.
“I have a question”, I say. “Why does Georgia play rugby?”
“Because we’re no good at football”, he says laughing.
“Really, why does this country play this British sport”, I ask again.
“It’s not a British sport”, he responds. “Rugby is the same as the traditional Georgian game Lelo. We played Lelo before Rugby played rugby”, he says.
“Oh right”, I say, my long-standing confusion put to rest. I walk on, once again surprised by this little country of Georgia that is not nearly as big as Georgia the State.
Mory Cunningham has written internationally for the past 8 years and currently lives and works in Tbilisi.