Georgia mayhem shocks hard men from Belfast: Tbilisi gives soccer and violence a new perspective. Andrew Higgins reports

GEORGE HOY, 22-year-old meat factory worker and dedicated fan of Belfast's Linfield Football Club, closed his eyes, fingered his woollen supporter's scarf - a bit out of place in the balmy summer heat of the Caucasus - and mumbled a brief prayer. 'It's my little ritual before each game,' he said.

It takes a peculiar Irish protestant tenacity to pray for victory 2,200 miles from home, in a stadium filled with more than 50,000 people, many of them armed and all of them cheering for the other side, at the heart of a city so ravaged by violence that Belfast seems a haven of communal harmony.

'It's my first trip abroad,' confided George, ginger-haired, mild-mannered and a tribute to the friendlier traditions of football fanaticism. 'It's definitely the worst trip so far.' He had spent pounds 650 to watch his team play in a European Cup preliminary round match against Dinamo Tbilisi, but could not wait to get home.

The game started at exactly eight o'clock - the rare triumph of punctuality due in part to the efforts of the Turkish referee who, along with three jittery linesmen, had flown in via Moscow the day before and were all eager to get out as soon as possible.

Everyone was jumpy. It was just over a week since an American CIA agent, Fred Woodruff, had been shot dead on a country road outside Tbilisi. He died from a single bullet to the head. On the eve of the big game, masked bandits held up the secretary of the German embassy, Marita Rademacker, in the west of Georgia. They stole an Audi Quatro and money but, for once, resisted the temptation to take another life. Turkey might have its Kurdish guerrillas and Belfast its bombings, but Georgia has the near absolute lawlessness of a country where the state has not so much withered away, as Marx predicted it would, but been hacked away by a plethora of ethnic warlords, gun-crazed bandits and paramilitary bands with romantic names, like the Mkhendrioni (Horsemen), but with murderous habits.

The Belfast side had only a handful of fans. There was the American ambassador's wife - of Irish Catholic descent, but far enough back to blur sectarian passions. Then there was Billy Rea, a 66-year-old storeman from County Down and avid Linfield supporter since 1942. What worried him was not the gunfire at night outside the hotel but the opposition's right winger: 'They are dangerous, particularly that man on the right. They are the better side, no doubt about it.'

By the standards of international football, Wednesday's match was a modest encounter: Linfield FC, a mostly amateur side from south Belfast, versus Dinamo Tbilisi, heirs to one of the great names of Soviet soccer, but like almost everything else in Georgia, cursed by failure and infighting since the former Soviet republic declared itself independent in April 1991, pulled out of the Soviet football league, elected a paranoid nationalist, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, as president and then ousted him as the country slipped into civil war.

'I love football but this was not just a football game,' declared President Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who presided over the peaceful dismantling of the Soviet empire only to watch his own country tear itself apart in the 17 months since he returned to Tbilisi. 'This game was the first sign of the reconstruction of Georgia.' The game, held as a fragile ceasefire continued on the Black sea region of Abkhazia, produced several small miracles. No one got shot. It was held after dark - unlike concerts at the philharmonic which have all been moved to the afternoon to allow the audience time to get home before nightfall. For once, Georgia won. The final score: 2-1.

It also provided the venue for a possibly historic act of diplomatic symbolism. Nearly every diplomat in Georgia turned up at the VIP box to watch Dinamo play a Belfast team none had ever heard of. At half-time, Mr Shevardnadze, watching the game from an adjacent enclosure, summoned the American and German ambassadors to join him for the second half. The Russian envoy was not included.

Mr Shevardnadze, in an interview with The Independent on Sunday, explained: 'I invited two of them to sit with me, one on my right, one on my left. Each one said they would be responsible for one goal each. The Russian ambassador made no such promise to me, so he was not invited.' The same terms also hold in areas more important than soccer.

Mr Shevardnadze, while far less hostile towards Moscow than his predecessor, Mr Gamsakhurdia, or many members of parliament, has embarked on a pro-Western course that goes beyond economic aid, to embrace military and security co-operation, Washington has sent special forces to help train Mr Shevardnadze's bodyguards and dozens of Georgians are currently in the US for security training. Moscow is worried. So, too, is the man who lost his seat at Mr Shevardnadze's side for the second half of the match. He was forced to make way for the American ambassador and his wife, who added insult to injury by cheering for the Irish. He is Jaba Ioseliania, the leader of the Horsemen paramilitary group, who helped Mr Shevardnadze to power but has been squeezed from the inner circle in recent weeks.

Even a Belfast football fan, hardly a sheltered innocent, is taken aback to find a poster in English at the hotel entrance reading: 'For the comfort and safety of all guests kindly deposit all firearms with security. Thank You.' For those unable to read there is a sign showing a pistol with red line through it. And for those who know Georgian there is a supplementary message: 'No military fatigues allowed in the lobby'.

It was here, in the Metechi Palace Hotel, a wondrous pounds 50m Austro-Georgian folly of optimism that opened in May 1991, that the Linfield FC entourage spent most of the three days before the match, advised by the Foreign Office not to venture into the street without an escort and marvelling that a four-star luxury hotel could somehow co-exist with the madness outside. There is even a piano player in the polished marble lobby playing 'Feelings' as glass elevators woosh between the swimming pool and sauna in the basement and empty but still spotless floors. There was one coach trip for sightseeing, hardly enough for what was once one of the world's most elegant and enchanting cities. Several buildings in the centre are still in ruins from the fighting that ousted Mr Gamsakhurdia in January last year.

The Linfield party were in a hurry to go home. 'This place is a nightmare,' offered Garry Peebles, a Scottish recruit to the Irish League. Even Steve Millard, tour organiser and veteran of trips behind the Iron Curtain since 1965, when he went to Hungary for a motor-cycle championship, was alarmed. 'It is the worst place I've ever seen.' Only one person disagreed, a retired Linfield FC officer. No, he said, Tirana in Albania was far worse than Tbilisi: 'We were there in the early Eighties. It was really awful.' His name? 'If you don't mind, I don't want my name in print. We have a bit of a security problem back home in Belfast, too.'

(Photographs omitted)

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