Football: Chivadze puts faith in proud tradition

Georgia play England next Saturday in their first home match in World Cup history. Hugh Pope visits Tbilisi and meets the men who could cause a commotion in the Caucasus
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The Independent Online
A lot of things will be happening for the first time when England play their World Cup qualifier against Georgia here in Tbilisi on 9 November. And nobody is more aware of that than the Georgian trainer and local football legend, Alexander Chivadze.

As the day of the big match rapidly approached, Chivadze was still just settling into his first office as the first manager of the first Georgian national football squad, preparing for their first match ever against England.

The sharp-eyed Georgian trainer is a man of few words. He has even fewer illusions about the chances of his team from the five-year-old republic against the world-famous names of English football.

"I don't know who will win. Before the game, both sides have the same chance," Chivadze said. "In football you have only one rule: stop them scoring against you, and getting your side to score."

Georgia looked good in an unlucky 1-0 defeat to Italy in Rome in their first qualifying match last month. Wales have good reason to remember their trip to Georgia two years ago for a Euro 96 qualifier: they lost 5-0. Players like Georgi Kinkladze at Manchester City have made a name for themselves abroad. And when Chivadze heard that his rival, Glenn Hoddle, was a born-again Christian, he felt on home ground at last.

"He may be Christian, but we have been Christian for longer. Since the fourth century, you know," he said, proudly digging out a big gold crucifix on a necklace from the thick carpet of hair under his shirt.

Georgia may be a young republic, but it is proud of preserving its customs in the Caucasus mountains between Russia, Turkey and Iran. One of those traditions, more recent and little realised in England, perhaps, is that Georgians are surprisingly good at football.

Chivadze should know. He is 41 years old now, but he still has the moustache that marked out his hawk-like face when won 52 caps for the Soviet Union. He captained the side for five years, during which tiny Georgia supplied up to six players to a team that drew its men from all over the Soviet realm.

"They called me the `General of the Russian Defence' when the Soviet Union beat England 2-0 in Wembley in 1984," Chivadze said. "But until now we have only played as clubs. This is the first time we will be playing against the English national team."

During Soviet times, Georgian national pride had to make do with victories by their premier club, Dynamo Tbilisi, which served as a virtual national team during the Soviet era. In European competition, they beat Liverpool 4-2 on aggregate in 1979 and West Ham, after a fabulous 4-1 win at Upton Park, by the same margin in 1981.

Those days were lovingly recalled by Chivadze's close friend and trainer of the Georgian Under-21 side, Vladimir Gutsayev, a star midfielder and forward for Dynamo Tbilisi, who was also capped 22 times for the Soviet side. "They were good Soviet teams, but we were better," Gutsayev said.

Dynamo Tbilisi can still fill the great stadium in the capital. They showed all sides of their form at a big match in September for the Commonwealth of Independent States - the former Soviet Union - Cup, defeating Torpedo Moscow on aggregate during a home-leg match that showed typically Georgian style.

Flashes of fast-running brilliance left the Russian side standing. The referee's decisions were disputed with shouted displays of a fiery temperament special to the Caucasus mountains. There were also moments of lassitude when it seemed like some players were taking time out from an amateur game - a trait that could pose great dangers when they come up disciplined international sides like England.

Nothing on the well-prepared pitch, however, could compare to the explosive antics of Dynamo Tbilisi's manager. Roaring like a lion, he would charge off his bench to stomp along the sidelines and urge his team on. A polite Uefa official was impatiently brushed aside and ended up looking like an embarrassed dog owner unable to restrain his Great Dane.

The Georgian fans, by contrast, are a remarkably well-behaved lot. Considering the wild reputation of the Caucasus mountains, there is little sound of drunkenness or rowdiness in the large crowds, even after dark in a city that is regularly without electricity.

More poignant are the impromptu brass bands. These are not the marching bands of the European continent, but are more like a jazz group in a jamming session. During the Torpedo Moscow match, one lone Georgian trumpeter kept his team company with a series of melancholy solos.

The stadium itself is showing its age: one section last month entirely lacked seats and consisted only of menacing-looking welded metal pieces jutting out of the concrete. In theory it should only hold some 74,000 people, but Chivadze says it has been known to pack in crowds of 100,000.

Any visitors will find Georgia is a pretty friendly and, in some ways, a familiar place. There is even a British micro-brewery, pub and beer garden in the main street of Tbilisi. Here its 29-year-old British co- proprietor, Nick Carratu, brews up a potent version of a Camra-award winning beer, originally called Blunderbuss but reborn in Georgia as 75p-a-pint, 5.5 per cent Black Panther.

With such a welcome, the only friction with some 300 and 700 English fans expected in Georgia is likely to be the fact that, in addition to their black, red and white national flag, the Georgians sometimes also wave the same white-and-red banner used by England supporters - the flag of St George.

If the stadium is a monument to crumbling Soviet giganticism, the building newly assigned to Chivadze and the Georgian football federation a few hundred yards away is a reminder of Georgia's rich and troubled history. When I visited, the view included teenagers lying drunk on the little patch of grass and pavement in front of the three-story building's crumbling facade.

The house of a grand Georgian merchant in Tsarist times, the Soviet Union turned the building into a school before independent Georgia assigned it to the federation. The stairs are still chipped, the paint is cracked and the fluorescent lightbulbs are bare.

Cardboard is piled up in all the corners as the federation starts to furnish the place for a national organising body and a team that has only been in existence since Chivadze was chosen to form it in 1993.

Up in his wood-panelled room, Chivadze has so far only managed to put in the managers' essentials: a magnetic board to sort out the moves with his players, a huge television screen in the corner to keep an eye on the big matches on Eurosport - and perhaps something even more important for his morale: a grainy black-and-white print that caught a moment back in the 1960s when three Georgian players, all Soviet football heroes, embraced Pele on the pitch in Moscow.

In a living link with a deeper Georgian past, the office heating is from a beautiful but chipped 19th century tiled stove that is on a preservation list kept by the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

If the building has seen hard times, so has Georgian football. A pampered sport in the Soviet era, it barely survived as Georgia collapsed in post- Soviet struggles. Civil war broke out in 1991 and raged until 1993. The president, Eduard Shevardnadze, the last foreign minister of the Soviet Union, only managed to drive paramilitary gunmen off the streets of the capital in 1995.

Youngsters only have cracked tarmac parts of their bleak housing estates to learn the sport. Sometimes the players do not even have hot water after their games.Dynamo Tbilisi does not even have a sponsor's name to sew on their shirts. The national squad does not have its own training pitch, and it is only thanks to a gift from Renault that they have a bus for the team.

Hardly surprisingly, Georgia's best players have been snapped up abroad: Shota and Arvil Arveladze by Trabzonspor in Turkey, Temur Ketsbaia by AEK Athens in Greece, and Kinkladze, Mikhail Kavelashvili and soon, perhaps, Kakhi Tskhadadze at Manchester City.

Typically, Chivadze would not be drawn on the problems that his team was likely to encounter against England. The English goalkeeper was obviously highly qualified, he said. The defenders were stable. The midfield was always dangerous. And the English strikers were good. As for Hoddle, Chivadze acknowledged that his opposite number was a very great player.

"He was a technical player, not a usual English player. I am sure his team will play good football. I have to say it is one of the best and strongest teams in Europe," he admitted.

GEORGIA: THE HARD STRUGGLE TO ESCAPE OBSCURITY

Population: 5.6m.

Registered football clubs: 1,238.

Registered football players: 106,427.

Official internationals played: 21 (W9, L12, goals for 24, against 31).

First international played: 0-1 v Slovenia (Valletta, Malta, friendly, Feb 94).

First international win: 1-0 v Malta (Valletta, friendly, Feb 94).

Biggest international win: 5-0 v Wales (Tbilisi, European Championship, Nov 94).

Biggest international defeat: 0-5 v Romania (Bucharest, friendly, April 96).

National stadium: Boris Paichadze stadium, Tbilisi (capacity 74,324, all seated).

Last World Cup match in Tbilisi: Soviet Union 3 Wales 0 (Nov 81).

Georgia was the first of the former Soviet republics to break away and form an independent football league. The first national championship was held in 1990. Dynamo Tbilisi won the title that year and have done so every year since. They have also won the Georgian Cup in each of the past five seasons.

Georgia boasted European football's top league goalscorer last season when Zviad Endeladze of runners-up Margveti Zestafoni scored 40 goals in 30 league appearances. Endeladze has not yet been capped by his country.

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