Euro 2024 will be the first European Championship to feature both former Soviet states Georgia and Ukraine as independent nations, but Russia casts a long shadow over their respective participations.

It’s 33 years since the breakup of the Soviet Union. That’s how long it’s taken for the two former Soviet republics with the greatest football pedigree – bar Russia – to qualify for the same European Championship as independent nations.

In fact, Euro 2024 will be the first European Championship post-USSR breakup to feature two former Soviet nations with neither being Russia, as Ukraine and tournament debutants Georgia head to Germany. But Russia still casts a long shadow over Euro 2024.

Once considered major contributors to the Soviet national team and the Soviet Top League’s high regard in Europe, Ukraine compete in Euro 2024 while their home country attempts to fight off a Russian invasion that began in February 2022.

And Georgia – defeated by Russia and the Russian-backed separatists of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War – go to Germany amid social unrest relating to the passing of a controversial bill that many fear is an early sign of re-Russification.

Russia, of course, were suspended from all international football activity indefinitely in February 2022 as a result of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and their continued sporting absences will likely receive even greater focus this summer in the context of two nations whose borders they’ve compromised in the past 16 years competing in a major event Russia are barred from.

Ukraine will no doubt receive words and gestures of solidarity from far and wide throughout the tournament as their players feature on the biggest stage almost in an act of open defiance against the Russian invaders – it’s a situation that puts their position into perspective but is, sadly, one many of them have had to get used to over the past couple of years, aware their performances on the pitch could impact morale in a literal warzone back home.

Ukraine players sing their national anthem while draped in the country's flag
Ukraine players sing their national anthem while draped in the country’s flag (Getty Images)

The context around Georgia is rather different but their players have still taken on the responsibility of using their platform to speak out over the past couple of months regarding a controversial bill – one likened to Russian legislation – that’s just been pushed through parliament.

Dubbed by critics as the “Russian law”, Georgia’s ruling party – the Georgian Dream – want organisations who receive over 20% of funding from abroad to register and label themselves as “foreign agents” or be hit with hefty fines.

Prime minister, Irakli Kobakhidze, insisted it simply prioritises “transparency”, but opposition have compared it to a Russian law introduced in 2012 that attempted to stamp out dissent and subdue the influence of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and media outlets.

The fear for many is this legislation leads to rights organisations, environmental groups, journalists, LGBTQ support services and more being driven out of the country, while regular people and businesses with even modest foreign ties could be impacted.

Furthermore, the bill has left Georgia’s EU candidacy – which was confirmed last December – in tatters. Georgian president Salome Zourabichvili vetoed the law that she labelled “non-Georgian, non-European and non-democratic”, and for a few weeks that appeared to end the debate until the parliament managed to override her veto in late May to leave the EU despondent and the United States threatening sanctions.

Protestors in Tbilisi wave a pole adorned with the flags of Georgia Ukraine and the EU
Protestors in Tbilisi wave a pole adorned with the flags of Georgia, Ukraine and the EU (Getty Images)

Thousands of Georgians have protested in the capital of Tbilisi, and while Russia hasn’t officially interfered, parliamentary critics feel the course of events has positioned the country ideologically closer to Moscow and away from the West.

That opinion was also evident in the various statements issued by prominent Georgian footballers, who effectively became national heroes after securing Euro 2024 qualification in March.

Star player Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who used to play in Russia for Rubin Kazan, said in a statement on Facebook in March that “we deserve to be a part of Europe and nothing should prevent us from doing so.”

Budu Zivzivadze wrote that the country was “obliged to say no to Russia and no to everything that will push Georgia towards Russia. Georgia’s road is to Europe.” Giorgi Chakvetadze said, “Reject Russia, full force to Europe” on his Instagram story; and former captain Jaba Kankava – who’s opted to attend the tournament as a fan rather than a player – rather succinctly put: “F*** Russia”.

It remains to be seen whether this leads to any in-tournament or on-pitch political statements from the players, but considering the philosophical link between Georgia’s Euros qualification and EU candidacy status, it’s hardly beyond the realm of possibility.

The situation is made even more complicated, however, by the fact the president of the Georgian Football Federation, former captain Levan Kobiashvili, is one of the 84 MPs who voted in favour of the bill.

The skipper before him, one-time AC Milan defender Kakha Kaladze, now acts as mayor of Tbilisi and secretary general of the Georgian Dream – he too has spoken in favour of the legislation.

Levan Kobiashvili (#10) and Kakha Kaladze (#4) played alongside each other for Georgia
Levan Kobiashvili (#10) and Kakha Kaladze (#4) played alongside each other for Georgia (Getty Images)

Either way, the current players’ desire to show Georgia in a positive light and do their country proud will surely be fiercer than ever, and it adds another layer of intrigue to the tournament debutants’ already fascinating backstory.

Georgia’s national team might not evoke thoughts of great tradition or iconic moments in the mind of the average non-Georgian fan, but for a time, there was a mystique that enveloped aspects of the game in the region.

Before becoming an independent nation in 1991, Georgia were one of the 15 national republics – along with Ukraine – that formed the Soviet Union and therefore competed under its banner. And yet, despite being among the smaller states in the union, it enjoyed considerable prominence in the national team for its size and saw Dinamo Tbilisi establish themselves as one of the most recognisable teams in Eastern Europe.

While Dynamo Kyiv, of the far bigger Ukraine, were the most successful club of the Soviet era, Dinamo Tbilisi were impressively competitive. They were the first team beyond Moscow/Kyiv to win the Soviet Top League in 1964, recorded the fourth-most top-three Top League finishes (20, more even than CSKA Moscow (17) and Torpedo Moscow (12)), and were one of only two Soviet sides – the other being Dynamo Kyiv – to win a major European title with their 1980-81 Cup Winners’ Cup success.

Dinamo Tbilisi celebrate against West Ham
Dinamo Tbilisi celebrate against West Ham during a 4-1 win en route to their 1981 Cup Winners’ Cup success (Getty Images)

It’s fair to say they were overachievers in many ways. After all, the population of ethnic Georgians in the USSR only ever went as high as four million pre-independence, meaning they never accounted for more than 1.4% of the whole Soviet Union according to Demo Scope. In the national team, however, Georgians – Dinamo Tbilisi players, essentially – frequently made up a far greater proportion.

The Soviet Union squad included three Dinamo Tbilisi players at the 1962 and 1966 World Cups; four made it to the 1982 tournament, while five – the same number as Dynamo Kyiv and more than any Moscow club – went to the 1970 World Cup.

A core principle of the Soviet Union was the idea it was a multi-ethnic fraternity across its 15 republics, and the national team should, theoretically, have embodied that.

Generally, though, the squads were stacked with players who represented the Moscow teams – the vast majority of whom were Russians – and Dynamo Kyiv. And then there were the Georgians.

For decades within the Soviet Union, there was a certain exotic appeal attached to Georgian football and Dinamo Tbilisi, who were effectively a de facto national team for the republic of Georgia. While there were many capable footballers and teams produced by Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and even Azerbaijan, in Georgia there was a notable stylistic nuance that was rarely associated with the other Soviet republics.

Erik R. Scott, a professor at Kansas University, wrote about what made the Georgians different in his essay Soccer Artistry and the Secret Police: Georgian Football in the Multiethnic Soviet Empire, which was published in Robert Edelman and Christopher Young’s 2019 book The Whole World Was Watching: Sport in the Cold War.  

A key element of this essay was the comparison between Georgian football and that of South American sides, historically regarded as purveyors of pretty, eye-catching – silky, even – football. Georgians were seen as technical players who brought subtlety, imagination, expression and even beauty to the game. Fittingly, then, even the late great Pele has a link to this part of the world.

“To this day, Pele does not know he has a Georgian godfather,” Georgian film director Mikheil Chiaureli Jr. said in 2018 regarding his 1991 movie titled I, Pele’s Godfather! – the Brazil legend even appeared briefly in the flick, which told the story of a struggling Soviet office worker who would imagine himself on the other side of the world in Brazil, where he helped and befriended Pele’s father, Dondinho, to the extent the character was named the youngster’s godfather.

To get around having to pay $100,000 for an adult Pele to appear in the film, Chiaureli told Georgian magazine Kviris Palitra they had to pretend they were shooting “family photos” when meeting him in Milan at the star’s 50th birthday party, with the lead actor claiming to have known Pele’s father.

The stylistic similarities between Soviet-era Georgian football and that of South America go a little deeper than a rather abstract anecdote, though. At the centre of the comparison explored in Erik R. Scott’s essay is dance.

Football and dance have long been closely associated – at least from a cultural perspective in countries where both are traditionally important. And while much of the wider world might be a little more initiated on the tango, for example, Georgia has its own vast history with such artistic expression, with numerous varieties of folk dances dating back to the Middle Ages that still carry relevance in the 21st century.

Tbilisi, 26 March 2024; Georgia have just beaten Greece on penalties after a 0-0 draw in their Euro 2024 qualification play-off, securing their spot at the final tournament in Germany. Wild celebrations have begun in the Georgian capital, while in the changing rooms of the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena, Georgia’s players are enjoying their own party, the politics of outside world briefly shoved to the back of minds.

Georgia players celebrate Euro 2024 qualification
Georgia players celebrate Euro 2024 qualification (Getty Images)

Kvaratskhelia, who had to be taken off due to injury in extra-time, is up on his feet while most of the squad forms a large circle. He stomps and shuffles each foot in turn with precise deliberation, his right elbow extended out away to the side of his body while his fist tucks in towards his chest. The left arm is stretched out to the other side and then he bows as Chakvetadze enters the circle performing his own dance.

Giorgi Gocholeishvili then throws himself into the ring, elaborately outdoing both of his colleagues with a jig aesthetically similar to flamenco of Andalusian Spain.

Of course, in a grander sense (as in, beyond the walls of that dressing room), this was a kind of celebration simply not experienced before in an independent Georgia. It was the first time the men’s side had qualified for a major international tournament and they’ll be the only debut nation competing in Germany this summer.

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia celebrates with fans after Georgia qualified for Euro 2024
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia celebrates with fans after Georgia qualified for Euro 2024 (Getty Images)

The Nations League has been something of a gamechanger for them. After going close to reaching Euro 1996, Georgia have never finished higher than fourth in qualifying and both fourth-place finishes came in groups of five. But after their Nations League performances took them to an ultimately unsuccessful play-off ahead of Euro 2020, they went one better this time around, beating Luxembourg and then just about seeing off Greece on penalties.

That date, 26 March, won’t be forgotten anytime soon by Georgians, but the feel-good factor didn’t last long for many. While Ukraine’s trials and tribulations might be more pronounced and globally recognised, both they and Georgia are every inch countries yearning for something positive to celebrate.

Sometimes, football just means that bit more to certain people.

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