Split by Politics and Protests, Georgia Lets Soccer Carry the Flag

Georgia’s road to its first game in the European soccer championship had been a long one, more than 30 years in the making. So when it finally arrived on Tuesday, no one wanted to miss out.

In Germany, that excitement was evident among the thousands of fans who filled the streets on a rain-soaked day in Dortmund and then flowed like a red-and-white river into the stadium. In Tbilisi, thousands more braved the heat to gather in the city’s parks and squares to watch their team play Turkey. More pressed into one of the main stadiums in the capital, where giant video screens had been erected.

And then there was the man on the scooter.

He had surprised Georgia’s national team at its German training base on Saturday, puttering to a stop after a 12-day journey that had covered more than 4,000 kilometers (about 2,500 miles). Ushered onto the field by team officials before a training session, the man spoke briefly to the players and then unzipped his large blue backpack to reveal its precious cargo: a huge Georgian flag covered with messages of support from well-wishers back home.

“People in Georgia only talk about the football and the achievement we accomplished, and this energy is crazy,” the Georgia captain, Guram Kashia, said on the eve of the match.

Georgia is the lowest-ranked team at Euro 2024, but that reality has done little to dim its pride. In more than three decades as an independent nation, it had never before qualified for a major international tournament.

Now that the moment has arrived, though, all of the positivity around the team contrasts sharply with a political crisis that has divided the country. That split broke into the open only days after the team qualified for the Euros in March, when the governing party began an effort to push a piece of legislation that has drawn strong opposition. The government presented the bill as an effort to make foreign funding of the country’s nongovernmental groups and media organizations more transparent. Opponents denounced it as a stealthy effort to convert Georgia into a pro-Russian state.

The turmoil that followed led to some of the biggest protests in the country’s history, and raised what was for many a vital national question: Should Georgia, a former Soviet republic, be looking to Russia for its future, or to Europe?

“It’s a very difficult feeling to explain,” said Andro Babuadze, 20, a student who arrived in Dortmund from Tbilisi on Tuesday morning. More than anything, he said, the event offered a stage for a small nation like Georgia to be seen. “It just feels like you’re being recognized because these are the elite countries of football in the world. Europe is a very united place. And this is what we are striving for as a country, too.”

Some analysts and lawmakers said that Georgia’s qualification to the Euros in March — a night that set off emotional celebrations across the country — created a convenient opportunity for the government to push the bill.

“They decided to seize the moment, thinking, if not now, then when?” said Armaz Akhvlediani, an independent lawmaker in the Georgian Parliament.

The unity did not last. As the tournament grew closer, so did the ferocity of the protests in Tbilisi and the crackdowns by government forces. It was, said Mr. Babuadze, “a bit scary and heartbreaking at the same time.”

The bill won final approval in May, but the fight it started appears far from over. More than 60 percent of Georgians are in favor of their country joining NATO and the European Union, according to polls. To them, Georgia’s debut at a major international soccer tournament serves as the most visible proof to date that their country is part of the Europe.

That exposure has also made it uncomfortable at times for the players as they have been unable to avoid being drawn into the fray. Some have offered full support to opponents of the government’s bill. Others have been criticized for not doing the same.

When the team’s biggest star, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, issued a neutral statement supporting neither side, he angered some of the opposition’s most strident activists. Other players have been more outspoken. One, forward Budu Zivzivadze, condemned the beatings of protesters and said in an interview with a local YouTube channel that “Russia is an enemy state not only for us, but for almost everyone.” He later asked the channel to remove that section from his interview but in May wrote on social media that he opposed “everything that takes Georgia to Russia.”

On the other side of the divide are prominent figures like Kakha Kaladze, one of the best players to come from Georgia and now the mayor of Tbilisi. He has defended the government and its decision to adopt the law.

The value of the team’s success as a political symbol is clear, though: Protesters have seized on the country’s qualification by making references to it on banners and placards displayed at demonstrations — events that also regularly feature songs that would more typically be heard inside soccer stadiums.

The intensity of feeling has shown no sign of abating. When tickets for Georgia’s three group games in Germany went on sale, they were snapped up in less than an hour. And on Tuesday, the in-person crowd in Dortmund was supplemented — in spirit at least — by another huge one back in Tbilisi, where fans packed a stadium equipped with six video screens. All were treated to a frenetic, end-to-end game that may go down as one of the best matches of the tournament.

For Georgians, the energy brought back fond memories of the night in March, when the country booked its place in the Euros. Inside the packed stadium that day, fans poured onto the field, embracing the players and one another. Some knelt on the grass. Others clambered onto the goal frame and wrapped it in national flags as red smoke billowed from one end of the stadium to the other.

“I almost passed out from happiness,” said Kashia, the Georgia captain.

David Mujiri, a former national team player who is now the secretary general of Georgia’s soccer federation, said in an interview this week that the night remains a blur of excruciating tension and indescribable joy. Mr. Babuadze, the fan, said it represented something more: his country’s chance to finally take its place in the spotlight alongside nations it aspires to see as equals.

But for him, Georgia’s qualification had also — albeit briefly — brought together a fractured nation. “This is the closest we’ve been to unity in a very long time,” Mr. Babuadze said. “Everyone had this common thing that they were happy about.”

Whether the team’s performances in Germany can restore some of that feeling, and whether taking part in the Euros can make Georgia feel more like part of Europe, remains to be seen.

But its first victory will have to wait: While Georgia’s first game produced the country’s first goal at the Euros, erasing an early deficit, Turkey responded with two more to crush the newcomer’s dreams of an upset.

Still, for the Georgian masses, the 3-1 defeat did not matter. They communed with their team at the final whistle, cheering the players as they trudged over to acknowledge more than two hours of unrelenting support. For one night, just taking part was what counted most.

Myriam Grigalashvili contributed reporting from Tbilisi, Georgia.

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