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27 March 2024

Making History: Georgia's Journey to Euro 2024

There are few historic moments in Georgian football, and 26 March will be remembered as one, as Georgia will participate in the European Championship for the first time after defeating Greece 4:2 at Boris Paichadze Dinamo Stadium, Tbilisi.

Georgian Football Fan

Image: Ministry of Culture, Sport and Youth of Georgia/Fb

What's Happening with Football in Georgia?

Several years ago, a friend from Ukraine visited Georgia. While strolling the streets and observing people donning shirts from various clubs, he asked, "What's happening with football in Georgia? Why are you so into this sport? You've never had much success." I had a simple answer then. Growing up in a country that gained independence from the USSR amidst conflicts and civil war, with no gas or electricity, sports—especially football—served as a transcendental escape from our ongoing problems and sorrow. Of course, there's more to it than that. During the Soviet era, football, particularly at Dinamo Stadium, provided a rare opportunity for freedom. Dinamo Tbilisi was considered Georgia's national team, where fans could express anti-Russian sentiments openly during matches against Russian clubs. The pinnacle of Georgian football was winning the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1981. 13 May has since become a national holiday honouring Dinamo Tbilisi's legendary tournament run. Following this success, Georgian football entered a downward spiral despite individual achievements in European clubs, notably by Kakha Kaladze (currently Mayor of Tbilisi), who won two Champions League titles with Milan in the mid-2000s. Interest in the national team waned, with stadiums only filling up for matches against big teams like Italy, France, and Spain, offering a glimpse of world football stars on the field. Each qualification round was met with optimism, which dwindled after the first few matches as the team struggled to meet fans' expectations. The closest Georgia came to qualifying for a major tournament was in 2020 when they failed to defeat North Macedonia at the crowdless Boris Paichadze Dinamo Stadium due to the pandemic. 

Road to Euro 2024

Since the introduction of the UEFA Nations League, there have been two paths to participating in the UEFA European Football Championship: through the group stage or by winning spots allocated to the Nations League group winners. With the announcement of this tournament, optimism among Georgians surged. Many joked that UEFA developed the tournament specifically for Georgia, and it's fair to say the team performed admirably, starting in the lowest Group D, and scoring the tournament’s first goal through Giorgi Chakvetadze. After winning Group D but failing to secure victory against North Macedonia, Georgia was promoted to Group C among stronger teams. At this point, young players such as Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Giorgi Mamardashvili had emerged as rising stars not only in Georgian football but also worldwide. Their skillsets propelled Georgia to a successful run, earning them a spot in the qualifying semi-final. Luck favoured Georgia, with Tbilisi chosen to host both the semi-final and final. Winning these matches became a national imperative, uniting the country around a single goal: Georgia must play in Euro 2024. Unity in Georgia is rare, given polarization in every aspect of life—be it politics, values, music, or even sport—but the desire to participate in this tournament outweighed personal opinions; it was the "general will" of the nation. On 21 March, the Georgian football team easily defeated Luxembourg in front of 55,000 fans. Although most didn’t consider this match risky, facing the Greek national team posed a greater challenge. Head-to-head statistics revealed Georgia's disadvantage: losing seven out of nine matches and drawing two, never winning. The game was tense, with Greece controlling the ball and pressing Georgia, but there were no real threats to the goalkeepers, leading to extra time and, ultimately, a penalty shootout—the first in the history of independent Georgia. However, the new generation of footballers proved resilient, winning the shootout, and qualifying for Euro 2024 for the first time in history. Fans stormed the pitch, celebrating with the footballers in a scene of overwhelming joy. Tens of thousands of Georgians celebrated the victory on Republic Square, Tbilisi, at a specially prepared venue, where footballers joined fans soon after leaving the stadium.

What's Next?

Euro 2024 will kick off on 14 June in Germany, with the host playing against Scotland. Georgia is in Group F, with the first match against Türkiye on 18 June. Four days later, Georgia will face the Czech Republic, followed by a match against group favourites Portugal on 26 June. While it's unlikely that Georgia will progress to the next round, this team has the potential to create miracles.

This historic victory has already transformed the day, with people flooding the streets and congratulating each other with beaming smiles and jubilant cheers. Beyond the immediate celebration, this triumph holds profound significance for the nation. It serves as a beacon of hope and unity, transcending political divides and personal differences. In a country often marked by polarization, this achievement unites Georgians under a common banner, reaffirming their collective identity and pride. It's a reminder that, despite challenges and setbacks, perseverance and determination can lead to extraordinary accomplishments, both on and off the field. This victory not only elevates Georgia's standing in the world of football but also ignites a sense of optimism and possibility for the future of the nation as a whole.