Captain Kaladze looks to lift the gloom for Georgia
Mary Hanniganprofiles the Georgian captain who plays at the heart of the AC Milan defence and is an inspirational figure for his country.
HE'S ONLY 30 but already it's been an extraordinary life for Kakha Kaladze, the AC Milan defender who, fitness permitting, will captain Georgia in this evening's World Cup qualifier against the Republic of Ireland in Mainz.
Such is his standing in his home country his views on the conflict with Russia, which led to the game being switched to Germany, were as eagerly sought as those of many of Georgia's political leaders, Kaladze giving voice to the anger and despair of his fellow citizens while also raising €50,000, through his Kala Foundation, to help refugees from South Ossetia.
He has been vocal, too, in his objections to Fifa moving the game from Tbilisi to a neutral venue. "I and many of my national team-mates still continue to ask ourselves why this decision has been taken," he said. "In Georgia there is no civil war. We are not the ones creating danger. What could happen in Tbilisi's stadium? Nothing. It would only have been a celebration for thousands of people who are suffering."
Long revered in Georgia Kaladze, articulate and outspoken throughout his career, became the most expensive footballer in his country's history when he joined AC Milan from Dinamo Kiev for £10 million in 2001. But, famously, he was only four months in Italy when a hellish chapter in his family's life began with the kidnapping of his 21-year-old brother.
Levan, a medical student, was bundled in to a car outside the hospital in Tbilisi where he worked, the kidnappers demanding €500,000 from his family for his release, later sending a video showing a blindfolded Levan begging for help.
Kaladze's father attempted to meet the kidnappers to pay the ransom but believing he had been followed by police they disappeared. The family heard nothing from them again. Unbeknown to them Levan's remains had been found in an unmarked grave in the Svaneti region of the country just weeks after he had been taken, but were not identified for almost five years. While the authorities refused to comment local media reported that Levan had been beheaded.
So enraged was the family by the bungled police investigation Kaladze's father threatened to set himself on fire outside the Ministry of the Interior, while Kaladze himself considered switching allegiances by applying for Ukrainian citizenship.
Today, though, he remains Georgian to his core, to the point where when asked earlier this year if he had any ambition to become his country's president he replied: "I don't exclude that opportunity".
He is contracted to AC Milan until 2010, at which point he will decide his future. Not for him, though, whiling away his retirement running a pub in his home town of Samtredia. Kaladze, in league with a number of associates, already has a bewilderingly varied business portfolio, one that now includes a bank. Progress Bank was granted a licence last December by the National Bank of Georgia.
Kala Capital, Kaladze's holding company, also has plans to build a new town on the outskirts of Tbilisi and is investigating oil exploration, hydro and wind power as possible future ventures. Then there's the Kala Foundation, the charitable wing of his empire, a hotel in Georgia and a restaurant in Italy. The latter interests, though, are small-fry in the scheme of things. "Generally, I don't regard hotels and restaurants as large-scale business," he said.
"I always look to the future," he said earlier this year, "when you're playing all the time you're not aware of the years passing. A footballer's career is like a good film - it seems to just fly along and all of a sudden, it's over."
A fine film his career has been too. It began, as a schoolboy, with his local club Lokomotiv Samtredia before he moved to Dinamo Tbilisi where he made his debut when he was just 16. The following year he won his first cap for Georgia and it was a performance for his country, when he marked Christian Vieri in a World Cup qualifier against Italy, that caught the eye of Dinamo Kiev, the Ukranian club signing him in 1998. Andrei Shevchenko, with whom Kaladze would later play at Milan, was a team-mate.
His move to Milan in 2001 wasn't quite greeted with universal approval from the club's supporters, with manager Carlo Ancelotti appearing to have his doubts too, Kaladze often finding himself bench-bound in his early years, losing out to various defensive luminaries, among them Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Alessandro Costacurta, Cafu and Jaap Stam.
He was tried out in a number of positions before finally getting regular football first at left-back, and then at the heart of the Milan defence.
He became the first Georgian footballer to win the Champions League title in 2003, when, after a scoreless draw, Milan beat Juventus on penalties. He was in the Milan side last weekend but like most of his team-mates he was poor in the shock 2-1 home defeat by newly-promoted Bologna.
However, he has only returned to action after a knee problem and Georgia will expect better from Kaladze this evening.