Ken Early: Ireland and Georgia have one problem in common - a difficult neighbour

Flying 10,000km to watch a match will some day be seen as a mad thing people used to do

Manager Mick McCarthy and Seamus Coleman at a Republic of Ireland press conference in  Tbilisi, Georgia. Photograph:   Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Manager Mick McCarthy and Seamus Coleman at a Republic of Ireland press conference in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

The flight paths to Georgia from northern Europe take you over the Martian majesty of the Caucasus mountains, a bleak and barren wilderness of cliffs and canyons, peaks and plateaus, devoid of any sign of life.

Just as you’re thinking that maybe this is what quite a lot of the rest of the planet is going to look like soon, the mountains smooth into rolling hills, the browns of the landscape turn to greens, and a few minutes later you are touching down in Tbilisi.

In nearly 20 years of covering football I have seen a lot of these city approaches. The mist-shrouded mountains on the descent to Tirana stand out as especially memorable. It now seems as though future generations might have to take my word for it.

Irish fans arriving here will find they are suddenly rich. Pints are less than a euro, a cocktail in the most hipsterish bar will cost maybe three

The diffusion of Euro 2020 across 12 host countries was described by then-Uefa president Michel Platini as a “romantic” way of celebrating the 60th birthday of the championships. The truth was the idea had been conceived out of necessity – because no single country had produced a credible offer to host the tournament – and even when Platini was announcing it in 2012 it sounded wearying and stupid.

Seven years later, in the age of Trump and Thunberg, the notion of hundreds of thousands of football fans spending a month needlessly crisscrossing the skies over Europe seems less a silly and expensive inconvenience, and more a calculated insult to life on Earth.

Already obviously embarrassed, Uefa have announced a plan to offset the carbon emissions by planting 50,000 trees in each of the host countries. But such face-saving gestures cannot dispel the larger question over the long-term viability of these mass migrations.

Some day soon flying 10,000km to watch a football match will be regarded as one of those inexplicably mad things people used to do, like making cigarette filters out of asbestos or candles out of whales.

People like me who have already done a lot of this kind of travel, at God knows what cost to the planet, may be reluctant to speak of it, like war veterans oppressed by a secret guilt.

Globalisation

That day has not come just yet, and the FAI estimates that around 800 Irish fans will be in Tbilisi for this Saturday’s game. To go from Ireland to Georgia is to go from a country counted among globalisation’s winners, for what that’s worth, to one that globalisation has largely passed by. There are only about one million more people in Ireland than there are in Georgia, but Ireland’s economy is about 20 times the size of Georgia’s in GDP terms.

So Irish fans arriving here will find they are suddenly rich. Pints are less than a euro, a cocktail in the most hipsterish bar will cost maybe three. A pack of cigarettes is about €1.50, though the health warning photos will give you PTSD – a common compromise throughout the former Soviet countries.

When I tried to pay for a €6 dinner, which included four dishes and a glass of wine, with a 100-Lari note (worth about €30) the staff were dismayed and gathered to confer on what to do – this in a busy restaurant. In the end I had to go out and come back with change.

EU flags hang alongside the Georgian ones at the parliament building and the nearby chancellery

Taxis are so cheap – a 20km journey from the airport cost €7 – that most Irish probably won’t bother using the metro. If they look at the buses passing by they’ll see they are all stuffed to the gills with Georgians. Standard fares on public transport are 15 cents, which is considered controversially high.

The city might seem almost comically cheap to visiting fans, but it’s not so for the people who live here. The average monthly salary in Georgia is just over €300 – less than 10 per cent of the equivalent figure in Ireland. So for a better sense of the cost of living for locals you need to multiply the prices by 10. And then you realise why a lot of the people you hear out in the bars are speaking English rather than Georgian.

Offices and hotels

Everyone is familiar with the debate about the damage international capital is doing in Dublin – housing crisis, rent crisis, the squeezing out of “cultural spaces” to make way for offices and hotels, the hollowing-out, the flattening-out, the dreary homogenisation.

Tbilisi has the opposite set of problems. It’s a bit like Dublin in the 1980s – unemployment is high, rents are low, space is easily available, there is essentially no advanced economy. The city retains its distinctive character – fresh fruit and sleeping dogs on every street corner.

Would they trade places for a world where 800 relatively super-rich Georgian football fans could fly into Dublin for a match and spend a weekend boozing it up in a charming characterful city so cheap it seemed virtually free? Would we?

Georgia and Ireland do have one problem in common: a difficult neighbour that likes to throw its weight around. There were angry protests here in June when a visiting Russian MP delivered a speech in parliament from the speaker’s chair, to the disgust of that section of Georgian public opinion that wishes to move out of the Russian sphere of influence towards closer integration with the EU. The current government favours a “pragmatic” line of keeping Russia sweet. Police violently suppressed the protesters and 240 injuries were reported.

EU flags hang alongside the Georgian ones at the parliament building and the nearby chancellery. In 2012 Russia lifted a six-year regime of trade sanctions against Georgian wine, mineral water and other key exports, but it’s understood that sanctions could easily be reintroduced if Moscow feels like eliminating almost 20 per cent of Georgia’s exports overnight. A small country with few powerful friends has to tread carefully.

Hollow chuckle

Even the pre-match press conference hinted at the ways chance has plugged Ireland into international networks from which Georgia is excluded. A Georgian journalist asked Mick McCarthy if we were likely to see Aaron Connolly make his debut, prompting a hollow chuckle from Mick, who was answering Connolly questions all week back in Dublin.

None of the Irish media had any questions for Vladimir Weiss about his Georgian players.

When Weiss, the Slovak coach who conducts his Georgia press conferences in English, sought a point of comparison for the Ireland team, he chose Michael Flatley, oiled-up avatar of Irish soft power.

McCarthy accepted this as a compliment but did not compare Weiss’ team to any Georgian celebrities. The most famous Georgian remains hard-power arch-exponent Joseph Stalin, and yesterday his name did not come up.

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