Poor attendances, substandard facilities, match-fixing scandals . . . sound familiar?
Money is scarce in Georgian soccer but things may be improving after decades of decline
The Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi. It staged the Uefa Super Cup in 2015 between Barcelona and Sevilla. Photograph: Getty Images
When the Georgian Football Federation first pitched in 2012 to Uefa to stage the Super Cup a local reporter suggested its presentation contained a “fantasy dimension beyond that of a Star Trek episode”.
Given the scale of the challenges faced by the game in Georgia, you could probably forgive the local blazers an occasional bout of escapism.
Politics rather than the presentation probably got them the game, and in August 2015 more than 50,000 turned up to watch Barcelona play Seville at the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena where Ireland will take on the Georgians this Saturday.
When there are no overseas visitors in town, Tbilisi’s fabled club side Dinamo play there. The current season is well advanced, and with an eight-point lead over rivals Torpedo Kutaisi they look to be on the way to another title. Yet the average home crowd is barely more than 1,200 per game, with ticket prices so low that gate receipts are almost negligible.
Quite a few of the Erovnuli league’s problems will have a familiar ring to fans of the Airtricity one; some of the supposed solutions too. Poor attendances, substandard facilities, clubs being unable to pay wages and even allegations of match-fixing...And if all of that rings a bell, try this: the latest move to improve things has involved reducing the number of clubs in the top tier to 10.
Back in 1981, Dinamo won the European Cup Winners Cup, beating Waterford and West Ham among others on the way to the final. The previous season they had eliminated a very good Liverpool side from the European Cup. But all of that, says Beso Abashidze with a sigh, is now just “ancient history”.
Abashidze is a local lawyer who has spent recent years trying to build the local players’ union. He has his work cut out. Most of the clubs have little or no money - monthly salaries range €1,000 to €3,000 per month - with the majority relying on local authorities to keep them afloat.
He says just three or four clubs have the facilities – Dinamo’s stadium is hugely impressive – that might be expected of modern club aiming to compete at a serious level, and these rely on the private backing of individual businessmen.
“There is no commercial interest in clubs because companies do not see any return,” says Abashidze. “To own a football club in Georgia you have to be crazy about football and have a lot of money because there are only expenses; no income.”
Things were different in the communist era when Dinamo competed with sides from across the Soviet Union, and the Georgian league was a regional one that maintained a fairly high standard and had a great tradition of producing talented players.
After independence the country endured years of turmoil in the early 1990s, and football was well down most people’s list of priorities. Facilities were allowed to run down or, in some cases, disappear altogether.
One reporter, George Mirashvili, travelled around the provinces five years ago and found featureless fields where stadiums had once stood. Metal and wood had,in some cases been hauled away by locals for scrap. What they left behind was eventually bulldozed.
The bigger clubs survived, but for many, especially Dinamo, the political patronage that had enabled them to prosper evaporated almost overnight. They soon fell behind clubs they had previously been able to compete with abroad.
“Football is always developing, the tactics, the training, the medicine, everything, but we had no money and so we could not keep up. We lost 10, 15 years or more, and there is still no real plan as to how things can be changed.”
The low point appears to have come a couple of years ago when a match-fixing scandal hit. For as little as €5,000 it seemed the outcome of a second division game could be influenced, with certain clubs, officials, players and referees open to offers.
Francesco Baranca, of the international gambling watchdog FederBet, said Georgia was “near the bottom for betting safety”, adding that “there are many opportunities for cheating, for fixing matches”.
When the scale of the problem became apparent – at least 10 games were alleged to have been fixed or have produced highly suspicious betting patterns – the government and football federation came together to establish a new unit: the Division of Sport Fairness. Its head, Vakhtang Bzikadze, suggested the situation had become so bad that one match official reported two players openly arguing on the pitch about which of them was supposed to score a goal.
Arrests followed, and a number of players, club officials and referees got life bans.
It was, says Abashidze “the punch people in the game needed”, although a report compiled by Giorgi Chaduneli for the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an organisation specialising in investigative journalism, cited a number of instances of games last year that had prompted further action.
Football remains well connected politically, with one former international, Kakha Kaladze, having been a government minister until he stood down recently to run for mayor of Tbilisi. Another former player, current federation chief Levan Kobiashvili, who scored against Ireland in 2003, was elected to parliament last year.
Even before Kobiahvili was elected the government was persuaded that it had to do something to help clubs, and agreed to distribute 250 million lari (around €86 million) between them over five years.
“At that stage people expected the clubs to come together and produce a plan,” says Abashidze, showing signs of exasperation, “but they haven’t done it. Instead they have just used the money to pay salaries. If things don’t change then in a few years all of the money will have been thrown away and nothing will have changed.”
His frustration is fuelled by having seen what money better spent has yielded in Georgian rugby and in football in nearby Azerbaijan where the club Qarabag have just made it to the group stages of the Champions League after three successive years in the Europa League.
“It is an embarrassment for Georgians because Azerbaijan has nothing like our tradition in football. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when maybe six of the Soviet national team were Georgia, but they [Azerbaijan] have been spending a lot of money for maybe 10 years, and after a few years of wasting it because they didn’t know how to spend it well they have shown what can be achieved.
“Our champions for last season, Samtredia, played them in first qualifying round this year. Samtredia’s budget is perhaps $2.5 million and Qarabag’s is at least 10 times that so you can imagine what happened [Qarabag won 6-0 on aggregate].”
The situation, he says, has taken a predictable toll in terms of talent development, with many young players failing to achieve their potential over the past couple of decades because there was not the required support.
Yet things have finally started to change in recent seasons with the federation, backed by Uefa, establishing an academy of its own to run alongside those of the better clubs.
“It is a major priority for the federation,” says its communications officer Otar Giorgadze, “and we have started to see the results with the performances of our youth teams.”
Both the under-17 and under-19s have qualified for recent Uefa finals tournaments, and this year’s under-19 event was held in Georgia, with the hosts beating Sweden in the group stages.
“Over 100 scouts came from foreign clubs and saw what our young players can do. For them the option before was to go to Ukraine or Russia – it was easy for them because of the language. But now there is more interest from central Europe so their opportunities are growing, and in time that will be good for the national team.”
From Ireland’s perspective that’s one to worry about next time around.