Culture, Travel & Sport

Rugby has long been Georgia’s national sport. Europe’s most exciting young footballer is changing that

Kvicha Kvaratskhelia scored for Napoli on his Italian league debut last August, and went into orbit. A coruscating performance in a Champions League match against Liverpool soon after instantly made him a European star.

Georgian football has long existed in the shadow of Georgian rugby. Its heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the Soviet era, when the country’s then leading team Dinamo Tbilisi won both the Soviet Top League and European Cup Winners Cup is now a distant memory. Rugby has long been viewed – both within Georgia and without – as the country’s national sport, its impressive side perennial winners of the Rugby Europe Championship (Georgia has won 13 of the last 15 editions of the tournament), a competition for second tier rugby nations. 

With promotion to the first tier of European rugby, the Six Nations, currently not possible, Georgian rugby is nevertheless marking time, denied a bigger stage on which to shine. The Rugby World Cup later this year will offer the Lelos, as Georgia’s rugby team is known, a shot at the big time, including as it does matches against Australia and Wales, but without regular competitive games against the world’s leading teams it is difficult to see the Lelos making further progress. 

World Rugby’s inegalitarian approach to opportunity therefore opens doors for Georgia’s footballers to once again take centre stage. FIFA, world football’s governing body, and UEFA, its European equivalent, may be rightly criticised for many things, not least the corruption of the past and their habit of organising major tournaments in countries with patchy human rights records, but the qualification process for those tournaments offers Georgia’s football team the chance play – on a regular basis – the best teams in Europe.  

The UEFA Nations League meanwhile, a competition that pits European national teams of a comparable level against each other, offers the prize of promotion and a backdoor route to the prestigious European Championships. 

In the last edition of the Nations League, completed last year, Georgia topped a group including Bulgaria and North Macedonia, securing promotion to the second tier, known as League B. Winning the group also means that Georgia – should they fail to qualify for the European Championships via the regular qualifying process – are guaranteed a spot in a series of play-offs that will offer them a second bite at the cherry. 

Unlike Georgia’s rugby team, which has been present at the Rugby World Cup for decades, Georgia’s footballers have never qualified for a major tournament. The 2024 European Championships offer them their best chance yet. The team’s qualifying group includes a Spain in decline, as well as Scotland, Norway, and Cyprus. The top two teams in the group will qualify automatically.

An instant star

While Norway can boast arguably the world’s best footballer in Erling Haaland, Georgia also now has a contender for that title, the forward Kvicha Kvaratskhelia, perhaps the most exciting footballer to emerge anywhere in the world this season. 

Signed by Napoli last summer from Dinamo Batumi for a fee believed to be as low as 10 million euros, Kvaratskhelia has been a crucial part of Napoli’s imperious march to the Italian league title, their first in over 30 years, and the quarter finals of the Champions League. 

The son of Badri Kvaratskhelia, also a footballer (who, somewhat ironically, played international football for Azerbaijan), Kvicha Kvaratskhelia began his career in Georgia before moving to Lokomotiv Moscow and later Rubin Kazan in Russia.

In the spring of 2022, he was the beneficiary of a UEFA ruling that allowed foreign footballers in Russia to cancel their contracts following the sporting sanctions imposed as a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He returned to Georgia, playing for Dinamo Batumi, where he scored eight goals in as many games in front of crowds of 20,000 – numbers usually reserved only for international rugby matches – quickly attracting the attention of Napoli. 

He scored on his Italian league debut, against Verona, and went into orbit. A coruscating performance in a Champions League match against Liverpool soon after instantly made him a European star. 

The real deal

Inevitably, there is much chatter of Kvaratskhelia moving on in the summer. Every major club in Europe appears to have been linked with him at one stage or another over the past few months, all willing to pay him far more than the 1.5 million euros he earns each season in Naples. (Despite being Napoli’s undisputed star player, Kvaratskhelia is one of the club’s lowest earners).  

The private Kvaratskhelia, who says little, has yet to comment on his future. His current contract with the Italian side runs until 2027 meaning that his transfer fee would be high, likely exceeding the 100 million euros Chelsea paid Shakhtar Donetsk for Mykhailo Mudryk in January – the highest fee ever paid (so far) for a player from the emerging Europe region.  

Mudryk however, although he shows occasional promise, remains a player of unfulfilled potential. His signing was considered an absurd gamble by Chelsea’s somewhat naïve American owners. Wherever he ends up – and he may yet choose to stay in Naples on an improved deal – Kvaratskhelia already looks the real deal, a ready-made winner and a guarantee of goals and assists. 

For Georgia’s national team, the emergence of Kvaratskhelia could not have come at a better time, as football in the country looks to make the most of rugby’s stagnation. And for all his accomplishments on the pitch, making football Georgia’s national sport would arguably be Kvaratskhelia’s greatest achievement yet. 

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