Football, protests, and the emergence of New Georgia

As Georgia rallied against government overreach earlier this year, and then cheered its footballers at Euro 2024, a new country began to emerge—determined, united, and fiercely European in spirit.

In recent months, two major news stories about Georgia have made international headlines—the protests against the Kremlin-style foreign agents law and the unlikely success of the Georgia national football team at UEFA Euro 2024.

The protests and football both impacted and reflected the profound mental shift taking place in Georgia, and for that reason, the two are deeply intertwined.

Moments after Georgia qualified for Euro 2024 with the last penalty of a shootout against Greece on March 26, the commentator remarked: “The dream has been achieved, the mission has been accomplished—Georgia in Europe, Georgia’s team at the European championship.”

On June 30, at the beginning of the Georgia-Spain round of 16 match, the commentator stated: “This is the most important match since we are us and not a part of an empire.” Issues of European identity and struggle for liberation can be easily noticed in these remarks. And that is what the protests have been about as well.

The foreign agents law, which the government first attempted to pass in 2023 but withdrew following mass protests, was resurrected in April only a week after Georgia’s footballers had qualified for the Euros, and while the nation was still celebrating the breakthrough wildly.

For many, the qualification was a sudden resurgence of a sense of national pride and victory against the backdrop of a government that, in the opinion of many, has subtly but consciously sowed pessimism and defeatism among Georgians throughout its 12 years in power.

People were openly furious that their sense of long-desired national unity and celebration was cut short by the government’s audacious re-introduction of the foreign agents law. Adding special intensity to the emotions is the fact that Georgian football had previously been treated by broad masses as something irredeemably hopeless, and while post-Euros most people seem to know all players by their names, only real and consistent fans were familiar with the team before the March qualification.

The foreign agents law has proven to be the most galvanising factor and the most effective rallying call for civic resistance in the entire 12-year history of Georgian Dream government precisely because it is the most tangible proof of the government’s conscious distancing from the European Union and its alignment with Russia in both geopolitics and domestic political essence.

‘Forgotten’ Europeans

Democracy, civic liberties, and the European idea go hand-in-hand in Georgia just like the revolutions of 1989. Support for integration consistently polls at around 85 per cent in Georgia, and the European idea itself is deeply ingrained in Georgia’s collective identity.

For centuries, Georgians (or at the very least, the Georgian political, intellectual, and religious elites) saw themselves as forgotten Europeans, cut off from their civilisational brothers by the tragedy of geography and conquests.

Late Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania’s words as Georgia was admitted to the Council of Europe, “I am Georgian and therefore I am European”, still remain the most quoted formulation of Georgia’s collective aspirations since 1999.

The protests against the foreign agents law in April and May were undeniably grassroots, self-organised, youth-centred, but encompassing all social layers. They endured for a month and a half without losing their momentum—all without any visible leaders. This persistence, and sprit of collective self-help proved particularly surprising for Georgians themselves.

The street protests only withered as the focus shifted towards the October 26 parliamentary elections in a desperate hope that maybe Georgia’s liberation from Russia’s grasp might yet have a velvet outcome through a mix of internal and external pressure on the ruling party.

Determination, endurance, commitment, and passion

In March, as the Georgia team qualified for the Euros, many football experts underlined that “the boys” had overcome the “traditional characteristics” of Georgians such as putting in half efforts and counting on luck, and had embraced true discipline and determined hard work.

The determination, the will to fight until the very end, the passion, and the commitment of the Georgia team have been named as the key reasons why they won the hearts of millions during Euro 2024. Just like the team, the people of Georgia have demonstrated precisely those qualities—determination, endurance, commitment, and passion—something that the Kremlin playbook did not expect based on its understanding of Georgians as headless without leaders.

There are more visible interconnections between football and the national resistance too. A popular pop song by Merab Sepashvili with a chorus, The fairy tale has a happy end, was first adopted as a de facto football song by fans and later became part of the soundtrack of the fight against the Russian-style autocratic regime.

The official football anthem I am Georgia, which aims to stress individual responsibility in collective success deserves particular emphasis. The football anthem, although modern and with a great beat, incorporates half a minute of the famous medieval church chant Thou art a Vineyard, written by King Demetrius I, the son of the greatest Georgian ruler David IV the Builder.

History, modernity, and football

As such, history, modernity, and football have all become intertwined with the protests by the adoption of these two songs as the main anthems of the Georgians protesting for their European future and civic liberties.

On July 2, the national football team received a heroes’ welcome home from the public. Their sudden visible success seems to have cracked the defeatist mentality and pessimism about the future sowed by Georgian Dream for more than a decade.

This is seen as the visualisation of a new, victorious Georgia. The way the prime minister Irakli Kobakhidze was booed intensely at the celebration while the president, Salome Zourabichvili—the only public figure representing Georgia’s European aspirations on an institutional level—was cheered with wild applause spoke volumes and has even been dubbed as an early exit poll by some Facebook users.

For many, all this feels like the emergence of a new Georgia. I see people who are rapidly transforming into a fundamentally free, hard-working, European society. Football and civil society have been mutually reinforcing and influential in Georgia’s mental shift and national liberation. The only thing needed now is to unseat the made-in-Russia oligarch who has captured the state.

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