This is a relatively short piece I have put together for the Aberdeen match programme when they welcome Georgian side Chikhura Sachkhere on Thursday 1st August having already played the first leg in Georgia.
For those who ventured out to Georgia for the first leg, I am hopeful that they will have returned full of tales as to just how wonderful Tbilisi is, as well as how friendly the Georgian people are too! Georgia is one of the best kept secrets of Europe, a truly diverse gem of a country, from the amazing beach resort of Batumi, through the mountainous beauty of Svaneti, Kakheti and Tusheti to the stunning location and amazing buildings of the capital. Georgian cuisine is one of the highest regarded in the world, and from its vineyards, a Georgian red wine is equally regarded and quite exquisite. This a brave little country, who endeavoured to stand up to the invasion of Putin’s Russia, and went to war to try to protect its territory, but ultimately lost South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These areas are sadly off limits to Georgians still as tensions continue. It is advisable not to wear any Russian shirts in Georgia, although when you are in Russia, you will find the people have a deep affection for Georgia. Amusingly, if you ever find yourself looking to post anything to Georgia like I do from time to time, the post office assistant will seem momentarily confused as South Georgia and then US state come up first!
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, this will be only the second club encounter between a Scottish and Georgian club with Celtic having played Dinamo Batumi way back in 1995/96! Aberdeen have played an array of teams from different lands, but Georgian opposition is newly added with these matches. Our National team have infamously come to grief, not once but twice in the Dinamo Stadium in Tbilisi. Dinamo were the flag carriers of Georgia in the Supreme Soviet League days, winning the title twice in 1964 and 1978 and they can always claim to be one of only three teams never to have been relegated from what was a high powered league, encompassing eleven independent UEFA nations, let alone the Central Asian Republics. Curiously the three sides who avoided the drop were all called Dinamo! The Georgian Dinamo even managed to win the Cup Winners Cup in 1981, in what was the only ever “Iron Curtain” final when they beat then East German side Carl Zeiss Jena 2-1 in front of the lowest ever European Final crowd of 4,750 in Dusseldorf! It was a UEFA own goal in a sense, just how many would have been allowed to travel to the West to watch?! It is amusing to see that both teams reached the final having played just four rounds! That’s how many matches Aberdeen or Chikhura need to negotiate just to get into the Europa League groups!
As you’d expect, having been a big player in the Soviet era, when Independence came along in the early ‘90’s, Dinamo were and remain the biggest team in Georgia, and they have accumulated sixteen titles since. However, the club has had a number of financial issues in coming to terms with a drop in standard and enthusiasm from a much quieter league, resulting in them no longer completely dominating, even if they will always be the biggest club name in the country! The financial pearls of the league are only too visible, teams come and go, relying heavily on sponsors or rich local benefactors, as well as progression in European competitions, or selling on talent to make any money. At one point it was free entry to most league games as the authorities tried everything to encourage people to come to the stadiums, but crowds are still awful, sadly.
Football has struggled in Georgia as the country has discovered a real rich vein of passion for the egg shaped game, Rugby Union. The progress of the Lelos as the Georgian rugby side are known has seen enthusiasm for the round ball game diminish. They have been so successful, the ground swell continues to grow whereby the Six Nations might just have suck it up and let Georgia get involved. They will shortly have two tests, home and away with Scotland ahead of both nations heading to Japan for the World Cup. Scotland will become the first ever top tier nation to play in Georgia. It is a big moment for rugby in this sport mad land, where wrestling is popular too!
However, football is fighting back, and the Nations League gave the Georgian national team a chance to shine, and they grabbed it with both hands! Perhaps harshly starting in the bottom tier, they easily swept aside Kazakhstan amongst others to step into the third tier next time around, but with added carrot of being in competition with Belarus, North Macedonia and Kosovo for a place in the 2020 European Championships, with the play offs set for next spring. Buoyed by that success, the Georgian clubs have had reasonable success in round one of this seasons European competitions. Saburtalo Tbilisi who stunned the country by winning the league last season for the first time, also caught out the Sherif from Tiraspol, Moldova, winning 3-0 away in Transnistria before hanging on for a 4-3 aggregate success in Tbilisi. You’d expect Dinamo to see off an Andorran club, and they easily did, winning 7-0 on aggregate, leaving Torpedo Kutaisi the only Georgian club to fall at the first hurdle, but they were playing another summer league team in Ordabasy Shymkent from Kazakhstan who are going extremely well in the league, conceding only 9 goals in 18 games, and pushing for the title.
Saburtalo and Chikhura stadium capacities will tell you a lot about the audience size for the domestic league in Georgia, with both only holding 2,000! It was both a shame and a surprise that Kutaisi, so much closer to Sachkhere doesn’t have a UEFA licensed stadium. Having been in Kutaisi, the third city of Georgia, it has a very tidy rugby stadium with a 5,000 capacity, surely the two codes could get together. As it was Torpedo and Chikhura had to join the Tbilisi duo in playing all European ties in two acceptable stadiums in the capital, resulting in the fixtures nightmare that saw this ties original scheduling reversed. While people will travel abroad in great numbers from here, and not bat an eyelid at travelling great distances for a midweek match, the sheer size of Georgia, the relatively poor transport infrastructure and disposable income, all combine to make sure the crowds for the Kutaisi and Sachkhere teams in Tbilisi were miserable. As I watched the return game with Fola in the cavernous Dinamo stadium, the lack of atmosphere was awful. It is also a real shame that Aberdeen fans didn’t get to sample Sachkhere’s delights in the foothills of Svaneti’s National Park, or even Kutaisi, which is relatively easy to fly to these days, and nearer for the Chikhura fans too.
Sachkhere is a small town in Western Georgia in the Imereti region, it acts as a hub for the considerable farming community in the outlying lands. The football team Chikhura is named after the river that runs through the town, but they have had a variety of names since starting out as a club in 1938. The clubs modern history was largely modest placing in the third tier, and second until 2006/07 when they sampled top flight football for the first time, albeit merely for a season at that juncture. In 2012 they were back, and they’ve been there ever since. Before kicking off in Tbilisi last week, they’d played 20 games in Europe winning six and drawing 8. Chikhura are playing in Europe for the sixth season in seven having debuted in 2013/14 with an away goal progression against Vaduz. They have accounted for a couple of impressive scalps, Bursapor, once club of Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd, as well as Beitar Jerusalem. Only Maribor and Swiss club Thun have seen them off with a modicum of ease.
Chikhura have almost exclusively a Georgian roster of players save one Bosnian in the ranks. European games will act as a welcome escape from domestic struggles this year. It is fair to say that they won’t be making the Europa League next season, they’ll just have to make sure they don’t get sucked into any relegation play offs. Given what has befallen Kilmarnock, I am sure no one at Aberdeen is taking the Georgians lightly.
Last month I booked a trip to Luxembourg to capture the flavour of European games abroad for Football Weekends magazine for whom I write. I got especially lucky as three nights on the trot the Grand Duchy hosted European football, and by the time I flew out it became apparent that Fola Esch or Chikhura would potentially be playing Aberdeen. Fola is a relatively recent name of the Dons roster of Euro encounters, and I know that fans would have been hoping for much easier and cheaper flight to Luxembourg, but once you arrived in Georgia everything would be so much cheaper, and I really hope the locals friendly ways were felt.
When Aberdeen played Fola the game was moved from their small Emile Mayrisch stadium in Esch Sur Alzette to the soon to be redundant National stadium, the Josy Barthel, with a new stadium imminently ready on the outskirts of the capital. Chikhura played in Esch, at Fola’s quaint tree surrounded stadium high on the hill above the town. Just under 1,100 were in attendance, but with allegedly only seating allowed to be used for UEFA games, only a few more hundred and it would have been a sell out! Thankfully, with rain periodically falling, the stewards were understanding and shelter could be sought under roof overhangs from the inordinate number of sheds in the stadium, or amongst the trees!
Chikhura were the fitter side from playing in a summer league and they started the game the brighter, looking well organised and sharp. Having seen both legs versus Fola, both 2-1 wins, Chikhura are a reasonably slick passing team, that said, Fola weren’t great and if you aren’t unduly rushed off the ball, maybe any team can look good. The Luxembourg team had one warm up match before these encounters! Fola did take the lead, a quick through ball caught the Georgian defence sleeping and they conceded a penalty. A second half free kick just outside the Fola box crashed off the crossbar and Sardalishvili reacted first to stab home the equaliser. He would also get on the score sheet in Tbilisi. The winner in Esch was a slightly contentious penalty minutes from the end, a draw might have been fairer, but despite a lack of atmosphere in the enormous Dinamo Stadium for the return, Chikhura stuck to their task and ran out comfortable winners, with Fola’s away goal coming from another penalty very late, too late for any panic in the home ranks!