What pressure? With star Kvaratskhelia, Georgia are ready for their first major tournament

Published on: 17 June 2024

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DORTMUND, Germany -- Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has the hopes of a nation on his shoulders at Euro 2024, but after helping Georgia qualify for their first major tournament since gaining independence from Soviet Russia in 1991, you'd be surprised to know he's not feeling any extra pressure.

Georgia first tried to qualify for a European Championship in 1996 and at their eighth attempt, they earned their place among the continent's best. They've arrived in Germany as the tournament's lowest-ranked team -- 75th in the world, according to FIFA -- but in Kvaratskhelia, they have a player considered one of the best on the planet, coming 17th in the 2023 Ballon d'Or voting ahead of such luminaries as Jude Bellingham, Harry Kane, Jamal Musiala and Martin Ødegaard.

The 23-year-old Napoli winger must be under pressure, then, to deliver for his country on the biggest stage? Not quite, because for many Georgians, he's already done enough.

"There is no pressure on him from Georgia, the nation or the people, because we already got here," Bachana Arabuli, a former teammate of Kvaratskhelia at Dinamo Tbilisi, tells ESPN. "Even if we don't succeed and lose every game, people are already satisfied with what we did. For us, anything else is extra."

It's been a long road to this point for a small country of 3.7 million people that sits in both eastern Europe and western Asia.

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The collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which began in 1988, saw Eastern European state-funded football academies shut down, leaving Georgians to grow the game almost from scratch over the last 30 years. The federation has focused on developing young players and infrastructure, hosting the UEFA European Under-19 Championship in 2017 and the Under-21 version in 2023 to aid their progress. UEFA grants have been used to improve training facilities.

Kvaratskhelia is the first superstar to emerge from this revamped system and despite finishing behind Spain, Scotland and Norway in qualifying, he helped Georgia book a place in the playoffs via a successful UEFA Nations League campaign. And following a 2-0 win over Luxembourg and a tense penalty shootout against Greece after a 0-0 draw in Tbilisi, Georgia were confirmed as Euros participants for the first time.

"When Nika [Kvekveskiri], the last penalty taker, walked up you could hear a pin drop," Georgia assistant coach David Webb tells ESPN. "When the ball hit the net, it was like something out of a movie. Then the whole place just erupted. Fans were on the pitch, there were lots of tears.

"It's given the whole country a massive lift. They've got quite a good rugby team and they're competitive in other sports, but you don't realise how big football is in Georgia until you're there. Half an hour after the game, we were on the team bus going to Tbilisi square and there were 50,000 fans cheering for the team. For days after, it was on every news channel and people were still partying in the streets. It was incredible."

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the man they call 'Kvaradona,' is carrying Georgia's hopes as they embark on their first major competition, but he's not nervous, and neither are his teammates. Pat Elmont - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

The party will carry on in Germany, too, with Georgia playing their first game in Group F against Turkey in Dortmund on Tuesday. Thousands of fans are expected to make the trip before continuing on to Hamburg and Gelsenkirchen for matches against Czechia and Portugal.

"After our independence, this was a dream for the older generation, our fathers and grandfathers," Arabuli says. "It's a massive thing for the country. Probably more than you think.

"We have a hope of reaching the next round. We can surprise people, especially if our best player is having good days. Kvaratskhelia is very important -- like for Belgium, it's [Kevin] De Bruyne or for Portugal it's [Bruno] Fernandes. 'Kvara' is one of the best players in the world."

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Like Georgia, Kvaratskhelia's route to the top hasn't been an easy one. After making his debut for Dinamo Tbilisi as a 16-year-old in 2017, the winger/playmaker had a spell at another Georgian club, Rustavi, before a loan move to Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow. He joined Rubin Kazan in July 2019 and was named the best young player in Russia two years in a row in 2020 and 2021.

But after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 his contract was cancelled and Kvaratskhelia was forced to return to Georgia with Dinamo Batumi. He wasn't there long, and eight goals in just 11 league games was enough to catch the eye of Napoli, who paid around €12m in transfer fees to bring him to Italy in the summer of 2022. After just two seasons in Naples, his transfer value is now conservatively 10 times that -- something that could be put to the test with some of Europe's biggest clubs interested in his signature this summer.

"When I met him for the first time, he was so young, maybe 15 or 16, when he was training with us at Dinamo Tbilisi," Arabuli says.

"He was so talented. He was so young -- a little bit weak physically but very brave -- when he joined the first team but you could tell immediately he was such a talent. I wasn't surprised when he moved and saw his level at Napoli.

"In his first season, everyone was like 'who is this guy?' because no one in Europe had heard his name. But I was sure he was going to do well."

Georgia had to battle to make the Euros, earning a spot via the playoff and defeating Greece to reach their first major tournament. Levan Verdzeuli - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

In his first season in Italy, Kvaratskhelia scored 14 goals as Napoli won their first Serie A title for 33 years. His immediate contribution established his place as a cult hero in the city and earned the nickname "Kvaradona" -- a nod to another Naples hero, Diego Maradona, and befitting a player known for his thrilling, mazy dribbling. The comparison, though, only fits on the pitch.

"He's not a crazy guy and not in that superstar mode," Arabuli says. "He's a top professional and gives so much to his football. I know he's very motivated and he's going to try to show his best self and do well for the country."

Group FGPWDLGDPTS1 - Turkey0000002 - Georgia0000003 - Portugal0000004 - Czechia0000001, 2: Qualifies for Ro16; 3: Possible qualification

Webb adds: "He's such a calm individual. He's obviously the star of the team in terms of what he's achieved with his club but when you see in training and what he's like around the team, he's just one of the other lads. He blends in well. He's quite a quiet individual. When you get to work with him first hand in training, you see how good he is."

Of all the teams that made it to Germany, Georgia, coached by former France defender Willy Sagnol, averaged the lowest average possession during qualification. The key to their success in Group F will be a strong, stable defensive structure and quick, effective counter-attacks. For that, Kvaratskhelia is pivotal.

"The group we're in is tough," Webb says. "But we're not going just to be tourists. We're not going there for a shopping trip. We're going there to compete and take it game by game. With the quality we have, we think we can at least get out of the group.

"We know if we can get our attacking players in goal scoring positions, then we've got a great opportunity. We've got a real fighting chance."

Webb said he's expecting "tight games" in the group and with qualification for the knockout rounds extended to the teams finishing third with the best records, it could come down to the final match against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. For many Georgians though, just being part of the party is enough and on Tuesday, they will watch their country compete at a major tournament for the first time.

"There won't be any cars on the street," Arabuli laughs. "And if there is a car, the driver will be listening on the radio. It's a big, big thing for us. It's history."

Source: espn.co.uk

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