By Alastair Watt –
Jano Ananidze – the diminutive 20-year old Georgian attacking midfielder – left Spartak Moscow on 3 July to join fellow Russian Premier League side FC Rostov on a one-year loan deal.
Born on the Black Sea town of Kobuleti, Ananidze joined Spartak at the age of 15, looking like a very young Jesper Olsen and sharing many similarly skillful traits with the Danish winger of Manchester United fame.
What the teenager lacked in physical bulk or height, he made up for with sharp awareness, excellent weight of pass and silky dribbling, the like of which earned him the non-too imaginative tag of “the new Giorgi Kinkladze”.
Shortly after his 17th birthday, Ananidze scored his first Spartak goal, a header in a derby against Lokomotiv. This made him the youngest ever scorer in the Russian Premier League and as interest mounted from the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool, he was rewarded with a five-year contract to deter any offers from England.
But that deal expires next year and, as his first team opportunities dwindle, he has been encouraged by many, including footballer-turned-energy minister Kakha Kaladze, to find regular competitive football to ensure that his career does not stagnate.
Letters from Mariupol: Georgia’s Loan Stars
It is a fate that has befallen a number of Georgia’s promising footballers of late as many leave their teenage potential unfulfilled.
Two of Ananidze’s national teammates, David Targamadze and Tornike Okriashvili, find themselves in very similar circumstances, stranded on the periphery of the Shakhtar Donetsk squad. Aged 23 and 21 respectively, the pair spent the last year at Illichivets Mariupol in the lower realms of the Ukrainian Premier League.
Both are expected to be loaned out again this coming season, which, when you include Ananidze, means three of the country’s best young players are deemed not ready for the top of even medium-level European leagues.
Signing for the likes of Spartak or Shakhtar should be a positive step, but patience, not money, is in short supply at both clubs for whom these Georgian youngsters are cheap and expendable. And while Kaladze’s move to Ukraine in the late 1990s proved a career-making one, today seldom does a Georgian player progress to Europe’s top divisions.
Targamadze and Okriashvili should be encouraged by the progress of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a player from neighbouring Armenia who has just moved to Borussia Dortmund for 25 million euros.
However, relegation battles and mid-table mediocrity in the Russian and Ukrainian leagues are fast becoming the final destination for Georgian players. A small and spectacularly beautiful country, Georgians are fiercely proud of their land and, when abroad, are prone to miss home. But footballers probably don’t miss its league.
Domestic football in Georgia is in a weak condition and is still recovering from the corruption-ridden 1990s and early 2000s. With the notable exception of Dinamo Tbilisi, clubs are financially poor, salaries are low, stadia (with few exceptions) are either in disrepair or totally abandoned (see Georgian Football’s Grounds for Concern), and crowds are paltry. Consequently, the standard on the pitch suffers – the league is ranked 31st in Europe and none of its teams have reached the group stages of European competition since Dinamo in 2004.
Consequently, the nation’s better players leave. However, they tend not to venture much further than Ukraine or Russia, where they face neither a language barrier (some might of course, as English challenges Russian as the second language among young Georgians) nor the work permit difficulties they may encounter in the European Union (especially the in UK as fellow Georgian Gogita Gogua learned the hard way in 2006, when he was declined a work permit to play for Hearts in Scotland).
Nevertheless, despite this bleak outlook, hopes are high for the freshest batch of Georgian football talent – the under-19 national team will play in the European Championships this year for the first time. For nations the size of Georgia, they wait for a so-called “golden generation”, the last of which emerged in the mid-1990s as Kinkaldze, Ketsbaia and Shota Arveladze fired the newly independent nation into Euro 96 qualification contention, missing out to eventual winners Germany and Stoichkov-inspired Bulgaria.
“I am a Georgian”
When Ananidze signed for Spartak, there were concerns in his native Georgia that he would be lured into the Russian national set up but he quickly extinguished any such fears.
At the age of 16, he announced: “Don’t worry about me. I am a Georgian and will play for my country.” Four years ago, that may have been a disappointment for the Russian national team but today, had he chosen otherwise, he would barely register on their selection radar.
Once the shining light of Georgian football, and the star player in the early resurgent days of Temuri Ketsbaia’s reign as national manager in 2010 and the first half of 2011, Ananidze’s fortunes have faded somewhat for club and country.
For Spartak, last season the Georgian started only six matches – just one of those was this calendar year against Krasnodar in the middle of May.
He had featured in three of Spartak’s Champions League group stage fixtures in the autumn but as that campaign ended in underwhelming fashion, so did the reign of Spanish manager Unai Emery.
The Spaniard’s departure was not good news for Ananidze who was clearly out of favour with his successor Valeri Karpin who gave the Georgian limited game time and almost always as a substitute.
When asked about his opinion of Ananidze, the Russian said not too flatteringly: “Jano can fall like a feather after a tackle.”
This critique came two years ago, when the Georgian appeared to be blossoming to the extent that UEFA’s website ran an article claiming he “continued to blaze a trail in Russia, the Europa League and on the international stage.”
Sliding out of Spartak Selection
At that point he had established himself as a regular starter for club and country, but after scoring a marvelous goal for Spartak to defeat Basel in the Europa League in February 2011, the teenager picked up a complicated ankle injury and has failed to recapture the promise of his late teens.
When Ananidze did return from injury, he now faced competition for a place with expensive new signings Emmanuel Emenike and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov arriving at the Moscow club.
As Ananidze drifted in and out of the first team, Spartak prospered and finished second in the Russian Premier League bringing with it Champions League qualification. For the club, this meant more money and, naturally, more big-name signings. This included manager Emery, which saw a short-lived return to favour for Ananidze.
However, after a mixed opening few months in charge, the Spaniard was sacked immediately after a humiliating 5-1 home loss against city rivals Dynamo in late November 2012. Ananidze started that day, as he did the following week in Karpin’s first match as returning caretaker against Zenit, which ended in another humbling defeat. As Ananidze trudged off to be substituted midway through the second half, he may have had a hunch that his Spartak career was nearing its end.
Karpin, having expressed his doubts as to Ananidze’s physical stature even at the peak of his progress, was sufficiently unimpressed by his subsequent lack of impact in the Spartak first team to make him available for loan, and in stepped, not Arsenal or Milan (clubs with whom Ananidze was once linked), but Rostov.
Ketsbaia meanwhile has also used Ananidze more sparingly, starting only two of Georgia’s five World Cup qualifiers so far. Two years ago, such an omission would have been unthinkable.
However, external factors have played a part in Ananidze’s quiet period. His father died last autumn and when interviewed about the move to Rostov he reflected on what had been a difficult time for him personally and professionally.
Ananidze admitted: “This move (to Rostov) was not unexpected. In the last season I dealt with a lot, including tragedy in the family as I lost my father.”
He added that Rostov would give him a chance to refresh and restart a career that, in many eyes, has stalled for now.
Ananidze stated: “From several options I chose Rostov, sometimes it is necessary to take one step back, to take two steps forward.”
A new Don?
At his new, temporary home on the Don River, he will be joined by another Spartak loanee – Russian striker Artyom Dzyuba at a club that struggled in the Russian top flight last season.
After a 13th place finish, Rostov needed to win a two-legged play-off against SKA-Energiya Khabarovsk to avoid relegation.
In a bid to enjoy a more prosperous campaign this time, Rostov have embarked on something of a spending spree, with six new arrivals in addition to Ananidze and Dzyuba.
Lokomotiv goalkeeper Aleksandr Filtsov was among the more high profile captures for the club’s Montenegrin manager Miodrag Bozovic.
Ananidze will be the latest in a long line of Georgians to play for Rostov which includes Badri Spanderashvili, the club’s top scorer in 1993.
The Georgian youngster will be hoping to make a similarly telling impact at the Olimp-2 stadium but he knows that even if he does excel, it might not be enough to save his Spartak career.
The Moscow giants have spent big yet again this summer, bringing in three midfielders – Jose Manual Jurado from Schalke, Denis Glushakov from Lokomotiv and Tino Costa from Valencia – for a combined total of 18 million euros.
Ananidze worried: “They (Spartak) have bought a number of players and they are not here to sit on the bench. I will have to return and prove my right to be part of the main squad again.”
While Rostov have acquired a young, extremely talented player with a point to prove, and Ananidze finds himself at a club where he can play regularly, the real winner here might be national coach Ketsbaia.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Ketsbaia’s Georgia, a national squad lacking in attacking finesse, have seen a downturn in form since Ananidze’s fall from prominence at Spartak.
The Georgian head coach, himself under pressure after three successive defeats, will be among several anxious onlookers as this great white hope of Georgian football starts a new chapter in his career in Rostov’s season opener against Terek Grozny on 15 July.
Alastair is a published sports journalist whose interest in the east was spawned at the age of 7, watching his native Scotland wallop the CIS at Euro 92. Fifteen years later he had his first taste of football beyond the old iron curtain, in a visit to Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine) to see his beloved Aberdeen smash and grab an away goals triumph in the UEFA Cup. Whether it was the Stalinist architecture, the plentiful Pelmeni, or the vodka, further venturing to the post-Soviet Space soon became obsessively frequent before moving to Tbilisi (Georgia) in 2010 where he remains.