By Alastair Watt –
Georgian football was left to ponder life without Kakha Kaladze, after its medal-laden former captain said farewell to the sport on May 31 with a spectacular, sometimes surreal, exhibition match in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
At the Dinamo Arena, home to Dinamo Tbilisi and often the Georgian national team, a team of old boys from AC Milan including hall of famers such as Baresi, Maldini and Inzaghi were pit against a curious assortment dubbed “Kaladze’s friends”. The latter comprised of former Georgian teammates such as Shota Arveladze and the now reluctantly mobile Giorgi Kinkladze as well as former Serie A opponents Luca Toni and Hakan Sukur.
Seen by Milan fans as a dependable replacement in the event of injury or suspension to the superior Maldini, Jaap Stam or Alessandro Nesta, the Georgian started fewer than half of Milan’s Serie A matches in his nine seasons at the San Siro
But while this glitzy celebration of a career drew a capacity crowd, and was the talk of the khachapuri (cheese bread pie, a staple of the Georgian diet) stands for a few days, Kaladze’s assumed national hero status is under question.
Best known outside Georgia for featuring intermittently in the AC Milan defence of the 2000s, Kaladze is the most famous of any Georgian player in the post-Soviet era.
However, ask local football fans to name their icons of Georgia’s independent football history, and you’ll hear the names of Kinkladze, Arveladze and current national head coach Temuri Ketsbaia long before they mention Kaladze, if indeed they ever do.
All three are attacking players, which perhaps gives them a natural advantage. Fans remember great goals, shots and dribbles rather than the tackles, blocks and clearances which comprise a defender’s important but less glorious duties.
During Milan’s victorious Champions League run in 2006/07, he started in only five of their thirteen fixtures and in the final against Liverpool he was brought on for the final ten minutes to reinforce the defence. Milan’s two-goal lead he had been sent on to protect was soon reduced to one but Milan held on.
That night in Athens served as an apt summary of his Milan career. Kaladze made a contribution, enough to earn a medal but little more.
In the campaign in which he featured most prominently, making 30 league starts in 2007-08, Milan finished fifth – their lowest Serie A placing in seven years.
Even for the Georgian national side, many supporters would rather grumble about the two own goals he scored against Italy in 2009, than praise his marshalling of the defence in a 1-0 win over Croatia in 2011 (arguably the country’s best ever result).
He retired at the end of the 2011/12 season, leaving Genoa for a life in politics having been taken under the wing of billionaire fledgling politician and now Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
It is the latest chapter in what has been an eventful, and at times tragic, life of the footballer turned vice prime minister.
An athletic and composed left-back, Kaladze emerged at Dinamo Tbilisi before being signed at the age of 20 by Dynamo Kiev in 1998. Kaladze’s first season in Kiev, under the revered Valeriy Lobanovskyi (three-times coach of USSR), saw the Ukrainian champions reach the Champions League semi-finals, with Kaladze part of a defence which surrendered a 3-1 lead against Bayern Munich in Kiev in the first leg to draw 3-3. It proved costly as a Mario Basler goal helped Bayern to a decisive 1-0 win in the return leg, thereby denying the Ukrainians a place in the final against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in Barcelona.
Two years later, with the Georgian now part of arguably the best team from the post-Soviet territory, his fame alerted some nefarious attention on the cusp of his high-profile move to Milan
Today Georgia, an increasingly popular tourist spot for skiers and wine-anoraks, is considered relatively safe for foreigners, tourists and locals alike. However, the status quo is a far cry from the “volatile and dangerous place” as experienced and described in the early 2000s by Jonathan Wilson in Behind the Curtain.
It was in 2001 that Kaladze’s brother Levan was kidnapped and after five years in which various versions are told of a ransom being paid or not paid, of reconciliation attempts being made or not made, he was officially pronounced dead in 2006 – a year after eight bodies had been discovered in the mountainous Svaneti region.
Even though four men are currently serving sentences for their part in the murder, Kaladze remains convinced others were involved in the killing and questions the guilt of those incarcerated.
At the time, Kaladze expressed his fury at the Georgian authorities’ lack of interest in the case, and even claimed that AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi was doing more than his own government.
In an interview with Tabula magazine earlier this year he vowed that “the investigation will be reopened in the future. No one can heal this wound while we are alive.”
From the Pitch to the Parliament
Kaladze hails from the transport hub town Samtredia in the western region of Imereti, and it was another man from the same region who enticed him into politics. He claimed that “the entry of Ivanishvili into politics stirred in me, like many citizens of our country, hopes about success.”
Now, history seems to be repeating itself to some degree. The reliable rather than spectacular sportsman has found himself in profitable, career-enhancing company much like he did at the San Siro.
Ivanishvili’s billions were earned not in Georgia but in neighbouring Russia, where he went into partnership with Jewish-Russian businessman Vitaly Malkin. Together they made billions from a number of sectors including banking, hotels and pharmaceuticals during days of high opportunism, and limited regulation, in first years of post-soviet Russia.
While the Georgian prime minister has generally kept a clean profile, his former business partner Malkin is surrounded by controversy.
For several years now, the Canadian government has accused Malkin of alleged money laundering and involvement in the international arms trade.
Ivanishvili had taken up citizenship in France, temporarily losing his Georgian citizenship as a result, before relocating to what Forbes described as his “art-filled fortress” in Tbilisi (his lavish home situated atop the Georgian capital’s hillside) and launching the “Georgian Dream” party to challenge the long-standing government of Mikheil Saakashvili.
The party name was supposedly inspired by the title of a song performed by his teenage albino rapper son Bera (more on him later) whose striking appearance and niche music, with absolutely no hint of nepotism, made him something of an icon as the “Georgian Dream” movement gathered pace in the summer of 2012.
With Ivanishvili’s popularity especially high in Tbilisi, the parliamentary elections of October saw the capital swarming with speeding cars, honking their horns incessantly while youthful passengers waved blue, white and yellow flags to celebrate Georgian Dream’s narrow victory.
New Prime Minister Ivanishvili soon announced his cabinet in which Kaladze, one of the main faces of the Georgian Dream campaign, was appointed Minister of Energy. This role brings with it the responsibility of easing the country’s dependence on energy resources from neighboring Azerbaijan and Russia.
He branded plans previously publicized by Saakashvili regarding 15 new hydro power plants as “a lie” but stated that three or four such facilities should open within five years. “Until their completion, we will need to import electricity in winter”, said Kaladze.
The national football icon has publicly and consistently criticized the administration of outgoing president Saakashvili, claiming “there are no families in the country who have not suffered from Saakashvili’s regime.”
With the presidential elections only a few months away, it was no surprise that Kaladze’s farewell match carried a not too subtle political undertone.
That’s a Rap?
Even though kick-off had been widely listed as 830 p.m., the 55,000-capacity Dinamo Arena was scarcely half-full by the time we punctually took our seats. At first, it seemed attributable to the Georgians’ notoriously relaxed approach to punctuality.
However, as the players slowly disappeared down the tunnel following a leisurely pre-match warm-up, reasons for this widespread tardiness became clear. In scenes which resembled a mixture between a World Cup opening ceremony and Kim Kong-Il’s birthday, Bera emerged followed by a hundred or so colourfully clad twelve-year olds. The latecomers must have been tipped off.
Georgia’s best known rapper, clutching a microphone and successfully wrestling with the “on” switch by the time he reached the stage behind the goal, was greeted unconvincingly by a harem of dancers in low cut luminous peach outfits.
Having been reassured a few days earlier that he would only sing “one or two songs”, Bera defied the increasingly disinterested spectators and persevered for at least a half hour. The repertoire did explain to this previously uninformed observer why his debut album remains in plentiful stock, gathering dust throughout the city’s supermarkets, destined to sit alongside the perpetually unsold 80s glam rock vinyl on the city’s famous dry bridge market.
Mercifully, the rapping came to a halt and eventually Kaladze and megobrebi (friends in Georgian) arrived to a full stadium of admirers, a mere 50 minutes later than billed.
The football was tame in the end, atypical of testimonial fare. Kaladze played one half alongside the seemingly immortal Baresi and Maldini, and the other beside former Serie A custodians Fabio Cannavaro and Fernando Couto, as the Milan veterans won 3-1.
The half-time Georgian dancing had, by some distance, been the highlight of the night’s entertainment but there was still time for Ivanishvili to take to the field and share a scarcely credible anecdote about Kaladze before the customary fireworks brought the night to a close.
Georgian Football: Life After Kaladze
The stadium announcer, who had been in full party political broadcast mode all night, made the bold claim that Georgia would “definitely produce more Champions League winners like Kakha Kaladze.”
It is unlikely that he was referring to any of the current Georgian national team who two days later were thrashed 4-0 by a second-string Ireland in a friendly.
This sound bite may have instead been referring to the under-19s who had recently qualified for the European Championships for the first time, giving the Georgians much needed reasons to be cheerful.
While watching the Dublin debacle, I had asked my local friends who they considered to be Georgia’s best player. The consensus was bleak. “It’s more a question of who’s the least shit” replied Malkhaz, curiously sporting a Bayern Munich cap and Liverpool shirt
Although diminutive midfielder Jano Ananidze had made cameo appearances for Spartak Moscow in Europe’s top club competition, the present national squad is bereft of quality and none of its members play in any of the elite European leagues.
Georgians support their nation vociferously in any sport, but they are fast falling out of love with their football team with only visits of glamorous opposition – like Spain last autumn – likely to fill the national stadium.
Pictures in the halls of the Dinamo Arena are of Georgian football’s better days: the likes of Mikheil Meskhi in the early 1960s, Dinamo Tbilisi’s glorious Cup-Winners-Cup-winning team of 1981 and more recently Kinkladze and the exciting, gloriously failing Georgian national side of the mid-90s.
Whether Kaladze will be remembered with the same romanticism is up for debate.
But since the turn of century, only the long retired Arveladze and perhaps Berlin-based Levan Kobiashvili could match his international consistency. And even though he missed a penalty in one final and played only ten minutes of the other, his two Champions League winners’ medals put his club achievements far ahead of any player in the Caucasus, never mind Georgia.
Kaladze made the most of his relatively above average ability on the field, admirably benefiting from the talented company he kept.
Doing so in politics may present a stiffer challenge, with neither a Maldini nor a Nesta to mop up any mistakes.
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.