By David Sichinava –
I spent my childhood in Tskaltubo, a small town located in west-central Georgia. Greatly affected by political and economic traumas caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tskaltubo sheltered thousands of people (including my family) who fled the violent armed conflict in Abkhazia, which started in August 1992 and ended in September 1993. Today, IDPs (internally displaced persons) make up approximately one quarter of the town’s population.
Story One – FC Samgurali
Tskaltubo had its own football team, FC Samgurali, who spent a decade in Georgia’s top division (Umaglesi Liga), even reaching the final of the Georgian Cup in 1996 while often filling their local stadium during home games. In the late 1990s they began to share their ground with a newly-established team called “Gagra”, named after a resort city of Abkhazia, which rests on the northeast coast of the Black Sea. FC Gagra, who wore donated Denmark jerseys and who would hold training sessions on the football pitch of a local school, were chiefly composed of IDPs who were residing in Tskaltubo. A short-lived project which always lacked financial support was quickly disbanded, with FC Samgurali never having reached the higher divisions of the country’s football championship.
Story Two – FC Gagra (Tbilisi-based)
Tskaltubo’s “Gagra” were not the only “team-in-exile” from Abkhazia who existed on the other bank of the Inguri River, a de facto fault line with the only legal crossing-point, built by German prisoners of war from 1944 until 1948, between Abkhazia and Georgia proper. Undoubtedly, the most successful were another “FC Gagra”, a Tbilisi-based club, who were founded by a native of Abkhazia, Besik Chikhradze. This talented, youthful side competed strongly in the Georgian Pirveli Liga (Georgian football’s second tier) in 2004-2008, before earning promotion to the top division in 2008, surprisingly beating the incumbent champions Dinamo Tbilisi in their opening match. In 2011-12 Gagra, still playing in the top division, achieved their greatest success by defeating FC Torpedo Kutaisi in the final of the Georgian Cup. FC Gagra produced several promising players including Tornike Okriashvili, who currently plays in Ukraine and remains one of the Georgian national team’s brighter prospects.
If you visit Gagra’s official website, you can read the following words “we will be back!” Indeed, the phrase underlines the club’s attachment with their Abkhazia heritage. It is worth mentioning that Gagra’s only experience in European competition was a Europa League qualifier against another “team-in-exile” from Cyprus – Anorthosis Famagusta, a side who coincidentally consider Abkhazia-born Temuri Ketsbaia a club legend having represented the club both as a player and as a manager.
Story Three – FC Gagra (Abkhazia-based)
FC Gagra, from the other bank of the Inguri River, were established in 2006. They have since then enjoyed success within the de facto territory, having been three times local champion and four times Abkhazia cup winners. They play at the Daur Akhvlediani Stadium, which was named after an Abkhaz footballer killed in 1993 whilst fighting during the War in Abkhazia (1992-1993).
Although bearing a Georgian surname, Akhvlediani is considered a hero of Abkhazia, having left professional football in order to fight for independence. The Daur Akhvlediani Stadium also records another tragic memory of the 1992-1993 war with different reports claiming that mass-killings of ethnic Georgian civilians occurred in this sporting venue as Abkhazian forces retook the city. According to one story, mercenaries and fighters would decapitate hostages and play football on the pitch with the severed heads. Such reports, however, have yet to be verified with Paata Zakareishvili, Georgia’s State Minister for Reintegration, doubting the authenticity of these accusations.
Football – Bridging the De Facto Administrative Boundary Line?
Football is a universal language which can even unite sides warring for territory as in the cases of Moldova and Cyprus – FC Sheriff Tiraspol (See Futbolgrad’s article Moldova’s De Facto Conquerors) from the breakaway territory of Transnistria dominate the Moldovan league and regularly qualify for European competitions, whilst the representatives of the divided island nation are currently negotiating to have a united football association. However, this has not happened in Georgia. For instance, one of the culminations of pre-war tensions in Abkhazia was the split of Dinamo Sukhumi into two sides – one team (including the aforementioned Akhvlediani) continued their participation in the lower divisions of the Soviet championship whilst the Georgians, under the name “Tskhumi”, switched to the newly created domestic league.
Recently, when former Georgian U-19 international, Irakli Kortua appeared playing for Dinamo Sukhumi in the Abkhaz league, it caused significant disaffection in Georgia. Additionally, very few ethnic Abkhaz players have participated in the Georgian championship despite the fact that Abkhazia have produced several legends of Georgian football – Vitaly Daraselia, Vladimir Barkaya, Niaz Dziapshipa and Vladimer Marghania, to name but a few.
These short stories highlight, through the lens of football, how the lives of some in Abkhazia were affected by the conflict in the early 1990s. The region’s shared love and desire for the game and, for many, a hope for reconciliation may contribute to the process of peace-building. Perhaps, indeed, the Daur Akhvlediani Stadium on the Black Sea coast will see its stands packed once again with the fans speaking Georgian, Abkhaz, Russian, Armenian, and Greek, all united under the passion of one team “Gag-ra! Gag-ra! Gag-ra!”
David Sichinava is a PhD candidate at Tbilisi State University. Originally from Abkhazia, David studies human geography and tries to balance his love between maps, data and football. Witnessing the greatest achievement of his favourite team FC Samgurali Tskaltubo in the final of Georgian Cup, David has been passionate about football from the age of 10.
Domestic football has to this day not died out in Abkhazia. The unrecognized state has held a semi-amateur championship since 1994. In 2013 the competition ended with Afon from Novy Afon finishing top closely followed by Nart (Sukhumi), Abazg (Sukhumi) and Gagra.