By George Mirashvili –
If the announcement that the 2015 UEFA Super Cup was to be held in Tbilisi’s Mikheil Meskhi stadium (below) raised a few eyebrows across Europe, in Georgia itself it left people well and truly stunned. Had a Georgian club managed to reach the group stages of a UEFA competition this year, the stadium, still popularly known as ‘Lokomotivi’, would not have met the criteria necessary for staging a game at that level, let alone a global showpiece event. Currently, only the ‘Dinamo Arena’ – the country’s largest sports venue – has a UEFA category 4 status to its name. Some were left wondering whether Monsieur Platini was naive enough to be seduced by a three minute presentation clip concocted by computer wizards at the Georgian Football Federation (GFF), which had a fantasy dimension beyond that of a Star Trek episode. In truth, it was a gesture of faith, optimism and good will, on a par with Ukraine having been chosen as co-hosts for Euro 2012.
So, while the nation’s capital awaits the arrival of the cream of European club football, I took a trip out to the Georgian provinces, to closely examine the state of the venues. In a football-mad country that Georgia once was, solid looking stadia were built by local communist authorities in virtually every town of any significance. Crowds larger than some of those towns’ populations would then cram into the concrete stands to watch local talent play the game in the skilful Georgian style. I’m old enough to remember some of those good times. Yet fresher in the mind still is what happened afterwards.
The violence that was unleashed across the country in the early 1990s, and more than a decade of severe economic hardship that followed, had a devastating effect on domestic football. With certain few exceptions, the professional game disappeared from provincial Georgia for a lengthy spell. The stadia, far from seeing any sporting action or a caring hand, were looted of everything of any value, including wood, metal and glass. Whole stands disappeared. With this in mind, the pitiful state in which the vast majority of the provincial stadia appear today – the grandstands no longer able to provide any safe seating; the lounges from which the ComParty VIPs once followed the games, now lying in ruins; the pitches barely suitable for grazing cattle – might appear understandable at first glance. Yet the horrors of the not-too-distant past only tell half of the story.
Better times and relative stability returned to Georgia following the 2003 ‘Rose Revolution’. Very gradually, people were able to turn some of their attention back to sports. Many provincial football clubs of old were reactivated, albeit mostly at an amateur level. Yet the condition of the majority of the venues continued to deteriorate, reaching a point where some of them, such as the once impressive central stadium of Chiatura (below), a mining town in northern Imereti region, have now been condemned to demolition as they were declared unsafe. All of this points towards problems that are rooted in the present, as much as they are in the past.
As in many other countries, the football clubs in Georgia used to be the centrepieces of their local communities. As such, their home venues were being well looked after, without any firm orders from above being necessary. It appears that on one hand, the clubs no longer enjoy that special status in many communities today. More crucially and worryingly still, the very sense of community strength seems to have been eroded to a substantial degree in provincial Georgia, with football inevitably suffering as a result.
There are, of course, exceptions. In Khoni, in western Imereti region, the small ground once again appears tidy and neat. New wooden benches have been installed, and the club house, together with the VIP lounge, balcony and the changing rooms, has been renovated – a community effort with no financial input from any of the town’s several multi-millionaires, as the club officials are keen to point out. In Telavi, the capital of the Kakheti region in the east of the country, no professional football has been played at the Givi Chokheli Stadium (pictured below; named after the great defender who starred in USSR’s glorious 1960 European Championship-winning side) for several years, but the pitch is still being maintained to a high standard – the joy of watching the local youths using good facilities providing sufficient reward for the groundsmen, who do not get paid for their daily efforts. Such positive cases are few and far between, however.
In Tsnori, the administrative capital of lower Kakheti, it took me a little while to realise that I was indeed standing inside what constitutes the town’s stadium. Up until 2003, the well-funded and extravagantly named local team FC Milan played top tier games there.
Then the sponsorship disappeared, as did the club, and the ground was soon forgotten about. The overwhelming feeling in town is that of apathy. A certain degree of genuine sadness can be detected amongst the older generation when talking about local football, but the same cannot be said of those within the age group that would be more capable of rectifying the situation, if they genuinely wished to do so. In this regard, Tsnori (below) is very typical of Georgia today.
Across Europe, one can find countless examples of poorly funded clubs managing to maintain their grounds to a good standard, through work done by fans and locals on a voluntary basis. A similar effort by a handful of people could have made any of the grim-looking provincial stadia in Georgia appear in a far more presentable state.
In a country with a 30% unemployment rate (the figure being considerably higher in many provinces), spare time is unfortunately in abundant supply, yet barely anyone seems to find any time for their local football clubs. Few will actually admit to not caring. In private conversations, as on the internet message boards, young people from across Georgia lament the state of their local sports venues, the lack of action from government and the football federation, and the lack of private investment. Everyone wholeheartedly hopes that things will somehow change for the better at some point. In the meantime, they channel their love of the game into enthusiastically supporting the grands of European club football. Are things ever likely to change, though?
Private investment has produced some of the very few success stories in Georgia, as far as sports venues are concerned. The rich new owners of Dinamo Tbilisi have at long last installed the VIP facilities needed for the Dinamo Arena to obtain the category 4 status. In the Imeretian city of Zestaponi, a small all-seater stadium (above) capable of hosting lower-level international games has been pieced together with the support of the local industry, while nearby in Georgia’s second city of Kutaisi, investment from oil giants Wissol (together with support from the federation) has also enabled large scale renovations. However, these are bound to remain isolated cases in a non-profitable market which is Georgian football today. With the general population unable (and unwilling) to pay more than a minimal symbolic amount (ordinarily no more than $1) for domestic league game tickets, any investment effectively has to be made out of love for the local game and communities, with no calculated financial returns – a strategy which cannot be sustained over a prolonged period of time. The recent announcement that FC Zestaponi – until then regarded as a well-run model club – has run into severe financial difficulties, further underlined this point, and has put all plans of a stadium expansion on hold.
What, then, of the government support? With the vast majority of the Georgian stadia being council-owned, for people to expect a certain level of support from the local politicians is not unreasonable. However, as in many other countries, when the funds are tight, spending on sports venues is rarely high on the list of priorities for local councils. Instead, they collectively seem to practice the fine Georgian art of talking much while taking little action.
Wherever I went, and asked the question about future stadia improvements, I rarely received ‘none are planned’ as an answer. New pitches, new seats, new stands had been promised to the majority of the provincial clubs. When? “Soon”, of course. But since in Georgia this can denote a time period of anything between 5 minutes and 5 years, I was naturally keen for more specific timescales, and at times obtained them. “Within the next couple of months,” I was told in the western city of Ozurgeti, “we will have 3000 new individual seats installed here.” That was in the summer of 2011. As of today, the stadium in Ozurgeti (below) still has no individual seats.
While every single pre-season in recent years has seen grand announcements from GFF and government officials of improvements planned for a whole range of provincial stadia, very little has materialised beyond the renovation of the stadium in the ancient capital of Mtskheta, the re-laying of a few pitches, and a partial reconstruction of the stadium in Gori, where the Ministry of Internal Affairs poured a generous amount of taxpayers’ money into the local club Dila. While the numerous broken promises can usually be brushed aside by the officials with ease, the case of Batumi did cause them a substantial degree of embarrassment.
Georgia’s third largest city, a popular tourist resort on the Black Sea coast, and traditionally a football-mad place, Batumi has been without a stadium since 2006, when its large central venue was demolished to give way to a block of luxury flats. Since then, just about everyone in Georgia with basic skills in photoshopping has come up with his own impression of how the city’s new stadium would apparently look, while politicians never tired of telling the nation that it would be a venue at which the whole of Europe would marvel. After six years, during which time Dinamo Batumi (a club that had regularly attracted crowds of several thousand for its home games) was reduced to first playing at a small local playing field, and then some 20 kilometers away in the town of Kobuleti , President Saakashvili announced the beginning of the new ground’s building process in Batumi amid the customary fanfare. Barely two weeks later, following the parliamentary elections which brought about a change in government, this process was halted and its future is now as unclear as it has ever been. With the authorities having also demolished the stadium in the country’s fifth-largest city of Zugdidi before any firm plans of constructing a replacement had been made, two of Georgia’s best supported provincial clubs are currently without a venue in their own cities.
In spite of the uncertainty currently surrounding the Georgian Football Federation (with the possibility of new elections being scheduled in the near future), the renovations at the governing body’s new home venue of Meskhi Stadium have so far been relatively unaffected. One can therefore still hope that a national embarrassment can be avoided and the 2015 UEFA Super Cup can be staged successfully. As for Georgia’s provincial venues, the future looks far less promising. With the new political authorities struggling to balance the budget, and the continued lack of enthusiasm for domestic club football in many regions, it is difficult to see where the investment necessary for improving the venues will come from. Under these circumstances, the federation’s insistence that Georgia’s bid to co-host the 2020 European Championships finals will continue as planned, appears ridiculous at best.