Euro 2024: Ronaldo talk inspired Georgia star before historic upset

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany — Georgia hero Khvicha Kvaratskhelia says a pre-match meeting with Cristiano Ronaldo helped inspire belief that his team could cause a historic upset against Portugal and qualify for the round of 16 of Euro 2024 on Wednesday.

Georgia went on to win 2-0 against Euro 2016 winners Portugal at the Arena AufSchalke, with Kvaratskhelia opening the scoring after just 92 seconds and Georges Mikautadze, the tournament’s top scorer with three, adding the second via a penalty.

The victory set up a meeting with Spain as Georgia reached the knockout stages in their debut appearance in a major tournament, while Kvaratskhelia left with Ronaldo’s shirt.

“I got Ronaldo’s jersey and we’ve made it through to the next round,” said Kvaratskhelia, who labelled the Portugal No.7 his boyhood idol before the game, in a news conference via a translator.

“This is the best day in the lives of Georgian football fans. We’ve made history, no one would believe we’d make it happen.

“No one would believe we could beat Portugal but that’s why we’re a strong team; if there’s even a 1% chance, we’ve shown we can make it happen.

“Before the match there was a meeting [with Ronaldo] and he wished me success; I’d never imagine he would come and talk to me.

“He’s a great player and a great person. That’s why he’s a great personality in and out of football; I have so much respect for him, he’s one of the best players in the world.

“When he comes to talk to you before the match, that’s amazing; that helped us believe we could do something today.”

Kvaratskhelia, 23, has tasted success in club football, winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli in 2023, but says writing history with his country was the best day of his life.

“The Scudetto was a memorable moment for me but I’m happier today because when you’re playing for your country, it makes you so proud, though I was so happy with both,” he added.

“This is the happiest day of my life; winning the title was my dream and this was my dream as well. It’s difficult to put my emotions into words, I’m just so happy.”

Georgia coach Willy Sagnol said he did not believe they had qualified until the final whistle blew, revealing Manchester United’s 1999 Champions League final comeback against Bayern Munich, a year before he joined the German side, was on his mind in the dying stages.

“If you want me to be honest, it’s only when the referee blew the whistle at the end [that I believed],” the Frenchman said in a news conference.

“Football has made a lot of stories like that, when you think you are winning and lose in the last minute — Bayern against United comes to mind. I was watching the time, every 10 seconds, and in the end just felt very empty.

“We were dreaming of qualifying but did not think it was doable. I thought we reached our maximum by qualifying in March, but football is never written beforehand.”

Portugal had already booked their place in the next round as group winners, allowing coach Roberto Martínez to make eight changes to his side.

However, he insisted they had treated Georgia with respect.

“We didn’t underestimate Georgia,” he said in a news conference. “They were playing the game of their history, with the chance to qualify for the first time at the Euros [for the last 16].

“We were playing our last game, already top of group. It was difficult to match the intensity, but that’s not underestimating Georgia. They are players of the highest level and it’s not that we underestimated [them].

“We didn’t play with enough intensity from the start and we conceded early, which is what Georgia needed. Later on, we were not clear headed enough about the last pass and in front of goal.

“I think their goalkeeper [Giorgi] Mamardashvili had an amazing performance. We tried to score, we couldn’t, and that allowed them to believe even more and it was a deserved victory for them.”

Portugal will meet Slovenia in the next round, with Martínez pledging to bring back Rúben Dias, Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes, who were all rested on Wednesday.

Ronaldo did play, lasting 65 minutes before being substituted, but he could not find the net as his remarkable run of scoring in the group phase of every major tournament since his first appearance at Euro 2004 came to an end.

The win took Georgia through as one of the four best-ranked third placed teams at the tournament, while Turkey, who beat Czechia on Wednesday, went through as runners up behind Portugal.

Turkey will meet Austria in the last 16.