Georgia’s future bodes well after lighting up Euro 2024

COLOGNE, Germany — At the end of FC Cologne’s RheinEnergieStadion housing the thousands of Georgia fans for their first-ever tournament knockout game, there was a sign behind the goal which read: “Believe.” Georgia have done just that from the moment they arrived at Euro 2024, but for 20 glorious minutes against Spain in the round of 16, they were contemplating something beyond even their wildest dreams.

Robin Le Normand‘s own goal prompted a roar that this Euros will do well to match and, briefly, the small eastern European nation were on course to achieve what would have been one of the biggest upsets this competition has ever seen. Or at least the biggest upset since they beat Portugal four days earlier.

It’s been that kind of ride for Georgia.

They turned up as the lowest ranked team according to FIFA’s standings, but rather than just enjoy the experience of a first major international tournament, manager Willy Sagnol and his players have scared the life out of everyone they’ve faced. They leave Germany with a record of one win, one draw and two defeats, but each team they’ve played — Turkey, Czechia, Portugal and Spain — were, at the very least, left with a bloody nose.

In the end, Spain proved just that little bit too good, although it’s worth remembering that when they met in qualifying in September, Georgia were demolished 7-1.

An independent country for only 33 years and with a population of around 3.5 million — similar to Utah — that’s the type of hammering Georgia perhaps should be getting against teams with the history and talent pool of Spain. Instead, they went toe-to-toe, and then some.

The Georgia fans lucky enough to get a ticket in Cologne and the millions watching at home will soon forget that Rodri, Fabián Ruiz, Nico Williams and Dani Olmo scored the goals which eventually knocked them out. They will remember Euro 2024, these players, the goals, and those 20 exhilarating minutes against Spain forever.

“Sometimes you have to take the time to sit and look at what you have done,” said Sagnol. “We can sit in peace and quiet and be very happy with the last year. The evolution of the team has been fantastic. I’m very proud of that and proud of what the players have done.

“It will take some days to realise because it was such a fan performance. We feel a bit sad because we lost but I’m sure in some days we will realise what we have done and the happiness will come back very quickly.”

Georgia have been unapologetically themselves at these Euros and their games have been thrilling, entertaining and, at times, pure chaos. There’s no high press on the edge of the opposition penalty area or a thought to keep the ball for as long as they can. They run and chase and defend and when they leap on an opportunity to take possession, they fly headlong towards the opponent’s goal.

Spain won 4-1 but their coach, Luis de la Fuente, was quick to hail Georgia as “one of the best teams in transition in the world.” Winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia decided to start one group game by collecting the ball and sprinting as fast as he could at Czechia’s defence. Losing 2-1 to Turkey, Sagnol sent up goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili for a last minute corner and when it led to a third Turkey goal said he didn’t care because “losing 2-1 is the same as losing 3-1.”

Sagnol promised before the group stage that he hadn’t come to Germany “for a shopping trip” and intended to show everyone what football in Georgia is all about. He has succeeded and helped win new fans along the way.

In amongst it all, Mamardashvili has flung himself around like Spiderman in bright green, there have been bulldozing challenges from Guram Kashia and Georges Mikautadze has scampered around up front like a bulldog chasing a squirrel.

Every time Kvaratskhelia got the ball, the noise inside the stadium cranked up a notch and reporters wearing Georgia shirts in the media tribune would frantically beat the desks with their fists in anticipation. At one point against Spain, Kvaratskhelia tried to score from his own half, because why not?

Often play would stop with bodies from both teams strewn all over the pitch, either hurt in thunderous tackles or simply exhausted from the pace of the game. There have been shots, corners, saves, penalties, yellow cards, last-ditch tackles, gaps where there shouldn’t be and Georgia attacks which flash from one end of the pitch to the other.

Volunteers wearing yellow bibs have had to clear beer cups from the pitch when it all got too much for the supporters in the stands. After finally bowing out to Spain, the Georgia players and staff stood in the Cologne rain and took part in a “thunder clap” celebration with their fans to the beat of a man with a drum in the crowd. Scarves were thrown onto the pitch and picked up by players who blew kisses back.

At home, there’s political tension after a new law passed by parliament in May declared media and NGOs as “foreign agents” if they receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad. It has prompted protests and violence in the capital Tbilisi and the performance of the national team more than 2,000 miles away in Germany has provided welcome relief.

With eight of the squad aged 23 or under, there’s hope for the future of Georgian football that their trip here will not be a one-off and instead, international tournaments will become the norm.

“We worked so hard to get here and when everyone realises what we have done together we will try our best to come back,” said Sagnol.

“Playing against the best teams, the best players and to give the Georgian fans the chance to come here and sing the national anthem in the stadiums is a great thing. Tomorrow morning, everyone will want just one thing, to come back. It’s the end of the journey but I’m sure the next one will also be very exciting.”

If it’s anything like their ride at Euro 2024, it will be well worth watching.