Georgia’s Kvaratskhelia stuns ‘boyhood idol’ Ronaldo

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany — Fans came to Gelsenkirchen to see the Portugal No. 7 Cristiano Ronaldo make more history, but left the Arena AufSchalke having seen Georgia‘s No. 7 Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, spurred on by over 15,000 of his fellow countrymen, lead his nation into the knockout stages of a major tournament for the first time.

This was a night that will live long in the memory of Napoli winger Kvaratskhelia, who scored the first goal in a 2-0 win, and every other Georgian, whether watching at the stadium or on a screen back in the capital city, Tbilisi, who witnessed the 74th-ranked team in FIFA’s rankings beat the sixth best. Almost 10 minutes after the final whistle, some players still could not believe it. After leading the supporters in chanting and clapping, they clutched their heads, struggling to grasp a last 16 tie now awaits them against Spain in Cologne on Sunday.

Their coach, Willy Sagnol, only let himself believe once the game had stopped. He joined Bayern Munich as a player the year after the German side lost the 1999 Champions League final to Manchester United in stoppage time and that was on his mind as time ticked down here.

“If you want me to be honest, it’s when the referee blew the whistle at the end [that I believed],” he 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.”

The narrative had actually been laid down in Georgia’s first game in Germany. They might have lost to Turkey, but the lowest-ranked team at Euro 2024 won a lot of hearts with an energetic performance in one of the most entertaining phases of the group stage. They followed that up with a draw against Czechia, setting the stage for Wednesday’s historic evening.

In Kvaratskhelia, a Serie A winner with Napoli, they boast one of the best wingers on the continent. When he gets the ball, there is a buzz among the supporters that anything is possible. It took him just 92 seconds to open the scoring, finishing well after being played in by teammate Georges Mikautadze. It’s the earliest goal Portugal have ever conceded at a European Championship.

“Khvicha” chants echoed around the stadium. This was quickly turning into a performance worthy of the No. 7 shirt for any country at the tournament.

A scintillating run in the 35th minute drew a free kick and eased the pressure on his backline. A similar run in the 65th minute, Georgia 2-0 up by now, had a similar effect and brought more adulation from the fans. It was in contrast to the fortunes of Portugal’s No. 7, Ronaldo, who was taken off in the same minute after a quiet night.

It had been anything but a quiet day around Gelsenkirchen, though, as the Ronaldo roadshow rolled into town. Fans filled the air with his customary “Siuuuuuu” shout as they got off the train and drunk in squares, Georgia fans responding with Lionel Messi chants. There were shirts of all his former clubs, Sporting Club, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus, and his current teams, Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr and the Portuguese national team, all with his name on the back.

They had come to see him make more history. Despite making eight changes with progress from the group already sealed, coach Roberto Martínez stuck with Ronaldo as his central striker. “He needs the competitive rhythm, it’s no good stopping and starting,” Martínez explained.

A goal would have made Ronaldo, now 39, the oldest-ever scorer in the Euros. He is already the top scorer (14) and the top assist provider (8) in the history of the tournament, but the next record will have to wait. He has now failed to score in the group stage of a major tournament for the first time ever, the end of an incredible run that began at Euro 2004.

For once, this was about the other No. 7, who said he had grown up idolising Ronaldo and collected his shirt after the game.

“I got Ronaldo’s jersey and we’ve made it through to the next round,” Kvaratskhelia, named Player of the Match by UEFA, said in a news conference. “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 had been 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.”

It was not just about Kvaratskhelia, though. Striker partner Mikautadze was electric, setting up the first goal and converting the second, a penalty awarded after a VAR check. The French-born forward is the top scorer at the tournament with three goals — more than the entire France team — and is just the ninth person to score three or more in the group stage ever.

Valencia goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili, who didn’t have to be as good as he was against Czechia when he made a tournament-high 11 saves, was impressive once again. He has perhaps been the best goalkeeper in Germany.

“If you analyse them, you’d talk about their goalkeeper, who’s had three years at the highest level and had a wonderful game, and Kvaratskhelia, who’s one of the top five dribblers in Europe,” Portugal coach Martínez said in a news conference.

“The only surprise was that they managed to retain the intensity and belief for the 90 minutes, because it was only in the last 10 minutes we had any clear-cut chances. Their coach has done a wonderful job.”

Deflecting the limelight, Kvaratskhelia added: “There was no individual best player today. It was the team, and we proved to everybody that we can really play.”

As the buoyant fans left the Arena AufSchalke, the Napoli shirts among the red-and-white Georgia tops became more obvious, the “Khvicha” chants now louder than they had been at any time in the day. His deflection tactics will likely be no good for nearly 3.8 million Georgians back home, who will never forget where they were when Georgia’s No. 7 was the name on everyone’s lips.