A true “David and Goliath” story happened one Saturday night in Tbilisi. But I guess since its Georgia I will have to call it a “Davit and Goliath” story. The first home game for the Georgian national soccer team since I arrived in January (and the only one until September) was truly amazing! The contest, against Croatia, took place at Boris Paichadze National Stadium in Tbilisi at 9:00 pm local time. Because this game was part of the UEFA EURO 2012 Qualifying Rounds, the time was set to accommodate the European time zones.
At the time of the match the Georgian team was ranked 72nd in the world and the Croatians 8th. Georgia, however, had not lost a match in the qualifying rounds and was looking to move into second place in Group F. Even before I arrived at the stadium, I could feel the excitement of the city. People on the metro and in the streets were shouting, singing and waving Georgian flags. People even had their faces painted red, which stood out in a population which wears almost nothing but black! Once I got off the metro I followed the crowd to the stadium. There were SO many people.
At the gate the police force was checking people’s bags and tickets. I found out later there were over 600 Security Police on duty that night. The reason bags were being checked was to make sure people did not bring alcohol into the stadium. All bottles were being thrown away. Smart idea.
After looking at my ticket I realized we were sitting in Row 1. We found our seats at one end of the stadium level with the goal. Although the ticket said Row 1 there was a row of seat in front of ours where the SWAT police were. They were lining the entire stadium. When we first got there, they were standing and we were worried they would stand the entire game, but right before the match started, they all sat in their monstrous gear.
Unlike most things in Georgia the game started on time. The goal we were sitting by was Croatia’s for the first half and the teams spent most of the time on that end of the field. Croatia had many good scoring chances and corner kicks, but the Georgia played excellent defense and the goal keeper kept everything out. They went into halftime in a scoreless tie.
The second half was just as exciting and with Georgia’s goal being the one nearest to our seats, we were in for a real treat. Both teams had their chances during the second half, but in the 90th minute of the contest, Georgia’s Levan Kobiashvili became a national hero. From just over 30 feet away, Kobiashvili took a pass from teammate Otar Martsvaladze and kicked it past Croatian goalie Verdan Runje! The crowd went wild! I guess that’s an understatement. It was mayhem! The SWAT policemen all stood up and even had to stop a few overenthusiastic fans from jumping onto the field.
I was mobbed from behind by Georgian men screaming and hugging me. I was yelling so loud my throat hurt for days afterwards. But there was work left to be done… There were three minutes left of extra time to kill off before the victory was complete. Croatia was not going to go down without a fight and put the ball on net several times in the last three minutes. Georgian defenders worked hard and goal keeper Nukri Revishvili had a spectacular save with under a minute to play. The whistle blew and the Georgian’s had won!
The players stormed the field and took the goal scorer Kobiashvili to the ground in a mob of bodies. The crowd, who had been on their feet since the goal, was buzzing more than ever! Over the load speaker, Queen’s “We Are the Champions” began to play and the fans began to sing! Although this game was just a qualifying match in a long list of matches before the finals in 2012, it meant something for Georgia. And for me. I have been to many sporting events in my life, but I will remember this one forever because of the reaction of the fans inside and outside the stadium. For days afterward people were still talking about it. I feel very fortunate to have been in the stadium to experience this part of Georgian culture.