In the early morning hours of 11 August 2015 a group of young men from Abkhazia – a breakaway region in north-western Georgia – crossed the de facto border and drove roughly 250 kilometres into Georgian territory until they reached the outskirts of Tbilisi. They approached the capital from the west, passing by a sprawling new shopping mall and the statue of David the Builder – the most iconic of all Georgian kings – next to a towering Georgian flag, flapping in the warm summer breeze.
Their destination, Dinamo Arena, lay further inside the city, on the left embankment of the Mtkvari river that zigzags through the capital. On that Tuesday, the venue was scheduled to host Barcelona and Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup. With Barcelona scoring five times and Sevilla netting four, the match would produce more goals than any other Super Cup match in history. With nearly 52,000 spectators, it would also break the record for attendance.
Abkhazians moving through Tbilisi must have found the city hot and humid, but not as humid as Abkhazia. As they drove through the wide streets that lead to the stadium, they surely noticed the palpable sense of anticipation. They must have noticed, too, that the city was still recovering from a devastating flash flood of one of Mtkvari’s tributaries that shook the capital earlier that summer. Abkhazia is increasingly disconnected from Georgia, but they had to have heard of the flood.
The group of fans eventually reached the stadium where they watched Georgian children in colourful t-shirts dance and sing John Lennon’s Imagine during the opening ceremony. They watched the children haul giant letters onto the pitch to assemble words and finally a phrase: FOOTBALL UNITED FOR PEACE.
They watched Sevilla take an early lead only to be stymied by Lionel Messi’s back-to-back free-kick all within the first 15 minutes. They watched the Catalonians expand their lead to three before Sevilla stunned the Champions League winners with three goals of their own that sent the match to extra-time.
As Abkhazian fans watched the drama at Dinamo Arena, trouble was brewing back home: upon their return to Abkhazia, they would find themselves at the heart of a bitter controversy that re-opened decades-long wounds and asked long-buried questions anew.
Abkhazia declared its independence from Georgia in 1989, at the cusp of the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the time, Georgia was struggling to emerge from the ruins of the Soviet Union in one piece and failed to establish control over the coastal region. Disagreement over the post-Soviet relationship between Abkhazia and Georgia escalated into an armed confrontation. Seeking to gain a foothold in the Caucasus, the newly constituted Russian Federation entered the conflict on the Abkhazian side. The war that ensued lasted 13 months, produced tens of thousands of casualties and displaced more than 200,000 people.
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Since then, the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia exists in a state of limbo, its economy and military wholly dependent on Russia. A motley collection of states – which includes Nicaragua, Nauru and Venezuela – recognise Abkhazia’s independence while the United Nations and all but its five members consider the region a part of Georgia. Relations are strained and, as fewer and fewer people travel between the two, the border that once existed exclusively on paper becomes increasingly real with each passing year.
The exact number of Abkhazian fans who made their way to Dinamo Arena on that August day remains unknown. It is also unclear – and much more important, for obvious political reasons – whether, when passing through the stadium gates, they flashed tickets allotted to domestic or international fans.
Ticket sales had not gone smoothly. UEFA had enforced a 50/50 division between Georgian and international buyers. The website of the online vendor responsible for the domestic portion crashed multiple times. Hacking was suspected. The demand for tickets was so high that it became impossible to host the operation online.
In an unprecedented decision, made after the intervention of a special envoy from Nyon, tickets went on sale in kiosks in downtown Tbilisi. Queues that lined up were longer than anything the city had seen in recent times and brought back the memories of bread lines that were a common feature of city life in Tbilisi of the 1990s. Riot shields and special forces yielding batons were a constant presence; three fans were hospitalised and many more sustained injuries during the day.
It is conceivable but unlikely that the Abkhazian fans were among the hopefuls in the lines. It is much more likely that they had purchased the tickets online, as international fans. Their identities have not been released and the full story remains to be revealed. What we do know, however, is that the news of their presence at the Dinamo Arena reached Abkhazia within hours of the final whistle, and quickly spread there.
The reaction was harsh and unforgiving. It only made matters worse that the game had taken place on 11 August, only three days before the Memorial Day of Defenders of the Fatherland, the day on which Abkhazians commemorate the victims of the war. Democracy & Freedom Watch reported on how the fallout unfolded.
An organisation of Abkhaz veterans called Aruaa – Soldiers – drafted an open letter in which it harshly criticised the group, charging them with “cynicism and disrespect for the memory of victims [of the war]” and with “insulting the memory of those who died for freedom of Abkhazia.” The self-declared president of Abkhazia, Raul Hajymba, responded to the controversy by releasing an ominous statement in which he assured the population that the State Security Service would swiftly “deal with the fans.”
The editor-in-chief of Chegemskaya Pravda, a Russian-language newspaper in Abkhazia, captured the essence of the controversy: “It’s necessary, of course, to love football,” he wrote, “but I think that it wasn’t worth it for our young people to go to the match in Tbilisi. It is necessary to take into account the existing realities and the fact that we are still at war. It wasn’t worth to disregard the enormous sacrifices, which our nation suffered, in order to see Lionel Messi.”
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It had been painful for the generation who had lived through the war to learn that fellow Abkhazians had willingly crossed the border that had been put in place through much blood and sacrifice. That they had done so to watch a game of football, right before the day of commemoration, did not help their case. That Messi was involved had perhaps made their crime understandable, but even that was hardly an excuse.
Abkhazia is opaque for outside observers and the fate of the fans remains unknown. It could be that the authorities showed leniency. It could also be that the separatist government exploited the scandal for a show of power and punished the fans for their foray into Georgian territory.
As for Abkhazians who did not go to the Super Cup match in Tbilisi, the Super Cup would come to them. In a deeply symbolic gesture, Georgian government organised an exhibition of the three cups – the Champions League, Europa League and Super Cup trophies – on the Enguri Bridge which separates Abkhazia from Georgia. In a widely publicised series, the trophies toured the border villages like the Olympic flame. The stunt produced a bizarre set of images where trophies are seen perched on the black-and-white barricades that make up the de facto border.
The move, orchestrated, among others, by Kakha Kaladze – Georgia’s legendary full-back-turned-politician – was a thinly veiled demonstration, delivered right to the doorstep of Abkhazia, of the benefits incorporation into the Georgian state could bring to Abkhazians. Just across the bridge, the showcase implied, is where you can watch Messi score goals in a major cup final.
The debate over participation in sports is one of the most heated dimensions of the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict. As in the rest of Georgia, football is the most popular sport in Abkhazia. They have routinely, and unsuccessfully, requested recognition from FIFA and UEFA. The recognition of Kosovo by FIFA in 2012 sparked renewed hopes for Abkhazians who have been trying to establish the case of the newly created Balkan state as a relevant precedent, but the analogy does not seem to have worked.
Recently, Abkhazia changed its strategy from seeking inclusion to replication – in 2016, Abkhazia hosted the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA) World Cup, widely referred to as the World Cup of Unrecognized States. The rogue tournament featured, among others, teams representing Iraqi Kurdistan, United Koreans of Japan and Somaliland. Abkhazia defeated Chagos Islands in the opening fixture and finished first in the three-team Group A that also included Western Armenia. Abkhazia went on to overcome Northern Cyprus in the semi-final before prevailing in the dramatic penalty shootout in the final against Panjab, a team that claims to represent the Punjabi diaspora.
The Georgian side has repeatedly stressed that incorporation into the Georgian state would mean, for Abkhazians, access to the world of football. Unsurprisingly, the Super Cup was used as an opportunity to deliver that message louder and clearer than ever before.
The promise of inclusion, after all, is what had brought the game to Tbilisi in the first place. As part of the Soviet Union, Georgians felt like they were a part of the footballing world. Georgians played in the World Cup under the flag of the Soviet Union and Dinamo Tbilisi, Georgia’s most successful club, competed against major European clubs.
An especially successful generation of Georgian footballers in late-1970s even brought European glory. In 1979, Dinamo Tbilisi eliminated Liverpool from the European Cup with a comfortable 3-0 victory in the second leg at the Dinamo Arena. The following year, Dinamo won the European Cup Winners’ Cup, defeating, on their way to the final, FA Cup winners West Ham and Dutch giants Feyenoord.
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With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, top level European football disappeared from Georgia, not to return ever since. Georgia’s economy tanked just as football was undergoing rapid commercialisation. This produced a lag that haunts Georgian football to this day. Like in all former Soviet states, the domestic league is starved for cash. Players leave and the drain cripples domestic clubs, which, in turn, perpetuates the loop.
In 26 years of independence, no Georgian club has qualified for the Champions League and the only appearance any Georgian club has ever made in the group stages of the UEFA Cup was made by Dinamo Tbilisi in 2004/05 season.
UEFA is now finally recognising the inconspicuous absence from major European tournaments of formerly prominent Eastern European clubs like Ararat Yerevan, Zalgiris, Dinamo Minsk and Dinamo Tbilisi. The Super Cup is deployed as an instrument of communication, sending a message that top-flight European football is once again open and accessible to non-Western Europeans.
This year, Skopje, Macedonia will host the UEFA Super Cup and next year the competition will travel to the edge of Eastern European territory as it moves to Tallinn, Estonia.
Back on the freshly sprinkled, bright green pitch of the Dinamo Arena, the break before extra-time was taking longer than usual. Copious amount of water was spilled, splashed and drunk – even as evening turned into night, humidity stayed stifling. Fans visiting from Spain grew louder and more nervous, while mood among the Georgian portions turned sombre.
Watching Luis Enrique and Unai Emery frantically give final instructions, the domestic crowd turned nostalgic. The slow realisation of the absence of Georgian clubs and players on Dinamo Arena finally sunk in. With the chance to be a spectator, came the longing to participate.
The happiest hour of Georgian fans was also perhaps the saddest: the apparent closeness to the footballing summit gradually turned into a painful reminder of the actual distance.
The second half of the extra-time was almost over when Messi struck from a free-kick again. He hit the wall but the ball rolled back to him. He took another swing and this time found the target. Beto made a heroic save but Pedro, in what was to be his last game in the Blaugrana jersey, was there for the rebound.
The crowd cheered as Michel Platini handed Andrés Iniesta the silver trophy. Messi would later say that playing in Tbilisi had felt like playing in front of the home crowd. Somewhere among the stands the group of Abkhazians who had dared to cross the border to watch the big game in enemy territory must have cheered with the rest, pondering their journey back and thinking, hopefully, that it had all been worth it
By Giorgi Tsintsadze @GiorgiHereNow