On a bus journey home, Giorgi Chakvetadze, Georgia’s star football player, was recently caught on camera reading Albert Camus. The virality of that photo seemed to suggest that Georgia loves football, just like Sisyphus loves struggle. True, football has not always returned or rewarded the passionate affection it gets from the small country. But now and then, the team sport still finds small things to give back to its most ardent fans. One such thing is personal battles, battles fought alone by individual players and filled with stories of extraordinary perseverance, breakthroughs, failures, and comebacks. These stories have become particularly thrilling to watch lately, making the repeated defeats more sufferable for Georgian football enthusiasts.
Yet, while the Gods of sports are kindly distributing their gifts, the managers in Georgia are apparently not quite prepared to accept them.
Here is Nini with this week’s Dispatch and stories about absurdities and their strict limits.
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio
In a tense football match last weekend, Spain beat Georgia 3:1. The game marked a culmination of yet another unsuccessful Euro qualifying round for our side. But to many Georgian fans, the loss still felt like a victory. And it was that single goal that did it. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the rising Georgian star, scored following a beautiful assist by midfielder Giorgi Chakvetadze. And just to make things clear: “Chakve” assisting and “Kvara” scoring starts to feel here a little bit like Messi’s Argentina winning the World Cup felt for global viewers last year: things seem to be finally falling into their rightful places.
Before Kvaratskhelia’s rare talent would take the football world by storm, it was Chakvetadze – now 24 – who was supposed to be the bright future of Georgian sports. Years ago, spectacular dribbling and outstandingly intellectual playing style made fans fall deeply in love with the young player. But soon, his fame started to wane. Chakvetadze fell victim to the familiar malaise of aspiring Georgian football stars – injuries and poor management. And from a big sensation, the boy’s career slowly descended into another unfortunate “what could have been” story.
Then came Kvaratskhelia’s time to shine. Stuck in the Russian championship, his luck made an unlikely match with the world’s misfortunes, and the fallout of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine quickly propelled him into Italy’s Serie A, one of the top European club championships. It took him a single debut season to earn the league’s Best Player’s award. But his peak success, too, was also quickly followed by a crisis. Sudden fame and pressure turned out hard to withstand, and his six-month goal drought this year led some critics to downplay him as a “one-season-wonder.”
For some time, it felt like yet another big story was hurtling towards its premature end.
Stars (almost) realigning
Then, one day, in a wild game where he repeatedly tried and failed, Kvaratskhelia finally found the net again, signaling his imminent comeback. It happened at the time when Chakvetadze, too, was rediscovering his spark and turning it into blazing fire. Having made it into England’s second-tier league, Chakvetadze’s physical shape quickly improved. He started reappearing in the national team games, and his old moves reignited nearly forgotten sensations in the fans who stubbornly refused to give up on him. Eventually, both of Georgia’s sweethearts made it back together. Perfectly in sync, the two have recently found each other on the pitch, amplified each other’s magic, and staged a show that Georgian fans would hardly have dreamed of watching.
That new confidence turned insufficient to beat top rivals to win the Euro 2024 cup ticket. But there are still chances – thanks to an earlier successful performance in the UEFA Nations League, an alternative international tournament that grants second chances to struggling teams. Georgia must win two playoff games against less scary rivals to make the much-longed-for debut in the Euro 2024. These two games, scheduled in March, were supposed to be something to look forward to.
But then, news broke that Kvaratskhelia would miss the first playoff game after he got consecutive yellow cards in the Euro-qualifying games. The rule is strange and quite complicated, but critics believe relevant authorities had to consider – and warn about – the risks. Had they done proper research, Georgia’s top player would have been more careful, and the national team wouldn’t have to play without its top ace in the decisive game against Luxembourg.
The Georgian Football Federation had no choice but to admit the blame… well, almost. The Federation, headed by football veteran and (of course!) incumbent ruling party MP Levan Kobiashvili, blamed the failure on a “human error” of the staff in charge. Kobiashvili’s deputy, Aleksandre Iashvili, even said he regretted it and was willing to take “responsibility.” And that was it: the one-time verbal acknowledgment is the top administrative or political “responsibility” (verbally, without any practical consequence) one can expect in Georgia today. To the fury of some sports fans, no sanctions or resignations followed. However, There were many calls for “unity” ahead of the tense March playoffs.
Should one imagine Sisyphus happy?
For contemporary Georgia, the new generation of sports talents means much more than better chances of qualifying. The country whose youth is still plagued by the toxic legacy of past decades desperately needs positive role models. Successful athletes showing examples of hard work and ambition are set to replace lingering peer pressure that discourages honest work ethics. Their idol appearing in a paparazzi shot reading philosophy fiction is set to show them that reading isn’t only for nerdy weirdos. The striking humility of top athletes can be an example for young Georgians that success lies in deeds, not words.
But one’s efforts also have their limits, too. One cannot work hard and give their best only to have luck, sudden global shifts, and stars in the sky work for them. One also needs solid systems in place to rely on. Yet frustrating neglect and lack of accountability of those with the authority, be it sports, culture, or anything else, can kill that motivation quickly and for good. In countries like Georgia, success – whatever the domain – never comes easy. But one can still try: as Camus would put it, “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Unless Sisyphus fears that there will be someone standing at the top of that hill who pushes that rock down and crashes him beneath it.
But the absurdity, too, should have its strict limits.