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The Dispatch

Dispatch – June 26: Ball and Chain


A large part of the Georgian electorate feels unrepresented by the political parties, at least according to polls, but thank God there is football! As political turmoil temporarily gives way to football fever, and each match produces new heroes, nowhere do Georgians feel more seen than in the stories of individual athletes. Some may identify with those known for their hard work or those who have had to battle poor health to get where they are. Others may be inspired by those with personal courage or feel close to those Atlas types burdened by heavy expectations. We, too, have to admit that we felt something when one of the most admired footballers, Giorgi Kochorashvili, shyly confessed that he enjoys writing. And when it comes to economic or geographic backgrounds, our national team can be far more representative than Georgia’s legislative body. But you know that representation game went too far when people start to massively relate to the oppression – real or imagined – of their football idol.

Here is the Dispatch newsletter and Nini, back with weekly updates on what is bothering Georgia.

It’s hot summer days in Georgian cities, and it looks like instead of looking for relaxation, everyone is beating their brains out with their newfound passion for… mathematics. After the first miracle of making it to the European Football Championship, Georgian fans grew appetite for another miracle: making it to the knockout stage. The performance in the first two matches against Turkey and Czechia earned Georgia a single point and the hearts of many international fans. Individual players excelled in various categories, including goalkeeping, defense, and attack. But it will take more than admiration and individual stats to advance to the next stage, especially as the team prepares for their final group match against group leader Portugal. Bleak prospects? Not when you come from Georgia and have a rich history of things out of your control coming to your aid.

Over the past few days, all anyone has been doing is calculating the odds. Portugal, who are guaranteed a place in the knockout stages, have to conserve their energy and not beat us… other potential third-place finishers in other groups can’t suddenly start playing better football than they did before, and one of them has to lose to a favorite by at least three goals, and if the moon is in the seventh house, Jupiter trines Mars, and other stars aligning for Georgia, we still stand a chance. But the perfect plan has one problem: one of those stars is suspiciously missing.

Where is Budu?

The past few months have catapulted Budu Zivzivadze, a Georgian striker who plays for Karlsruher SC in Germany’s second-tier league, into the limelight. His many qualities quickly earned him the status of a golden boy with golden retriever energy. His dance to Freed from Desire on the night of March 26, after a historic qualifying win over Greece, became one of the most memorable moments in Georgian football. When he offered Georgians his place to stay in Germany if they could not book hotels for the Euro games, many saw him as embodying the best of his hometown, Kutaisi. Then protests against the foreign agents law began, and he was one of the first to speak out against the law, earning him a reputation as a good citizen as well.

Most importantly, Budu knows how to find the back of the net, scoring both winning goals in the crucial first qualifying play-off against Luxembourg in March. He scored again in a recent friendly against Montenegro just minutes after coming off the bench. He scores, smiles with his whole face, celebrates with the Gen Z heart gesture, and continues to gain more and more fans. The growing popularity has booked him places on magazine covers and in commercials. This led many to look forward to seeing him play in the Euros, only to be disappointed when he barely got a playtime, fueling anger and… conspiracy theories all over the country. 

I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, but…

It all began in early June. In a lengthy podcast interview, Zivzivadze reiterated his support for those who endured police violence during the protests and went on to criticize Russia as “an enemy state not only for [Georgia], but for almost everybody.” His remarks were picked up by various media outlets, and soon social media was flooded with cards featuring his comments. But the frenzy didn’t last long: some outlets then took down the cards, explaining their decision by Zivzivadze’s own request, citing his need to focus on the European games.

This led some to attribute the act to pressure from above. The Georgian Football Federation is headed by ruling Georgian Dream party MP Levan Kobiashvili, a Georgian football veteran. Tbilisi mayor and GD general secretary Kakha Kaladze, another former football star, is also seen as having a hand in sports affairs. The party now has a long record of meddling in usually non-political areas, such as sports and culture. To the suspicion of pressure were adding the claims that Zivzivadze received some coordinated hate on social media after those remarks, and when he scored against Montenegro, pro-government Imedi TV was unusually late in celebrating the goal online. 

It takes only seconds for Budu’s innocent look to transfrom into a full-on grin. Photos: Georgia’s National Football Team

This was soon about to be forgotten, but then came the European Championship and Zivzivadze wasn’t in the starting line-up against Turkey. There were some initial complaints, but those more familiar with the game agreed that it was logical for him to be second choice to alternative striker Georges Mikautadze, who was coming off a great season in the French top league (and scored in both of the last two Euro games). And anyway, Zivzivadze is known to be particularly effective when he comes off the bench later in the game. But on this day, he wasn’t allowed to enter the field until the 85th minute, sparking discontent and conspiracies that Budu was being punished for his political stance. Still, many fans didn’t want to believe it – even for those who are critical of the government, such perceptions can easily rob them of the much-awaited joy of the historical football moment. 

But when Budu was not allowed to take the field during a match against the Czechia, even the longtime fans had second thoughts: after all, conspiracy theories exist because conspiracies exist, right? The issue quickly exploded and a campaign of sorts emerged on social media, demanding truth, justice, and playing time for Budu. Adding to the backlash was the fact that those who were allowed to play in his place failed to make the most of real chances to end the match with a Georgian victory.

Again, some ardent fans don’t want to buy into these theories, and others have even attributed such claims to dangerous levels of conspiratorial thinking in Georgian society. Willy Sagnol, the French coach of the national team and a former player for France and Bayern Munich, won’t be swayed by political interference, the argument goes, attributing Budu’s benching to Sagnol’s ill-considered football decisions. And there were other players who were also critical of the law but weren’t benched (the counter-argument being that it’s harder to find their alternatives on the substitutes’ bench).

Twat‘ Contest

With not all the stars aligning the way we wanted them to over the past two days, it looks like Georgia’s only option to advance to the knockouts is to beat Portugal later today. Will Mr. Sagnol finally reach for the missing star to make things work? It’s unclear, but whatever the decision, the damage has been done: if Budu plays, he’ll have to deal with the immense pressure the controversy has put on his shoulders. 

“I am insulted every day by some twats (…) I say it again, twats” Sagnol told the press on June 25, apparently tired of receiving backlash “for absolutely no football reasons”. 

A legitimate response from a professional who has been inundated with some grave accusations? Well, Mr. Sagnol might as well save a few kind words, at least in his mind, for those responsible for poisoning the political environment like that right before a historic tournament. Or he can simply win the game and make us forget all about it.


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