The secret behind Georgia’s thrilling Euro 2024 ride – and why Spain must beware

The secret behind Georgia’s thrilling Euro 2024 ride – and why Spain must beware

As Khvicha Kvaratskhelia attempted to put words on what he’d helped create, with so much joyous feeling swirling around his thoughts, his mind ultimately went to the only place it could. “I’d love to see what’s happening in Tbilisi,” the Georgia playmaker said.

It’s a nice line that can be said about smaller countries enjoying a first national moment. Those who attend the tournament actually miss it, because the real event is back home: the parties, the elation. Granted, the thousands of raucous Georgians who made the pilgrimage to Gelsenkirchen for this historic 2-0 win over Portugal won’t be feeling like that, especially after their victorious team insisted on a celebratory photo in front of them. It was similar for anyone else there.

While Kvaratshkelia and his teammates will now be watching videos from back home, everyone else should want to watch them. That doesn’t just apply to their elated countrymen.

On Sunday, Georgia will meet Spain, probably the team of the tournament so far. The Spanish, however, will be facing the story of the tournament so far. Even Roberto Martinez noted how Portugal “didn’t match their intensity”.

No one else can match the narrative and emotional momentum around Georgia. All of their games are these spectacles, amplified by a national fervour, and with their team playing entertaining and genuinely distinctive football. Martinez was one of many to say as much, lauding their ingenuity.

Georgia’s victory may have been counter-attacking but it wasn’t quite backs-to-the-wall because they were so willing to get on the front foot… and then turn the other way onto the other foot. Georgia poured forward with abandon and adventure. It was thrilling, and perhaps indicative of something else.

Amid this grander debate in football over Pep Guardiola’s positional influence and pressing, this Georgia feel and look distinctive. Their players, despite a relative modesty of career, aren’t just interchangeable drones who just follow pre-set orders to harry opposition players. They’re both languid and lightning, willing to take people on and then take off. The rolled-down socks of half their starting line-up further the sense of a throwback, if also this glorious contrast with how they can suddenly be so forceful after a feint.

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia of Georgia celebrates (EPA)

Portugal couldn’t keep up with it. This was a second-string Portugal, sure, but it was still a team filled with international stars of a level beyond a country of just four million people like Georgia.

Their charismatic manager, Willy Sagnol, naturally sought to use this.

Before Euro 2024, which is Georgia’s first-ever tournament, the manager told them “the only responsibility is to make the Georgian nation proud”. A former French international who reached the final of a World Cup, Sagnol is well able to compare the difference in expectation and anticipation.

“When you’re the small team in the competition – brackets – you know you have nothing to lose. The only thing we said before the competition is whatever happened, we don’t want any regrets after the competition, the regret of maybe not having played our football or maybe not having enjoyed the competition as much as we should have done.”

There was never any risk of that, but it wasn’t just by abandoning caution. There was a structure to what Georgia did, which made the fluidity and creativity of their attacking all the more impressive. Sagnol had them drilled in a controlled low block but ready to unleash in a way that is arguably unique. The first goal was the clearest illustration of this. Georges Mikautadze pounced on a poor pass from Antonio Silva, before so clinically releasing Kvaratshkelia. It was all clean lines and high-class technique.

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia of Georgia celebrates (EPA)

That comes from something that goes further back than the occasion and the tactics. Sagnol made a point of lauding the forward-thinking of the Georgian football federation, talking about these players come from investment in infrastructure 15 years ago.

What is more interesting, however, is that this just wasn’t the academy system copied from Spain or Germany. Georgia kept much more of their own cultural approach to football. This isn’t just the usual thing you hear in these discussions either. Georgian football is an outlier in many ways.

Just go onto the internet now and search for clips from Dinamo Tbilisi’s victory over Liverpool in the 1979-80 European Cup. The Georgian side overwhelmed Bob Paisley’s great side 3-0 with an expressiveness and innovation that would stand out even in today’s football. The second goal is a sensation. Centre-half Giorgi Chilaia suddenly surges forward 60 yards at full pelt, before slipping in Ramaz Shengelia to deftly lift the ball over Ray Clemence. There were echoes of that in what we saw against Portugal. West Ham United meanwhile still talk about how the same team took them apart on the way to lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup the following season.

The manner in which these football cultures were subsumed into the Soviet Union international side meant clubs like Dinamo Tbilisi served as quasi-national teams, but Georgia now have their own. They have their own glory, too. This was a unifying moment, as Kvaratshkelia kept stating. “We showed we can do everything together,” the playmaker began. “Unity makes us strong.”

Kvaratshkelia has similarly told the New York Times how that individual showmanship and expressiveness is a core part of Georgian culture, and this is what the football federation attempted to incorporate into the domestic game’s infrastructure. It is modern technical and tactical coaching, sure, but while retaining that rare individuality.

It should be acknowledged that these sort of instructive stories come around any time any lesser-resourced country breaks through, as we already saw so much with Iceland in 2016. They aren’t always lasting, and what probably happens is that the initial shift brings enough difference and enough of a charge to do something more. By the same token, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything that other countries can directly mimic. It’s more about the real benefit of proper focused planning.

Sagnol duly told his players to go and play like “when you were 16, 17, 18”. They did that while complementing it with a mature defensive display. Goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili’s saves and defender Giorgi Gvelesiani were superb.

Some of that is Sagnol’s keen tactical mind, but all of it is empowered by his motivation. You only have to read his words here. To hear him say them is even more convincing. Sagnol is a captivating and charismatic speaker, who has already marked himself as one of the managers of the tournament. You can see why his players follow him.

Ireland have been talking to him about their job, but he may already be getting to the point where he’s out of their reach. More lucrative job offers will surely follow this.

This night wasn’t about that, though, as Sagnol himself would insist. It was about something bigger, and deeper.

Kvaratshkelia described it as “the best day of my life”, “my dream”. There was one last show of jubilant togetherness, as the players danced out of the stadium in a group. Outside the stadium, car horns blared as Georgian fans sang and banged drums. It was still nothing like Tbilisi. There are no other stories at the Euros like Georgia.