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Georgia and ‘Kvaradona’ will Play Their First European Championship as Divisions Deepen at Home

The nation of Georgia has been racked by protests and political turmoil but there’s one cause that almost everyone supports: the national soccer team.

Led by Napoli winger Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who is nicknamed “Kvaradona” by his fans in Italy for his Diego Maradona-like skills, Georgia is the only team among the 24 at Euro 2024 which has never played a European Championship before.

Georgia beat former champion Greece in March to reach its first major tournament since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The win meant flag-waving crowds on the field and late-night celebrations in the capital, Tbilisi.

“I think this qualification, people in Georgia waited for it since decades and it was such a nice moment to celebrate all together,” Georgia’s French coach, Willy Sagnol, said in April. “It wasn’t only the Georgian football world, it was really the whole country. Young, older people, they were all celebrating together, and it was really a moment that I will never forget.”

Since then, the most notable crowds have been protesters. Demonstrations lasting weeks have pitted opposition supporters against the government as the protesters push back against what they call the “Russian law,” which they say would restrict the media in the South Caucasus country of 3.7 million and jeopardize its bid to join the European Union. The bill was signed into law Monday by the speaker of parliament after the legislature overrode the president’s veto.

Georgia is the clear outsider in Group F which also has Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Still, one shock win could be enough to qualify for the knockout stages as one of the best third-place teams.

FILE – Georgia’s Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, right, celebrates after scoring his side’s second goal during the Euro 2024 group A qualifying soccer match between Georgia and Scotland at the Boris Paichadze National Stadium in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Nov. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Tamuna Kulumbegashvili, File)

Opposing teams are sure to try marking Kvaratskhelia out of the game, but the winger’s lightning-fast footwork could elude them.

“Khvicha is a special player. He has had incredible evolution the last two years but overall he’s stayed the same, kept his motivation very high,” said Sagnol, who knows all about elite-level soccer after winning the Champions League as a Bayern Munich player. “He’s a good example for everyone, also for the other players, and he’s just a fantastic leader.”

Otherwise, top-level experience is in short supply in Georgia’s squad. Besides Kvaratskhelia, only Valencia’s Giorgi Mamardashvili — considered one of the world’s most promising goalkeepers — and Metz forward Georges Mikautadze play for clubs in Europe’s top five leagues.

Without a strong domestic club competition, Sagnol’s initial squad for Euro 2024 contained 26 players from teams in 17 different countries. One of them, Saba Lobzhanidze, plays in Georgia — the U.S. state — for Atlanta United.

The Georgian flag is new at major soccer tournaments, but Georgian players aren’t.

When the Soviet Union won the inaugural European Championship final back in 1960, its lineup featured three Georgians including Mikheil Meskhi, a talented left winger not unlike Kvaratskhelia. Georgian club Dinamo Tbilisi won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup back in 1981.

Since independence, Georgia has produced talented players but rarely enough at one time for a truly competitive national team. Instead, Georgia’s rugby players have led the way with six men’s World Cup appearances.

The last two teams to debut at the European Championship, Finland and North Macedonia, played a combined six games and lost five in 2021. Neither progressed out of the group stage.

Georgia’s ideal scenario would be to follow Wales, which reached the semifinals in its first European Championship appearance back in 2016.

“The ambition is just to give our best,” Sagnol said. “As I always say to my players, never focus on the result, only focus on your performance.”

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By JAMES ELLINGWORTH AP Sports Writer

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