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Kvaratskhelia Set to Return as Georgia Chases Euro 2024 Dream Against Greece

The country of Georgia is preparing for the biggest soccer match in its history. Having its best player back should help.

Napoli forward Khvicha Kvaratskhelia had to sit out Thursday’s Euro 2024 qualifying playoff game against Luxembourg because of a one-game suspension. It didn’t matter as his teammate Budu Zivzivadze stepped up to score both goals in a 2-0 win after a crucial red card for Luxembourg.

Now Kvaratskhelia — “Kvaradona” to Napoli fans — can return for the decisive game Tuesday against Greece. A win would put Georgia into a major soccer tournament for the first time as an independent nation.

“We’re only halfway there,” Zivzivadze said after Thursday’s game. “Now we have to complete our mission.”

It’s been a long road for Georgia in soccer since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Before that, Georgia was best known in soccer for the Dinamo Tbilisi club team which won the 1981 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, beating teams like West Ham and Feyenoord on the way. The club provided four players for the Soviet squad at the World Cup the following year. At the time, Georgian players had a reputation as technically skilled dribblers, not unlike Kvaratskhelia.georg

More recently, the lack of soccer success — at least until Kvaratskhelia emerged from the Dinamo youth system — was mirrored by a boom in rugby in Georgia. The sport was a good fit in a country known for its Olympic weightlifters and wrestlers. Georgia has now qualified for six men’s Rugby World Cups in a row, as well as earning statement wins in 2022 over more established teams Italy and Wales.

On the soccer field, Kvaratskhelia drove the team’s success in the Nations League as he scored five goals and four assists in six games. That helped earn Georgia a spot in the qualifying playoff bracket.

Georgia will have a passionate home crowd Tuesday at the 50,000-capacity Boris Paichadze National Stadium in the capital, Tbilisi, to take on former European champion Greece.

“Today we did a good job, but didn’t play perfectly,” Georgia coach Willy Sagnol said after Thursday’s game. “We have to improve the quality of our play for the final match, because the other semifinal winner (Greece) will come to Tbilisi with a high motivation and confidence.”

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By JAMES ELLINGWORTH AP Sports Writer

By JAMES ELLINGWORTH AP Sports Writer

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