Euros 2024: Georgia's Soccer Dream Unites a Divided Nation
Euros 2024: Georgia's Soccer Dream Unites a Divided Nation

Georgia may have lost to neighboring Turkey in their Euro 2024 opener, but the team's participation in their first major tournament has lifted the nation's spirits, providing a respite from intense domestic politics.

"The mood is sky-high," said Giorgi Gogishvili, a 53-year-old fan in Tbilisi, where excitement was palpable as Georgians anticipated Saturday's game against the Czech Republic. "The whole city, the whole Georgian nation, are proud of the lads." In their debut performance in Germany, the world's 74th-ranked team narrowly missed an equalizer against Turkey, hitting the post in added time before ultimately conceding and losing 3-1.

Despite the loss, the team's spirited play has kept morale high following their historic qualification in March. Georgia's penalty shootout victory over Greece secured their spot in a major international tournament for the first time, prompting celebrations across the nation of 3.7 million. During the Turkey match, Tbilisi's streets were deserted as fans gathered in bars and around large screens at the main stadium to watch.

For many Georgians, the Euros provide a rare moment of national unity amid high social tensions. Recently, a controversial "foreign agents" law inspired by Russia has sparked the largest protests in Georgia since its independence from Moscow in 1991. Critics argue the law is draconian, while government officials claim it is necessary to protect national sovereignty from Western influence. The protests have often been met with violent crackdowns by security forces.

Several national team players have spoken out against the law, frustrating government figures who support it. However, when Georgia's players take the field, political tensions seem to ease temporarily.

Georgia's political elite showed a rare display of unity during Tuesday's opening match in Gelsenkirchen. Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze and President Salome Zourabichvili, despite their political differences, both attended the game. Even jailed former President Mikheil Saakashvili sent a message of support to the team from prison, where he is serving a six-year sentence for abuse of power.

"Sport always unites the nation," said Gogishvili, a math tutor who supports the protests led by younger Georgians. Davit Mikeladze, a 32-year-old programmer from Batumi, praised the team's efforts but remained doubtful about their impact on long-term politics. "Everyone wants the team to win," he said. "To some extent, it brings us together and distracts us, but after the championship, everything will probably start up again."

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