As the USSR entered its final days at the end of the 1980s, the first steps towards an independent Georgia were taken by the country's football community.
On 15 February 1990 the Football Congress of Georgia decided to abandon the competitions of the Soviet Union and organise its own national championship. At the same time, Nodar Akhalkatsi, who as coach led FC Dinamo Tbilisi to glory in the 1981 European Cup Winners' Cup, was elected as the first president of an autonomous Georgian Football Federation (Sakartvelos Fekhburtis Federatsia – SFF). The USSR would finally collapse in December 1991.
As well as witnessing the initial staging of the Georgian Premier League, or Umaglesi Liga, 1990 was also notable for Georgia's national team debut. On 27 May, they achieved a 2-2 friendly draw with Lithuania. Further momentum was gained when the SFF was admitted to football's worldwide governing body FIFA and subsequently became a full member of UEFA in 1992.
The national team made their competitive bow in the qualifying tournament for EURO '96, kicking off at home to Moldova on 7 September 1994. Although that match was lost, the new country performed impressively by finishing third in a qualification group containing Germany, Bulgaria, Albania and Wales. It was against the Welsh that Georgia claimed their first competitive win – a 5-0 victory in Tbilisi – earned by goals from Temuri Ketsbaia (2), Georgi Kinkladze, Gocha Gogrichiani and Shota Arveladze. The side were then level on points with third-placed Poland in their maiden attempt at FIFA World Cup qualification, for France '98, before making that position their own –behind Italy and Romania – in the preliminaries for the 2002 World Cup.
Under Nodar Akhalkatsi Jr, who was in charge of the SFF in the first decade of the 21st century, some big-name coaches were brought in to work with the national team including Klaus Toppmöller and Héctor Cúper. However it was former Georgia player Ketsbaia who has had the most success, launching his tenure with ten unbeaten matches and going on to amass an unequalled 40 games at the helm. Among these, a 0-0 draw with France and 1-0 triumph against Croatia when Levan Kobiashvili scored the only goal. Later, Kobiashvili became the first man to play 100 times for Georgia.
Georgia have made their mark at youth level too, reaching the final tournament of five underage competitions. After appearances in the 1997 UEFA European Under-17 Championship and the 1999 UEFA European U19 Championship, they surpassed those achievements by getting to the quarter-finals of the U17 event in 2002. They had to wait ten years for their next notable result but it was worth it as Georgia made it to the semi-finals of 2012 UEFA European U17 Championship before featuring at the 2013 UEFA European U19 Championship finals.
In the club game, teams from the Umaglesi Liga figure each year in the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League, routinely beginning in the preliminary rounds. However, the nation's representatives have still to attain the standard set by Dinamo Tbilisi in the late 1970s and early 80s. Dinamo not only lifted the Cup Winners' Cup, beating FC Carl Zeiss Jena in the 1981 final in Dusseldorf; Nodar Akhalkatsi Sr's side were also semi-finalists the following season. Additionally, they had knocked Liverpool FC out of the European Champion Clubs' Cup on their competition debut in 1979.
Another landmark in Georgia's football development came in 1998 when, under the presidency of Merab Zhordania, the SFF reorganised the Premier League structure, reducing it from 16 to 12 teams. This change, one of a series of reforms carried out at the time, had a positive effect as borne out by increased attendance at matches and a fresher, more exciting top flight. Next came Dinamo Tbilisi's qualification for the UEFA Cup group stage in 2004 when the tournament was first played under its new format.
Even now the Georgian game has something to boast about. Its most successful player Kakha Kaladze claimed both the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Super Cup twice with AC Milan and also won the FIFA Club World Cup. In 2012 Dinamo were awarded the right to host the 2015 UEFA Super Cup at the Mikheil Meskhi stadium.
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