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 a coach led FC Dinamo Tbilisi to glory in the 1981 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, was elected as the first president of an autonomous Georgian Football Federation (GFF). 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, a 2-2 friendly draw with Lithuania. Further momentum was gained when the GFF was admitted to football's world 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 qualifying group also 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 Temur Ketsbaia (2), Georgi Kinkladze, Gocha Gogrichiani and Shota Arveladze. The team were then level on points with third-placed Poland in their maiden attempt at FIFA World Cup qualification, for France 1998, before making that position their own – behind Italy and Romania – in the preliminaries for the 2002 World Cup.
Georgia made their mark at youth level too by reaching the final tournament of three underage competitions during their first decade as a UEFA member. 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.
In the club game, teams from the Umaglesi Liga feature 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 1980s. Dinamo not only lifted the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, beating FC Carl Zeiss Jena in the final in Dusseldorf in 1981; Akhalkatsi's side were also semi-finalists the following season, and had knocked Liverpool FC out of the European Champion Clubs' Cup as European debutants in 1979.
Another landmark in Georgia's football development came in 1998 when, under the presidency of Merab Zhordania, the GFF 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 attendances and a fresher, more exciting top-flight competition.
The GFF also had cause for celebration in August 2002 when the federation's new headquarters were opened. The construction of the premises had been funded by UEFA. Later that year a new technical centre for the national teams was launched with the aid of FIFA's Goal Programme. This training base meets all modern international requirements. The purpose of such efforts is to help realise the dream of every Georgian fan: that the country will be represented in the final rounds of European Championships and World Cups at all levels, and in the later stages of the continent's club competitions.
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