By Vakhtang Bzikadze
There were celebrations in Georgia on 11 January as one of the country's favourite footballing sons, Gaioz Jejelava, turned 90. The sole survivor from the first ten seasons of the Soviet league, the former FC Dinamo Tbilisi forward is a piece of living history.
Jejelava played for Dinamo before and after World War II having been born just after the start of World War I, on 29 December, 1914 in Tiflis. Since then, a readjusted calendar has given him a new birthday while Tiflis is now Tbilisi, the capital of the young independent nation of Georgia.
In 135 games for Dinamo, Jejelava scored 60 goals, winning league runners-up medals in 1939 and 1940, and bronze medals in 1946 and 1947. He was awarded the Order of Red Star in 1946, the Sign of Honour in 1950 and 1957, as well as the Order of Labour Red Flag in 1972.
Had circumstances been different, Jejelava would doubtless have become a major international player, but along with his legendary Dinamo team-mate Boris Paichadze, his talents were destined to be unrecognised outside the Soviet Union, as they did not introduce an official national team until 1952.
Nonetheless, Jejelava - who was Dinamo captain in 1947 and 1948 - played in at least one famous game against a foreign team as a Georgian representative side faced a similar side from the Spanish Basque country in 1937. And it is in the hearts of the Georgian people where his legend lives the strongest.
Stories still circulate about his skills. Some, it must be said, sound quite incredible. Once, while playing for a team from the Georgian town of Poti in the Ukrainian town of Kadievka, Jejelava is said to have dribbled past the whole team of opponents before laying down in front of the goalline and heading the ball into the net. He was immediately handed a red card for unsportsmanlike conduct.
There may be a touch of fairy dust about that story, but his prodigious dribbling skills were no myth, nor was his most loved trick of running round a defender before making a pass or scoring a goal. It was a skill that he put down do peculiar childhood circumstances.
"When I was small - and I always was small because I never grew higher than 1m62 - my parents bought me a pair of new shoes," he remembered. "Soon they noticed that my right shoe wore out quicker than the left one. The reason was that on the way to school I dribbled with stones using my right foot. Dad told me off for this, so I decided to wear out shoes evenly by using my left foot to kick the stones as well. That's why I could use both feet in the end."
Having thrived on the pitch, Jejelava also had success as a coach, taking the reins at VVS Moskva under direct orders from Joseph Stalin's son Vasili. They finished fourth in the Soviet championship in 1950, and got to the semi-finals of the Soviet Cup the following year only to lose 1-0 against CDKA Moskva.
Jejelava went on to be coach of Dinamo with little success between 1955 and 1957 and had the honour of leading the Georgian side that finished second in the 1956 Spartakiada tournament, which saw sides from all of the Soviet republics competing.
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