"It was awful," said a haunted leading politician as he returned from surveying the damage. "Simply put, it was a nightmare."
An earthquake in 1991, registering 7.1 on the Richter scale, devastated the region around the epicentre at Mount Samertskhle, some 120km north-west of the Georgian capital Tbilisi. Whole villages disappeared while the biggest town Sachkhere was battered to the point of submission, with buildings destroyed, supply lines cut and power down for weeks.
Around 25 people died and many more were left homeless – some 80,000 in total throughout the region. Families sought refuge where they could. A roundabout in the middle of Sachkhere became a makeshift rescue centre while about 60 families made their temporary home at the football stadium, pitching improvised tents across the turf. It seemed the safest place.
In the weeks that followed, the field was cleared as the town got back on its feet, new buildings rising from the dusty rubble. By 1993/94 the local team, FC Chikhura Sachkhere, were once more playing in Georgia's second tier. It was a chastening return – they were relegated after mustering just 11 points from their 26 games. Being there, however, appeared an achievement in itself.
Theirs became a yo-yo existence, a cycle of promotion and relegation before, in 2006/07, they took their place in the top flight for the first time since they were founded in 1938. Back down they went, eventually rejoining the elite last season when a Georgian Cup final appearance – where they lost to FC Dinamo Tbilisi – was enough to earn a debut in UEFA competition.
Their coach, Soso Pruidze, has been in Europe before with FC Torpedo Kutaisi, and it is he that has underpinned Chikhura's steady rise. The club have invested in youth and are reaping the rewards, with eight trainees in the squad. "The average age of the team is 22 or 23," Pruidze points out. "We want to add a few experienced heads to the squad though."
A lack of nous perhaps undermined their continental bow earlier this month in the UEFA Europa League first qualifying round as Chikhura struggled to find their aggressive, attacking rhythm against FC Vaduz of Liechtenstein. They went through on away goals and rather than make the long trip home they have spent the last week in Austria preparing for their next outing – away to Switzerland's FC Thun on Thursday.
Pruidze expects a tough test. "I saw Sunday's [Swiss Super League] match against FC Zürich," he said. "Despite the [3-2] loss I think Thun are a very strong team. We will fight and see what we are capable of." That seems to be the way for Chikhura, who take their name from the river that meanders through Sachkhere.
The 1991 earthquake is not forgotten either. The club's badge incorporates an outline of the ruins of the town's Modi Nache castle, flattened 22 years ago. Modi Nakhe translates as 'come and see' and Chikhura are providing plenty of reason to do so, even if their European home matches will take place in Tbilisi – this term at least.
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