The remarkable story of Georgia at Euro 2024: 'We just made history'

The explosion of joy was glorious to behold.

When the final whistle sounded at the end of the 2-0 victory over Portugal that confirmed their place in the last 16 of Euro 2024, the Georgia bench burst like an overstuffed pinata onto the pitch. The players split into two groups: one was freeform, an uncoordinated mass of joy that scattered itself across the Gelsenkirchen turf.

The other, slightly smaller group headed not for the man who has ended the group stage as top scorer in the tournament, Georges Mikautadze, nor for their star man Khvicha Kvaratskhelia , but instead for their young goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili. Towards the end of the game Portugal, in their desperation to salvage some dignity in a game that they didn’t need to win, had laid siege to the Georgia goal. But Mamardashvili, the Valencia keeper, had brilliantly stood firm.

What a game. What a tournament. What a team.

“I thought we had reached our maximum by qualifying,” said their head coach Willy Sagnol after the game, admitting that he hadn’t really taken in what they had achieved, and wouldn’t until this tournament is over.

“What an image they have given of Georgia. I am proud to be their manager.”

Kvaratskhelia said it was the best day of his life, better even than winning Serie A with Napoli in 2023. “The Scudetto was an incredible moment but today I am happier,” he said. “When you play for your country, it makes you so proud. It was much more difficult (than winning with Napoli) to do this today. It’s difficult to describe my emotions.”

In fact, he went even further than that: “This is the best day in the life of Georgians,” he said. “We just made history.”

The scale of this sporting achievement was remarkable, but it also went far beyond that. Georgia faces an uncertain political future because of a controversial new law that effectively declares certain groups who speak out against the government as enemies of the state.

Protests have become more and more violent, with activists often brutally treated by police. There are elections scheduled for October, but until then the nation is on edge, unsure as to where Georgia is going.

It always feels trite at junctures like this to espouse the healing power of football. But Georgia even making it to Germany sparked huge celebrations and defeating Portugal brought supporters out onto the streets of Tbilisi.

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Supporters at Republic Square in Tbilisi celebrate Georgia qualifying for the Euros (Photo: Davit Kachkachishvili/Anadolu via Getty Images)

All of which probably felt a very long way off back in September 2023, when Georgia faced Spain in qualifying. They lost 7-1 in Tbilisi, Alvaro Morata helping himself to a hat-trick, all seven goals scored in a tight 52 minutes. They finished fourth in their qualifying group with just two wins and eight points.

But it actually didn’t make much material difference to Georgia’s prospects of making it to Germany. Because, in a strict meritocratic, defeating-their-allocated-opponents-in-the-qualifiers sense, Georgia shouldn’t be here.

They were guaranteed a place in the qualifying play-offs because they won their Nations League League C group in 2022-23, an initiative by UEFA to a) get people to care about the Nations League, and to b) encourage diversity of teams at the tournament and nights like this, when someone truly unlikely does something truly unlikely.

So into the play-offs they went, where they faced Greece, and after a cagey 0-0 draw they prevailed on penalties. The scenes of celebration were wild, but if the clips going round showing how people back home reacted to this game are anything to go by, they look like afternoon tea with grandma by comparison.

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Georgia fans invade the pitch in Tblisi after qualifying for Euro 2024 against Greece (Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP via Getty Images)

This is the first time that Georgia, as an independent nation, have made a major tournament finals. They have had brilliant individuals, most famously (to an English audience at least) Manchester City cult hero Georgi Kinkladze, and also Kakha Kaladze, who won the Champions League with AC Milan twice and is now mayor of Tbilisi.

Georgian club teams were strong in the Soviet era, most notably Dinamo Tbilisi who beat peak-era Liverpool in the European Cup in 1979, and won the now defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1981.

But for the national team, they’ve never known anything like this.

The only two things that most casual football fans probably knew about Georgia before this tournament were they were managed by Sagnol, a Champions League winner with Bayern Munich and World Cup finalist with France in his playing days, and that their star player was the brilliant Kvaratskhelia.

Kvaratskhelia was one of the key men and driving forces behind Napoli’s Serie A win, a box office collection of whirling limbs, an overactive imagination and a fantastically direct dribbling style. He’s not a big man, but he runs with such intensity and purpose that you suspect he would simply drive straight through anyone who tried to stand in his way, a defender left standing there with a Kvaratskhelia-shaped hole in their torso.

He scored the first goal, the result of a suitably high-octane counter-attack, finished with gusto and celebrated even more emphatically.

Kvaratskhelia said that Cristiano Ronaldo had approached him before the game and wished him well, something that was especially important for him because back in 2013, he attended the opening of a football academy that the then-Real Madrid forward opened in Tbilisi. If you’d told the 12-year-old Khvicha that 11 years later, he would be outshining Ronaldo at a European Championships game, he may well have burst.

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Kvaratskhelia and Ronaldo, who was substituted on a tough night for Portugal (Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

While Kvaratskhelia is undoubtedly their star man, Mikautadze is the unlikely top scorer of the tournament having found the net in all three of their games. Mikautadze was born and raised in France, which means that he alone has scored more goals than the country of his birth at Euro 2024.

He’s also a penalty specialist: his goal against Portugal was from the spot, the 20th penalty in a row that he’s scored. The last time he missed one was in February 2021, playing for Belgian side RFC Seraing in something called the Croky Cup. That was behind closed doors, so he can boast that he has never missed a competitive penalty in front of a crowd.

There are probably a number of moments in their recent past to which you could mark as the start of their current rise, but the appointment of Sagnol in 2021 is probably as good as any.

“Three years ago, when I decided to take the job, lots of people — even in my close environment — asked: ‘Why are you going there?’” he told The Athletic in an interview before the tournament. “But now I can say, ‘Look, we worked hard and we have achieved something.’”

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Willy Sagnol’s arrival at Georgia was a significant moment (Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Sagnol has been blessed with a fine generation of players, but perhaps his most valuable contribution has been to not restrict them. Most of their attackers are thrillingly direct, and play in an almost unspoiled or perhaps un-coached way, and it’s not something that Sagnol has tried to curb.

Before this game, perhaps the biggest in the nation’s history, Sagnol remembered what has made them good. “To some players, I said remember when you were 16 or 17, when you played without fear. They did so today, over all expectations.”

Georgia, who now face another meeting with Spain in the last 16 on Sunday, closed their post-match celebrations by standing in front of the massed ranks of their fans and performed a modified version of the Icelandic thunderclap, when everyone claps their hands above their head in unison, gradually increasing in tempo. After a while, they couldn’t contain their joy any further, and just started jumping around like school kids full of sugar.

UEFA did their best to spoil it with some witlessly loud music, and the stadium announcer bellowing something of no consequence.

But there was no way that was going to ruin Georgia’s celebration. In that moment, absolutely nothing could.

(Photo: Michael Regan – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

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