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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Georgia at Euro 2024 – ‘We won’t be in Germany for shopping or tourism. We go with ambition’

“This qualification for the Euros is not just about football, it’s also a way for the country to say: ‘Hey, Georgia does exist’. Maybe we’re not a big country but, for them, it was like, ‘Now people will know Georgia is a country that can matter’.”

Willy Sagnol, Georgia’s manager, is reliving the incredible highs of last month when his team defeated Greece in a penalty shootout to qualify for their first-ever major tournament.

Nika Kvekveskiri’s winning penalty sparked jubilant scenes at the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi and Georgia’s players carried on the party into the home changing room.

“The celebrations were like the Georgia culture — there’s no in-between,” Sagnol says. “They are either very up or very down, very sad or very happy. I could see a lot of people crying, there were a lot of emotions. After that high, it always takes a bit to come down. But what an experience.”

Sagnol watches on from the touchline as Georgia play Greece (Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP via Getty Images)

What was going through his mind when Kvekveskiri stepped up for that decisive spot kick?

“As a manager, penalties are the only thing you can’t control,” Sagnol says. “You can control the match — by changing players, tactics or the game plan. But with penalties, you can’t do anything. So when penalties arrived, I was quite calm because I knew I couldn’t do anything anymore. I was more of a spectator.

“But, of course, when the last penalty went in, it was like the work of the last three years, the ups and downs… everything was realised in that moment. After that, you are just completely empty.”

Georgia’s delighted fans celebrated on the streets of Tbilisi following their team’s historic achievement. While after the victory, it was announced the players would be decorated with the country’s Order of Honour by prime minister Irakli Kobakhidze.

Having reached Euro 2024, they now go up against Turkey, Czech Republic and Portugal in Group F when the tournament kicks off in June. They are thrilled at the prospect.

Jubilant Georgia fans invade the pitch after their team’s victory on penalties (Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP via Getty Images)

So how does Sagnol, a decorated former France international and Champions League winner with Bayern Munich, reflect on a whirlwind fortnight?

“It’s my greatest achievement as a manager,” he says. “Three years ago, when I decided to take the job, lots of people — even in my close environment — asked: ‘Why are you going there?’ But now I can say, ‘Look, we worked hard and we have achieved something.’ As a coach but also as a man, I’m very glad and happy about it.”

Georgia triumphed 4-2 on penalties after playing out a cagey 0-0 with Greece, who won the European Championship 20 years ago. They had actually finished fourth in their Euro qualifying group, ahead of only Cyprus, but reached the playoffs regardless via the Nations League route topping Group C4.

Sagnol said he tried to help his squad by drawing on his own experiences as a player.

“They really played with their heads, more than their hearts, and that was one of the first times (they had done that) in the three years,” he explains. “That’s what I was trying to tell them. Of course, what you have in your heart is very important but, first of all, it should always be your head. And they did that fantastically and I think it’s due to my own experience.

“These kinds of competitions and qualifying where there’s high pressure is a lot about the nerves and how to keep calm.”

This marks a high point for football in Georgia, a country where the sport is growing and an emphasis is placed on developing young players. They hosted the Under-19s European Championship in 2017 and then co-hosted the Under-21s European Championship with Romania last year.

Georgia’s players celebrate post-match in Tbilisi (Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP via Getty Images)

So what can we expect from Georgia when they kick off against Turkey on June 18 at Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park?

“As a player for France, we used to say the Euros were always more difficult than the World Cup because all the teams who compete are big teams — there are no small ones,” Sagnol says. “So the level will be very high.

“We know where we’re coming from and what we have been through to get there. The only thing I can say is we’re not going to behave like the little team. We’re going to play with ambition and try to show our qualities.”

Georgia’s squad includes exciting young talent, including goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili, 23, at Valencia — described by Sagnol as one of the best in Europe — Zuriko Davitashvili, 23, a winger at Bordeaux, attacking midfielder Giorgi Chakvetadze, 24, at Watford and forward Georges Mikautadze, 23, who was signed by Ajax in the summer for £13million ($16.5m) and then loaned back to Metz.

The star of the show and Georgia’s main man is Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, 23, who plays as a second striker for the national team.

How does Sagnol try to get the best out of the winger nicknamed ‘Kvaradona’ by Napoli’s fans?

“The last two years we worked on playing him more centrally when we have the ball because he’s someone who can score a lot of goals and provide a lot of assists,” he says. “For me, it was key to have this kind of player in the most important part of the pitch because I don’t have a lot of players like him.

“As a person, he’s very easy to work with because he’s very ambitious but he will work hard for his ambitions.”

Kvaratskhelia is a key player for Georgia and Napoli (Levan Verdzeuli – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Having now reached Germany, can Georgia emerge as a surprise package and upset the odds?

“When we qualified and we were celebrating, that’s one of the first things my players said: ‘Please, Willy, we don’t want to go to Germany for shopping or tourism’,” Sagnol says. “And I said: ‘Well, that’s great because I already know Germany by heart, so I don’t need to do any tourism there.’ So they are very ambitious.

“Now they have qualified, they want to try to progress in the group and maybe to reach the last 16 or quarter-finals. We will go with this ambition. We know it’s going to be very, very, very difficult. But they dreamed so long about getting to a big competition, it would be a pity to go there and not do everything we can to compete.”

Sagnol, who played for Bayern Munich between 2000 and 2009 and represented France 58 times, including at four major tournaments, first moved into the position of technical director of the French national team after retiring. He was later appointed head coach of the national under-21s before managing Bordeaux in Ligue 1 between 2014 and 2016.

Following Bordeaux, he acted as assistant to Carlo Ancelotti back at Bayern before taking the job at Georgia in February 2021.

“I’m definitely not a shouting manager,” he says. “I usually try to stay calm even when it gets stressful. I think that’s important in Georgia when there are a lot of emotions: you need to have a more quiet manager. If the staff is also full of emotion, it won’t work.”

Sagnol alongside the European Championship trophy at a coaches’ meeting in Dusseldorf this month (Alexander Scheuber – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Sagnol tries to take the best qualities of the managers he played under and was full of praise for Ancelotti.

“The five or six months we worked together was the best thing that could have happened to me as a coach. I learnt so much from him. He taught me a lot about how to spend energy on the things you can change and make better but, on the things you can’t change, don’t spend even one per cent of energy.

“His relationship with the players, and how to cope with players who are either happy or unhappy, I learnt a lot. It was a great teaching programme for me.

“Ottmar Hitzfeld (at Bayern) was very close to Ancelotti in his personality: very calm, always trying to be positive. Felix Magath was completely different. He was more about discipline.”

For the last eight months, Sagnol has been joined on his coaching team by Englishman David Webb, whose last job was as manager of York City in the National League in February 2023.

That opportunity came about thanks to a decade-long friendship between the pair. They first met when Webb, who has held a variety of roles at academy and senior level at Bournemouth, Huddersfield, Millwall, Ostersunds, Southampton and Tottenham, was on a scouting trip in France.

The transition into international football has been challenging for the 46-year-old. “We coach in English, which obviously helps,” Webb tells The Athletic. “I’ve really enjoyed it because it’s a step up in levels.

“It was incredible being in the dressing room (after qualification) and quite emotional as well. There were a lot of tears in there; tears of happiness. It meant a lot. It’s history-making, and you could sense that straight after the game, more or less on the team bus. There was a victory parade through the city of Tbilisi.

“We stopped at one of the main monument squares and there were 30,000-plus fans, probably more. Big celebrations.”

Budu Zivzivadze celebrates with fans (Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP via Getty Images)

Their task now is to go one better and progress from their group.

“Portugal are the standouts with the more recognisable names: Cristiano Ronaldo is the obvious one, Ruben Dias, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva. But the Czech Republic are really solid and had a good qualifying process,” adds Webb. “Turkey as well, led by Vincenzo Montella who had a big career in the game.

“We can be really competitive in all our games and hopefully give a good account of ourselves. In this format, you never know what can happen.”

For Sagnol, there’s excitement about returning to Germany where he spent much of his playing career and reached the final of the World Cup in 2006 with France — when they lost to Italy on penalties after Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt.

“The only thing is I think I will need about 100 tickets for every match,” he laughs.

That is a small price to pay as Georgia make history.

(Top photo: Davit Kachkachishvili/Anadolu via Getty Images)

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