In the spring of 2008, the Georgian National Investment Agency (GNIA) ran a series of short promotional films across the major international news networks promoting the country as an attractive destination for foreign capital.
The most notable of these featured an American reporter inside Dinamo Tbilisi’s Boris Paichadze Stadium breathlessly drawing our attention to the scoreboard, which was displaying the somewhat improbable score of Georgia 1 — Germany 0.
With the competitiveness of the country’s economy thus underlined, blue skies stretched away above the empty stands and the sun beat down onto the deep green pitch. The conclusion, our splendidly bequiffed guide intoned with a flourish, was clear — the winner is Georgia.
Who knows what the scoreboard says now. That the stadium, or indeed the city which surrounds it, still stands at all may be considered a minor act of providence, given the shattering devastation wrought across swathes of the country by August’s conflict with Russia over the two separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Hundreds were killed and over 200,000 displaced by a war involving five days and considerably fewer brain cells. Since then, each side has accused the other of initiating the conflict, committing war crimes during its duration, and failing to respect the terms under which it was ended.
The country is estimated to require $3.25 billion over the next three years for humanitarian relief and infrastructure repair, although one immediate effect of the fighting has been severe damage to the prospects of attracting and retaining the long-term overseas investment which GNIA was working so creatively to attract.
But not all foreign resources have fled Georgia. This tale begins half a world away from Tbilisi in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. Beyond their proximity in an alphabetical list of world countries, the distance is very real. The social, cultural and political systems of the two nations, as would reasonably be expected, have little in common.
The Georgian economy is based largely on industry and services, whereas Gabon relies heavily on the export of abundant natural commodities. Wedged between Congo, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea on the Atlantic coast, this small West African country – unlike many of its neighbours – does not usually include footballers in this category.
In fact, in 51 of the 52 top-level UEFA leagues, there are, at the time of writing, a mere seven Gabonese players. Of these by far the most high-profile are Hull City’s lumbering behemoth Daniel Cousin and Eric Mouloungi of this season’s surprise Ligue 1 package OGC Nice, with their compatriots Bruno Zita Mbanangoye, Arsène Copa, Rogu Meye and Gilles Mbang Ondo labouring in the relative shadows of Dinamo Minsk, GyÅ‘ri ETO FC, Zalaegeszegi TE and GrindavÃk respectively.
Spare a thought, too, for FK Makedonija GjorÄe Petrov left-back Georges Ambourouet, who in October was beaten unconscious by an unknown assailant in the tunnel following his dismissal against FK Renova DÅ¾epÄiÅ¡te.
So as the 2008-2009 Georgian league finally kicked off — one month late – at 3pm on September 13th — few would have expected five Gabonese players, spread between three clubs, to be involved. Remarkably, more than forty per cent of the country’s footballers exported to top-level European football were to be found here, preparing to play through the long winter following a bloody Caucasian summer.
Of the millions of stories which the Georgia of 2008 could tell, the over-representation of Gabonese footballers in the top division is certainly one of the least significant. But this is a situation which, for two reasons, deserves at least a passing interest. The first, the less important of the two, is how it reflects football as both a globalising and globalised force.
African footballers tend to arrive in Europe via certain defined channels, which are often intriguingly — and sometimes disturbingly — murky. Some are more established than others, with the channels between Ivory Coast and DR Congo to Belgium long entrenched. A more recently opened path runs from Nigeria to Scandinavia, due in large part to an academy partnership between FC Midtylland and FC Ebedei and the high-profile success of Mikel Jon Obi following a brief spell with Lyn Oslo, and a thoroughly obscure route from Sierra Leone to Lebanon dates back to the early career of Mohammed Kallon.
The Gabonese presence in Georgia is no different. There is a mechanism and, in this case, the mechanism is relatively clear. The common thread between Paul Kesanny and Etienne Bito’o of FC Zestaponi, Ernest Akouassaga of Olimpi Rustavi, and Dinamo Tbilisi’s Didier Ovono and Georges Akieremy is, perhaps obviously enough, the Gabonese national team — coached by French legend Alain Giresse.
Responsible for the side since 2006, Giresse had previously spent 18 conspicuously unsuccessful months managing Georgia. Although he left his post in July 2005 with the team second from bottom in their qualifying group for World Cup 2006 after amassing a mere five points from seven games, Giresse clearly has no hard feelings towards the place. In fact, he has played the pivotal role in establishing Georgia as the principal overseas destination for Gabonese players, with Kesanny in particular citing the recommendation and enthusiasm of his national coach as the driving force behind his move in the summer of 2007.
In fact, coincidentally or otherwise, the Gabonese connection even extends to one of the few other Africans in the league – Congo striker Bhaudry Massouanga began his career at USM Libreville before eventually landing at Rustavi. Giresse’s motivation is clear (assuming he isn’t taking any commission) — players with experience of a European league, albeit a minor one, should prove invaluable in developing the level of a still predominantly home-based national side.
Whether the players are capable of using Georgia as a stepping stone to bigger and better things remains to be seen — in fact, they probably remain to be seen themselves, with even the most extensive western European scouting networks rarely penetrating to the Caucasus. Recent speculation linking Ovono — voted the best goalkeeper in Georgia last season – with a summer move to Espanyol as a replacement for Carlos Kameni ultimately proved inconclusive, and may well represent a rare moment in the spotlight.
Depending on the level of cynicism applied, the fact that none of the Gabonese have left Georgia in the aftermath of the conflict could indicate either a commendable commitment to the country, or simply a lack of better offers.
Whatever the truth, as the snow gently settles and most eastern European leagues wrap up for the winter break, the delayed start to the Georgian season will see these seven and their team-mates continue playing.
Three games are scheduled for December 27th, and two more the following day. Only then will the break finally arrive, with the eleven teams granted respite until the first week of February. Gabon resume their World Cup 2010 qualification campaign the following month away to Morocco. The fact that both schedules could be simultaneously relevant to somebody, let alone several individuals, still seems remarkable, even if we can find a ready explanation.
Gabonese footballers playing in Georgia is just interesting, both in itself and for what it tells us about football as a global game. But what of the second point we mentioned? This is more significant, and also more straightforward. That forty per cent of the footballers of a West African nation can be found in Georgia shows us something important.
Numerous charges can, with full justification, be levelled at football as it exists today. The joy and happiness which it brings us is too often built on institutionalism, greed, corruption and, very often, plain stupidity. Because we can easily level these same accusations elsewhere, in particular at politicians, does not in any way lessen their gravity. But football has at least one saving grace.
In Georgia of all places we can see that the game has long ceased to recognise a principle, namely national borders, over which our leaders are still, absurdly, prepared to wage war.