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THE WORLD'S GAME (ACCORDING TO US)

Kaladze and the rest of the Georgian national team had to endure a lot just to play in today's friendly. Getty Images

When we mention Georgian football, you might be excused for thinking of Bulldog tailback Knowshon Moreno before thinking of the other football (we call it "soccer") and the other Georgia, the former Soviet republic, which plays Wales today in Swansea. After all, Wales v. Georgia is not exactly Brazil v. Argentina. It's not even West Ham v. Wigan. But today's friendly carries extra drama because it looked like it was going to be cancelled due to war.

Last week, players in Tbilisi seemed stuck there. They couldn't secure visas to come to the UK—the offices were all closed—and they weren't sure they could find safe passage. But they hopped on a bus and took a 20-hour trip out of Georgia into Azerbaijan. After some trouble at the border, they were able to clear the red tape and make their way west.

The Georgians are using the journey as a symbol. Petar Segrt, the team's technical director, said, "This game is simply to show Russia that you can bomb us and you can send tanks into our country, but you will never stop our people."

Today's friendly is actually one of several Georgian soccer matches threatened by conflict and used as propaganda. The country's upcoming World Cup qualifier against Ireland, which was supposed to be in Tbilisi, will be moved to a neutral site. When the Russian new services reported this, they made sure to end with this sentence: "The recent conflict between Russia and Georgia began when Georgian forces attacked the capital of South Ossetia on August 8."

In other words, it's their own fault.

Meanwhile, WIT Georgia, a Tbilisi club, was forced to cancel its home leg in the UEFA Cup and play a winner-takes-all game against Austria Vienna in Vienna. (Reuters' report on this game mentioned the assault on South Ossetia, but added a sentence about Russian air strikes and the death of hundreds of civilians).

Whatever you think of the spin and the symbolism, it is hard to be a Georgian soccer player, and not just because of the war. There's the routine of loss to deal with—the team has never made it into a major tournament—and danger. The most recognizable face of Georgian soccer is Khakaber (or just Khaka) Kaladze, the grizzled, snubbed-nosed defender for AC Milan. He is so popular in Georgia that in 2003 they issued a stamp with his image.

But Kaladze's fame and fortune has also brought him hardship. Back in 2001, his brother, a medical student, was kidnapped by guerillas who demanded a $600,000 ransom. Although Kaladze's family reportedly paid the assailants, they never saw the brother again.

For five years Kaladze didn't know whether his brother was dead or alive. He became increasingly frustrated with corruption in his home country—so much so that he thought about renouncing his citizenship and playing for Ukraine. His father threatened to set himself on fire in front of a government building. But they kept on. Kaladze lined up for Georgia.

His brother finally was found beheaded.

Despite tragedy and war, though, things may be looking up for Georgian soccer—if not in politics or security then at least on the pitch. A number of young players, including Schalke's 17-year-old attacking midfielder Levan Kenia, who led Georgia to a 2-0 victory over Scotland last year, promise a bright future in the Caucasus.

But first they have to make it to the field.


EXTRA TIME

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