Nine days ago the football world looked on in amazement as reigning world and European champions Spain were made to sweat for 86 minutes of their 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifier against Georgia. A late Roberto Soldado goal may have snatched La Roja a 1-0 win, but by then Temur Ketsbaia's underdogs had already proven they are a side to be reckoned with.
There is no denying that football is on the up in the country situated on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. A glance at the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking highlights this. In September alone they moved up 11 places to 86th, a jump which represents their biggest-ever improvement. While Georgia are still a long way off their highest ranking of 42nd, set 14 years ago, if they continue to develop at such a rate then equalling it is certainly a realistic long-term aim.
In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Ketsbaia explains the reasons behind Georgia's football renaissance: "We have young talents which give their best in order to succeed, since they also aim to play to further their own cause and be spotted by talented European teams. A lot of players have acknowledged that the national team is the future of both their country and career. Therefore, players do their best to play at their peak so they can eventually earn recognition."
Football in Georgia is a very important subject. You can see people that love and live in the name of football.
In that respect, Ketsbaia himself is a perfect role model. As well as making 49 appearances and scoring 16 goals for Georgia, he played for Anorthosis Famagusta in Cyprus, AEK Athens in Greece, Newcastle United and Wolverhampton Wanderers in England, and Dundee in Scotland. After hanging up his boots, Ketsbaia returned to Anorthosis as coach before taking charge of record Greek champions Olympiacos. The 44-year-old is clearly a man who knows what he is talking about.
The 1-0 victory over Belarus - ranked ten places higher - in the FIFA World Cup preliminaries showed that the current crop of Georgians have what it takes to pull off a surprise or two. "The team has a clear amount of passion for what they are doing, it is a fighting team and I can see that they want to accomplish something honourable for the country they are representing," said Ketsbaia, who consciously chooses not to single out individuals for praise. "We don't depend on key players, but on the team as a whole."
Fans are delighted with their stars’ refreshing displays and enthusiasm for the side can be widely felt among the 4.5 million populace. "Football in Georgia is a very important subject," said Ketsbaia. "You can see people that love and live in the name of football. During the past years the team unfortunately was not at its best. Despite that, in the last couple of games, around 90,000 fans were at the stadium cheering for their country. The people love their team and would want at one point to see a Georgian team reach any major finals."
The road to Brazil 2014 is an extremely rocky one for captain Jaba Kankava and Co. Alongside Spain and Belarus, Georgia will have to get past France and Finland in Group I if they are to qualify. Ketsbaia is aware that compared to the giants of the game, they still have plenty of catching up to do.
He said: "It’s very hard to talk about a team that is still trying to find its feet, but despite that I believe that Georgia has the potential to be able to go to the finals at some point and accomplish many goals."
For the former midfielder, who featured in 14 FIFA World Cup qualifyiers ahead of France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002, "some point" does not mean a vague moment in the distant future. Ketsbaia has a rather more definite timeframe in mind: "A realistic goal would be to make a good and successful team, and by 2016 to have the chance to take part in the UEFA EURO."
On current form, that looks well within their grasp.