Vitesse’s transformation over the last two seasons is arguably worthy of movie script, which is apt for a club nicknamed ‘FC Hollywood aan de Rijn’, but captain Guram Kashia believes the best is yet to come.
After avoiding the relegation play-offs by just two goals in 2011, the side from Arnhem have propelled themselves to the other end of the Eredivisie spectrum this campaign. Spending nine weeks of the season in second place, they were in competition for the title until a recent stumble, but still have designs on reaching the UEFA Champions League, sitting two points off PSV with two matches remaining.
“We are hoping we can win our next two games and take second place,” said Georgian international Kashia. “PSV have a difficult last game, while we have an easier programme. We cannot do anything but we are still hoping we can make it into second place.”
However the season ends, it will at minimum be a statement of intent from the side – who have all but confirmed their spot in UEFA Europa League, their first appearance beyond the qualifiers in a decade. Since the millennium they struggled with financial difficulties until 2010, when former Dinamo Tbilisi midfielder and ex-Georgian Football Federation president Mehrab Jordania purchased the club.
They are now boosted by the likes of Eredivisie top scorer Wilfried Bony, Japanese international Mike Havenaar, Dutch midfielder Theo Janssen and Kashia, who believes the transformation has been huge. “If I compare the team from this season to last year and two seasons ago, we have developed so much. The young players have become more experienced players after last season,” the defender said.
“It's all about experience as the guys who were 18-years-old two years ago, playing for the first time in an Eredivisie game, were scared and afraid. So many things have changed during the last two seasons and we are going in the right direction. I hope this is only the beginning.”
Since being named captain last season he also feels he has developed into a more complete player as a result of the armband. “I have learnt so many things and I have grown up. There's pressure as everybody expects something from you – to win the game, to change the game – but the captain's armband makes me really proud, my family proud and my country proud. It's a good feeling being captain.”
This was one of the worst days of my career, we just gave away our chance. We weren't ourselves that day.
His performances at the back for Vitesse have reportedly gained him furtive glances from elsewhere in Europe, and while Kashia is not against a move elsewhere, he is keen to see how the current project gets on. “This season we can end up in Champions League or Europa League so I want to remain here, so I can see how far we can go”, he said in regards to his future. “I can't say now as I want to focus on the last two games, but once the transfer market opens and if someone comes in with a good offer for Vitesse, then why not?”
With success beginning to come for the club, rumours will no doubt become even more prevalent, but with a nickname like ‘FC Hollywood’, Kashia reveals this is nothing new. “The nickname was here before I arrived and I wondered why we were named 'FC Hollywood'. Now I know,” he said. “There's always some sort of rumour around the team. It's sometimes so funny to hear some of the gossip involving us, it's the nickname of the club and there’s always something.”
The introduction of Fred Rutten as coach has also had a big impact in Kashia’s mind, stating the former PSV coach has been arguably the most important addition. “The key is always the coach, not Bony, not Janssen, not Kashia, but the coach,” insisted the 25-year-old defender. “It's because of him that we are doing well. He's so strong mentally, giving confidence to players, taking care of them and he's the most important figure in the team. He is the key of this club.”
Their title aspirations were arguably ended with a 2-0 defeat to Feyenoord on 21 April, but the real hammer blow came after letting a 3-0 lead slip to draw Roda JC a week earlier. Trailing leaders Ajax by just three points prior to it, the game has clearly hit Kashia hard. “This was one of the worst days of my career, we just gave away our chance. We weren't ourselves that day. We were leading 3-0 and just gave away the game,” he said. “That shows the importance of experience, we have to learn from this game.
“If you want to be champions you cannot miss chances like this, when a champion has to win, they always win - that's the difference between Vitesse and the winners this season.”
Georgia dreaming big
While there is still a chance for his club side to qualify for bigger things, his national team look less likely to achieve that goal in regards to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Having been drawn in Group I alongside Spain and France, it’s no surprise, but Kashia is realistic about his goals for this year’s qualifying.
“I think if we can get third place it would be nice. We are not ready to beat Spain and France yet, but we are trying to improve and the coach is doing everything he can,” he reflected. “Hopefully next season we can take something from this group, as we have a young team and I hope they gain some experience from playing against Spain and France that helps in the future.”
Occupying that third spot he is after, Kashia believes the “defensive football” and “team spirit” present in the Georgian style has given his side a reputation as no pushover. “I think in the group, all the teams respect Georgia – we always give our best and I don't think anyone enjoys playing against us. We aren't a team everyone believes they can just take three points from.”
Dreams with boyhood roots
There have been positives to take from the campaign, with coach Temuri Kestbaia developing their young side. Their narrow 1-0 loss to Spain is a notable highlight, while Kashia clearly cherishes his first international goal in the 1-1 draw against Finland – exclaiming “dreams become true, you know” about fulfilling that particular boyhood fantasy.
The steel and competitive spirit that is helping to fulfil these dreams was forged on the streets of Tbilisi with his brother Shota, who is also now a professional, playing with Georgian side Chikhura Sachkere. “He was older than me so he was often the winner, but I was always fighting with him. We always took different sides too; he would be for Barcelona and I would be for Real Madrid; he would be for Manchester United and I would be for Arsenal.
“When we used to play in the street, we hated being on the same team,” Guram revealed. “This was really good for me, as I was always under pressure when I was up against him, and I think it's a big factor in why we are both professional football players.
From the Georgian streets to the national team, he now has his eyes on helping the Crusaders to reach their first ever major finals since independence in 1991, though he admits they need a bit more fortune than this time out. “My goal with the national team is to qualify for the European championship or the World Cup, it's my dream.
“Maybe we can make it in the future, such as the World Cup in 2018, but we will have to see what our qualification group is like. If we end up in a group with teams like France and Spain again, it becomes so difficult to qualify.”