Georgia’s most-capped player Levan Kobiashvili is a three-time footballer of the year and an iconic figure in his home country. He has not only shaped the national team’s destiny for almost a decade and a half, he has spent a dozen years at the top of the European game in the German Bundesliga.
After starting out with Freiburg, the 33-year-old claimed league runners-up honours with Schalke in 2005 and 2007 before switching to Hertha Berlin in the winter transfer window midway through last term.
The combative midfielder arrived too late to prevent the men from the capital dropping into the second division, but as he approaches the last few years of his career, his goal now is to help Hertha bounce straight back into the top flight.
FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Kobiashvili about his targets in the German capital, his future, and the forthcoming UEFA EURO qualifying campaign with Georgia.
FIFA.com: You’ve played for Freiburg, Schalke and Berlin. What do you associate most with each of your clubs in Germany?
Levan Kobiashvili: Obviously, no two clubs are exactly alike. Freiburg was my first club in Germany, and I arrived as a very young man. It's like a big family there. We were promoted, and something very special came together in Freiburg. Schalke is a huge club with a fantastic stadium and incredible fans. There’s an amazing atmosphere there. My early months with Hertha were obviously overshadowed by relegation. It was a difficult season, but we’re looking for a fresh start here. We have the fans behind us, and the conditions are optimal. We have big plans here in Berlin.
You’ve chosen to extend your stay with Hertha, although it means dropping down a division. Why was that, or did you have no alternative? And can Hertha bounce straight back into the Bundesliga?
We can, because we’re a very good team. We have some great characters and lots of quality, and very good coaching staff headed by Markus Babbel. I’m really enjoying daily training with this team, and fun is a key factor in success.
You’re 33, and you’ve just signed a new contract until 2013. Will you hang up your boots after that?
I have no idea. My priority for now is to stay fit, and then we’ll see if I’ve still got what it takes for sport at the highest level.
What do you plan to do after you finish playing?
I have no firm plans as yet, but I would like to stay involved in the game.
You’re Georgia’s most-capped player, and a three-time footballer of the year in your homeland. What do these honours mean to you?
A great deal. It's a great honour to be named your country’s best player on three occasions, and I’m proud and happy about that.
And what does representing your country mean to you?
I’ve played for the national team for the last 14 years and still rate as an important member of the team. Every player dreams of pulling on the national team jersey. For me, it’s still a dream come true, every time.
Georgia finished bottom of their FIFA World Cup™ qualifying group with no wins. How disappointed were you at missing out on the global showdown in South Africa?
Obviously, playing at the World Cup just once would be incredible for all of the players. It was a bit tough in the summer, but we’ll fight on.
You now turn your attention to UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying, where you’re in Group F with Croatia, Greece, Israel, Latvia and Malta. How do you rate your opponents, and how would you assess your own chances?
Croatia and Greece are both good, but I think it’s a very evenly-matched group, and every team can beat everyone else.
You open the campaign against Greece and Israel. How important is a good start?
The group’s likely to be very close, so the first two matches are incredibly important. We were poor last season, so we need to pick ourselves up now and turn the corner.
As an independent nation, Georgia have yet to qualify for a FIFA World Cup or UEFA EURO. Why is that, and when might it change?
We have to be looking very long and hard at ourselves. We have enough quality, and we should be doing better in qualifying. It's certainly what we all want.
Temur Kezbaia took over as Georgia coach in November 2009. What’s your impression of him?
I actually played alongside him in the past. He was an ambitious and success-oriented player, and it’s the same now he’s a coach. I’m delighted he’s in the job.
How important is football in your home country?
It's very important. Football is the number one sport. We always attract capacity crowds when we play, despite our recent difficulties and the negative headlines. Everyone loves football, and we want to repay our fans for their loyalty.