In Europe, the lines between sports and politics are often blurred, but one soccer match last week in Georgia took that to a new extreme.
Last Friday, the country's energy minister took the field in front of an oversold crowd as he played in a match in which one player dropped out beforehand over an ethnic dispute and a recently-released political prisoner scored on a penalty shot.
Georgian Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze is the most successful Georgian soccer player in a generation. Before running for Parliament last year, the 35-year-old retired from 11 years playing for Italian clubs Genoa CFC and AC Milan, winning two Champions League titles in the process.
To officially mark his retirement from soccer one year later, the prime minister's administration organized a tribute game in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, pitting European soccer icons against a team of Kaladze's compatriots. Team "Milan Glorie" included all-stars like Ukrainian striker Andriy Shevchenko, 53-year-old Italian legend Franco Baresi, and it was coached by this season's most sought-after manager, Carlo Ancelotti. Opposing them in white jerseys was a team called "Kaladze's Friends."
Kaladze himself captained both teams, playing for Milan in the first 40 minutes and then moving over to play with his Georgian "Friends" after half time, while the game was still tied. His defection seemed to help. "Kaladze's Friends" conceded two goals in the 71st and 74th minutes with the titular player on their side to go down 3-1 before he was subbed out in the 77th, effectively ending the game in an explosion of flares, fireworks, confetti, and a speech by the prime minister.
But while the match captured the attention of the small Caucasus nation, it comes at a time when the country as a whole is under the increasingly scrutinous gaze of the international community.
Since the new government led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition took over last fall, it has drawn criticism from Western organizations and governments -- most recently for failing to protect pro-LGBT rights demonstrators from an angry mob and for arresting the country's top opposition leader.
Last month, Ivanishvili made a politically risky statement for conservative Georgia by declaring sexual minorities to be "equal citizens" and that "society will gradually get used it" ahead of a planned demonstration on the International Day Against Homophobia. But police arrived at the demonstration outnumbered and without batons or other crowd control equipment despite the expectation of a counter protest. In a country where the Orthodox Church wields considerable influence and priests are revered, the police put up little resistance as the estimated crowd of 20,000 led by clergymen turned violent and chased the activists through the streets, smashing up buses they used to try and escape.
Twenty-eight people were injured in the violence, but just eight alleged perpetrators -- including two priests -- have since been charged, all on small offenses. Another assailant who allegedly punched a female opposition MP in the face in a separate but similar security breakdown in February got off with probation.
Observers have also expressed concerns that the current government is waging its own campaign of vengeful, selective justice against its defeated opponents.
Since the elections, the government has charged dozens of ex-officials including the former ministers of health, defense, interior, and justice with crimes mostly relating to abuses of power and corruption during the campaign period. The highest-profile arrest, however, came two weeks ago when former prime minister and potential presidential candidate Vano Merabishvili was arrested for embezzling state funds and ordering excessive force against opposition protesters.
Joao Soares, chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, criticized Merabishvili's arrest, saying in a statement that "putting your political opponents behind bars will not help solve any problems, on the contrary, it will create new ones."
But, popular discontent with perceived overreaches by the country's previous Interior Ministry and videos alleging to show brutal torture in prisons were a critical factor in propelling the Georgian Dream coalition to power.
Kaladze's farewell match itself was hardly free from political connections. For one, the lone goal for Kaladze's Friends was scored by Giorgi Demetradze, who had been jailed for extortion by the previous regime and spent two and a half years behind bars before the Georgian Dream government declared him a political prisoner and released him as a part of a wide amnesty that freed about half of the country's prison population in January.
The organizers also planned to link the extravaganza to Georgia's most painful open wound -- its secessionist territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the fate of the some 250,000 ethnic Georgians displaced from them.
Just days before the match, Alexander Chivadze, vice president of the Georgian Football Federation, spoke glowingly in an interview with Izvestiya of the participation of famous Abkhaz player Akhrik Tsveiba in the match. Tsveiba was born in Abkhazia, the larger and more significant of two regions that broke free from Georgian rule as the country fell into chaos in the early 1990's. His participation was meant to represent an olive branch to Abkhazia and a symbol of the two sides moving on from difficult recent history.
Former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili pledged to regain the two territories shortly after taking power in 2004, but peace talks floundered while tensions with Russia, which maintained a peacekeeping force in the territories, heated up. After a summer of cross-border provocations, Georgian forces stormed South Ossetia. Russia responded with an overwhelming counter attack in both provinces resulting in a five-day conflict that killed hundreds, crippled Georgia's economy, and dashed its chances for NATO membership in the foreseeable future. Russia, along with a handful of allies, has since recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent and Ivanishvili's government is now working on reconciliation initiatives to try and reverse the damage.
Soccer seemed an innocuous enough place to start. In addition to inviting South Ossetian and Abkhazian soccer clubs to engage in exhibition games with the Georgian Premiere League, Chivadze also excitedly announced that Tsveiba would take the field alongside Kaladze as a sign of the power of soccer diplomacy.
"Tsveiba's arrival has a hugely positive humanitarian significance," Chivadze told Izvestiya. "Arkhik is his own person in this; he's my friend. Our quarrel with the Abkhaz is temporary."
But, when the announcers read out the names of European stars and Georgian legends set to play, Tsveiba's name was not heard.
After the game, the Georgian Football Federation declined to comment on the matter, saying that the organization of the match was handled entirely by the prime minister's office and David Mujiri, another former player who took the field for the Friends team. Mujiri could not be reached for comment, but a source in the football federation said that in the end Tsveiba refused to play because "he decided he was an Abkhaz first and a player second."
The match was also a reminder of the eccentric mix of figures and personalities that now make up the Georgian government. The event opened with a concert of no less than four songs by Ivanishvili's albino rapper son, Bera, who, through heavy autotune and garbling speakers serenaded the more than 50,000 assembled with melodies punctuated by English lyrics like "where the girls in the itty bitty bikini [sic]?" and "East side, west side, Tbilisi and Gori," referring to a city that is not, as the song implies, in western Georgia.
Although last October's parliamentary elections attracted praise and optimism for Georgia as it marked the first time an ex-Soviet country outside of the Baltics had conducted a peaceful transfer of power through elections, the Georgian Dream coalition that itself had formed only months before the polls remained a loosely united grouping of actors, Saakashvili defectors, and first-time lawmakers.
Although the coalition promised widespread reforms and has shown itself more willing to be transparent than its predecessor, the initial actions of neophyte Georgian Dream parliamentarians seemed uncoordinated. Among the first bills to emerge in the new Parliament was a vaguely worded ban on condoms and a requirement for MP's to wear the chokha -- a traditional Caucasian tunic that includes a dagger and slots across the chest for rifle cartridges. Both bills failed, but even Ivanishvili has admitted that he erred in putting so many inexperienced figures on his party list before the elections.
Kaladze, however, appears to be one he does not regret. Kaladze has been playing international soccer since he was 15 and was among the most enigmatic of Ivanishvili's cabinet choices. He seemed an especially strange fit for the Energy Ministry in a country that hosts strategic international oil and gas pipelines.
After the tribute match, Ivanishvili eluded to his decision-making process while speaking on the field with his arm around the young politician. Narrating an earlier conversation with Kaladze, Ivanishvili said the soccer player approached him asking to be a part of the new government
"I asked him what position he wanted to play, defense or offense and he said defense," Ivanishvili said, explaining that he was initially worried that Kaladze wanted to be the minister of defense. "Then, he said, 'I'll play wherever the country needs me, I'll even stand in the goalie box.' "