Football and Nationalism in Georgia in the 1960s-1980s

Nino Samkharadze


The present article sets out the basic factors of football as a catalyst for nationalism in Soviet Georgia throughout 1960s-1980s. It reveals how important were the events which took place in Georgian football and how they influenced the intensification and expression of local nationalistic sentiments under the Soviet regime. The article focuses on the view that football became the arena of expressing national self-consciousness under the Soviet governance, which resulted in intensifying Georgian nationalism through supporting the mass mobilization process.
Taking into consideration all the above-mentioned factors, the following questions can be raised: What was the environment which created Georgian football as an important catalyst in blooming Georgian nationalism like? How did those influences emerge within the Georgian society? What were the concrete factors which determined the role of football in shaping Georgian nationalism during the 1960s-1980s? The topic is worth researching since Georgian football had adopted the role of national dignity for the people living within the Soviet borders in the 1960s-1980s. In particular, Tbilisi Dinamo Football Club can be named as the shelter of Georgian nation’s pride. This role was illustrated through various processes which took place around Georgian football. At the same time, social dimensions of football affecting the overall attitudes of the societies have not been comprehensively explored.
Foreign academic works on football and its influence on the development of various societies have been reviewed in order to check the above-mentioned view. Through them have been distinguished the main mechanisms which turned football into a phenomenon for deriving and intensifying nationalism. They are analysed through creating the relevant theoretical framework and methodological structure. Soviet Nationalities Policy was the general frame which transformed a mere sports event into the arena for satisfying nationalistic feelings. But football itself is a game which contains all the elements necessary for mass mobilization processes. That is why Georgian football could easily become the instrument for both, political elites in the Party and people of the Soviet Union.
Soviet nationalities policy was based on the idea according to which all the peoples within the USSR should have had their own glorious past, traditions and culture. The Communist Party took special care of promoting local cultures by implementing relevant educational, social and scientific policies. Soviet approach towards the issue permanently encouraged “great traditions” of the locals even if the invention of traditions was necessary (Slezkine, 1994). Soviet nationalities policy contained the premise according to which each of the republics should have maintained the unique identity-determining markers. Throughout the 1960s-1980s the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic had its own anthem, flag, as well as football teams. Those teams were not officially labeled as “national” ones, but they were more national than any other European National Teams.
Another dimension of football as a factor for strengthening nationalism in Georgia is the game itself. When we talk about mass mobilization around football, fans as an institute become an important stakeholder in the process. Through its complexity football may become even the subject of anthropological research (Budka & Jacono, 2013). Football is a glue of individuals into a team. As Glen Duerr notes the millions of individuals as an imagined communities seem more real and tangible when they gather around the 11-man team. This is because even a single person participating in a national chanting becomes the symbol of the nation (Duerr, 2016; Hunter, 2010). Besides football is clash-based process of fighting for the victory. This characteristic of the game easily makes it the symbol of nation’s fight for the glory (Baker, 2016).
Successful achievements performed by Dinamo Tbilisi Football Club were of great importance during the 1960s-1980s. The key events on this path were winning the the USSR championship for the first time on November 18, 1964. Through its existence the club obtained the USSR championship cup for the first time in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in the final match against Torpedo Moscow FC. But the peak of the emotional boost of the Georgian nation was on 13 May 1981, when Dinamo Tbilisi won the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup against FC Carl Zeiss Jena. Both events were celebrated in Georgia as a national holiday. Thousands of people came out into the streets of Tbilisi congratulating one another. Huge demonstrations were held, which showed the obvious emotional robust of the national pride: people carried the banners with the typical Georgian chants, songs, poems and all the possible expressions showing the gratefulness of the nation. The Footballers were met at the airport with the honour they deserved.
The club, which was considered as the symbolic national team of the Soviet Republic of Georgia, was supported throughout every single region of the republic. It was practically unimaginable to get tickets for the games of Dinamo Tbilisi. Georgians were seeking shelter for their national pride at the Lenin, present-day Boris Paichadze National Stadium. Foootball played a big role in the process of unifying the nation. Its influence on the perceptions of the unique Georgian style is obvious even now, after almost three decades since the dissolution of the USSR.

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