KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Georgia produced a thriller of a performance to provide a dramatic climax to the final group matchday of the UEFA Euro finals in Germany.

An expansion of the tournament to 24 teams in 2016 meant the use of a best-third-placed teams system to make the direct elimination knockout stage ‘work’ mathematically. Hence a majority of the teams in Germany knew they were playing on next week or going home before Groups E and F wrapped up.

The predictability of many major tournaments, partly due to the increasing financial imbalance in the game, has been an image problem for national team football. Hence the delight in not only the performance but the results of newcomers Georgia.

Qualities and class inherent in Georgian football first became evident internationally when Dinamo Tbilisi won the now-defunct European Cup-winners Cup in 1981. Georgia was then still within the Soviet Union but Tbilisi played football with far more flair and technical skill than the northern, Moscow clubs from the Russian republic.

That is why Georgia was known, in football, as the “Soviet Italy.” Dinamo Tbilisi also won the Soviet championship twice thanks to the ability of players such as Alexander Chivadze in defence, David Kipiani in midfield and Ramaz Shengelia in attack.

Around 30 Georgian players won caps for the Soviet Union, the most successful having been central defender Murtaz Khurtsilava, who scored six goals in 67 internationals between 1976 and 1973 and who played in the 1966 World Cup finals. Kakhi Asatiani, a midfielder who scored five goals in 16 internationals for the Soviet Union and played in the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico, later became Minister of Sport.

Soviet split

At the end of 1989, however, the Georgian federation withdrew from the Soviet federation. This meant all Georgian clubs dropped out of the Soviet league and were lost to international sight until after the collapse of the rest of the Soviet Union. The same went for the national team.

No longer, after these European finals now they have qualified for the knockout stage by finishing third in Group F after a 2-0 victory over table leaders Portugal.

Roberto Martinez, the Portugal coach, rested seven of his previous starters while including Cristiano Ronaldo for the veteran striker’s record 50th appearance in the finals of a major tournament.

Ronaldo should have been awarded an early penalty when the shirt was virtually pulled off his back without being noted by the referee or VAR. By then, however, Georgia were already ahead thanks to a second-minute goal from the outstanding Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the so-called ‘Georgian Maradona’.

Portugal dominated possession but could not find a way past goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili and were caught out again by a counter-attack which earned a penalty converted by Georges Mikautadze.

This was the first of 13 matches in the competition, including qualifying ties, which Portugal did not win. Nevertheless They continue to face Slovenia on Monday. Group F runners-up Turkey face Austria on Tuesday and the delirious Georgians will have no fears about confronting Spain on Sunday.

Earlier Group E concluded with both Slovakia and Romania progressing after sharing a 1-1 draw. Out-of-form Belgium finished third after a goalless draw with Ukraine and will now face neighbours France. Ukraine go home after becoming the first group stage ‘failures’ with four points.

Round of 16:

Saturday: Switzerland v Italy; Germany v Denmark.

Sunday: England v Slovakia; Spain v Georgia.

Monday: France v Belgium; Portugal v Romania.

Tuesday: Romania v Netherlands; Austria v Turkey.