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Monday 20 November 2017

€2 tickets can't win battle with Tbilisi apathy

Ireland supporters Caroline Ginty, left, and Sandra Martin, both from Dublin, are pictured in Tbilisi, Georgia, ahead of tomorrow’s World Cup Group D qualifier between Georgia and Ireland. Pic: David Maher/Sportsfile
Ireland supporters Caroline Ginty, left, and Sandra Martin, both from Dublin, are pictured in Tbilisi, Georgia, ahead of tomorrow’s World Cup Group D qualifier between Georgia and Ireland. Pic: David Maher/Sportsfile

The ticket office was open but, bizarrely, they had no tickets for sale for Georgia's game at home to Ireland.

"Come back in three hours and try again," says the chain-smoking woman at the ticket-less ticket counter at the Boris Paichadze Stadium, the venue for tomorrow's World Cup tie which will have a big bearing on whether Ireland go to Russia next year or not.

Despite low ticket prices - supposedly 70% of the tickets for tomorrow are on sale for 5 lari, the equivalent of €1.70 - the venue is still not sold out, and even the recession-busting prices make little difference.

"We like to complain, moan that even €2 is too expensive for a match ticket," says one local. It's a gripe across the board: tickets for Dinamo Tbilisi, a club whose brilliant side of 1980/81 beat the likes of Waterford, West Ham and Feyenoord to win the European Cup winners Cup (back when that trophy was a big deal) cost €1, but even then, they struggle to get gates of over 1,000.

There's a lot wrong with Georgian football right now. The heady days of the early 2000s, when Kakha Kaladze was winning trophies with AC Milan, and players like Georgi Kinkladze, Temuri Ketsbaia and Shota Arveladze thrilled Europe, are long gone.

This Georgian squad play their football not at Ajax or AC Milan or Manchester City, but mainly in obscure outposts in the old eastern bloc: Atyrau, Tobol, Ural, Khabarovsk.Top marks if you can pick them out on the map.

Struggling with low attendances, poor results in Europe and unsatisfactory facilities, they have revamped the domestic league, trimming the top flight from 16 to 10 clubs, though the jury's still out on whether the plan to reduce clubs (on the way in the League of Ireland) has worked.

Good work is being done: Tbilisi successfully hosted the European Super Cup two years ago (and was rewarded with one of the best-ever finals, Barcelona beating Seville in a nine-goal thriller) and they have just hosted the U19 Euro championships.

But apathy abounds. In the city over the last two days, there was far more talk about the exploits of Georgian sportsmen at the world judo championships in Hungary and the European championships in basketball.

Irish fans have brought some revenue to the city, around 1,000 Ireland supporters due in to see this game, and the bargain-basement prices, with pints for less than €2, have made them feel at home as the green army baked in the Tbilisi sun. Cheaper, warmer and friendlier than the last trip to Vienna or the next one to Cardiff.

Whatever about barmen and taxi drivers here gladly greeting the Irish, the football community was not so sure.

"Not them again" was the general reaction when the draw for this group lumped Ireland in with Georgia. They have played the Republic eight times, lost all eight.

The stadium tomorrow, an impressive-looking place which was renovated in 2006 can fit in big crowds. It's believed that over 110,000 punters squeezed into this place to watch that stunning Dinamo Tbilisi side dump Liverpool - themselves no slouches on the continent - out of the European Cup in 1979.

"We tend to do well when we are out of qualification, we get one big win per group at least," says one local authority on the game. "Tomorrow? Maybe."

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