Michael Keaveny speaks to Georgia captain Jaba Kankava ahead of the country’s Euro 2020 Group D qualifier against the Republic of Ireland.
The 33-year-old discusses Georgia’s recent record against the Boys in Green, the country’s recent progress on and off the pitch, and club football in Kazakhstan…
After an excellent League of Nations campaign, what are your hopes for this Euro 2020 qualification campaign both on a personal level and for the Georgian team as a whole?
The year 2018 was successful for the Georgian national team, we fulfilled our minimum – we won our group in the Nations League.
Of course, this is a positive result, but big challenges and trials are yet to come. Our fans and the players are very interested in how we will play with such teams as Switzerland, Ireland, and Denmark in the group.
We are looking forward to the start of the qualifying round to show our best. Georgia will go to every game with the maximum desire and concentration, in every match, we will think only about winning.
What do you attribute the recent success of the Georgian team to?
I think now the national team of Georgia is very strong in a team game.
Of course, we have players who are able to make all the difference of the game.
The most important thing that we lacked before – it is a team game, but now we improved it. Of course, we still have many things to do. Of course, the format of the Nations League helped us; we had a unique chance to prove ourselves.
Seeing as Georgia have played Ireland in a number of games in qualification campaigns over the last decade. Do you view them as one of your biggest rivals?
In other years we often play against Ireland, the draws bring us into one group.
These two teams know each other. Ireland, as always, is physically strong. Georgia, on the contrary, is better equipped technically; it can be considered as our plus.
Unfortunately, we still have a very bad balance (of match outcomes), we have never defeated Ireland. This upsets us; this year we will do everything to change it.
Georgia performed well in the most recent world cup qualifying campaign; do you think they were unlucky to finish fifth on the table?
I think we could get much more points than we got. I mean quality, style of the game, we played good attacking football, but, unfortunately, this football does not always give the result. This is a reason.
Georgia have more players playing in the champions league and the Europa League than Ireland in the 2018/19 season and also have many players playing regularly in Europe’s top leagues. Do you think that Georgia have technically superior players than Ireland
Perhaps, you are right; there are more Georgian players in Champions League or Europa League.
However, I think, Irish footballers play in leagues, that even a bigger plus than five or six games in European cups.
For example, English Premier League, where all players have a game every four-five days that can be equal to Champions League or Europa League. It means more than 30 games every season at the highest level. It is very important.
You’ve played for lots of top teams in different leagues around Europe. Has this benefited your game ? Would you recommend other players take a similar approach rather play in for one team/ in the same league for their entire career?
It was not my target to change teams, countries, championships. It just happened. The most important for me is to be there, where I am trusted, where the team needs me, where I live comfortable. It is important.
Do you think lower ranked national teams like Georgia receive enough support from FIFA
and UEFA to develop the game? Do they need more support? If so what else can they
To think about stuff like this, you need to know all the details, know all inside.
For me, it is hard to answer, what can and should do UEFA. In my view, the Nations League helps a lot for countries like Georgia, which is not on the top at the rankings.
It helps us to develop; we have the opportunity to get a unique chance to play on Euro. I think they will continue working in this direction.
Attendances for Georgian soccer games have been improving recently, why do you think this?
To be honest, the attendance of the national team matches has never been bad.
The last results and the chance that the Nations League gives us, the fact that we are two steps away from the Euro, have increased interest in the team.
The team returned the faith and hope to the fans, our football is now treated differently. We always play in a crowded stadium, it is very nice and it helps us a lot. We want to show our best to fans and make all their dreams come true.
What impact has the increased popularity of rugby had on soccer in Georgia?
I think it has no impact.
Both teams serve the people, the Motherland. When the national team in rugby or football wins, in any case, the winner is Georgia, not any particular sportsman.
We serve our people, our country. There are fans who go only to Rugby or football; someone loves both types of sport.
Rugby has already become a popular sport in Georgia, and football will always be. Georgia is a football country and I cannot even imagine my country without football.
Georgian soccer has gone through some difficult times over the past few decades, do you think this is over and that the national team and clubs will be able to qualify for major tournaments more regularly?
I think if the end of the difficult times did not come, it comes.
The state has a plan designed for several years. They are investing to help the local championship and Federation to develop this sport.
We have new leadership of the Federation headed by Levan Kobiashvili, who knows everything about Georgian football from the inside.
A lot depends on us – the players of the national team.
We have a great responsibility because the national team is a mirror of how football works. We know that if we get to the Euro, it will be a very big step for the development of Georgian football and the great advertising of our country.
We take this responsibility and are ready to do everything to make our contribution to the development of Georgian football.
What are the main differences in the players produced and style of play of the Kazakhstan league compared to leagues in the West of Europe such as the Airtricity League (Irish league) and the English Premier League?
I think the difference is that they can play at the same level every three or four days, withstand this tension, not only physical but also moral and psychological.
That is the only difference. To be honest, I think there are in Kazakhstan several players who could play in the strong European championships, including in England.
Clubs like Astana have qualified regularly for the Europa League in recent seasons. What impact has this had on the league? Does it make you believe that Tobol are capable of qualifying for Europe regularly as well?
Astana is Kazakhstan’s brand of football.
If you talk about Kazakhstan football, everyone remembers Astana, because they have achieved unique results in recent years.
In recent seasons they have been playing in the group stages of the Champions League and the Europa League, it is certainly admirable. Tobol still needs to work hard to reach the level that Astana has reached in Europe.
We are working on it.
What are your ambitions for Tobol for this year?
Our ambitions are high to get into the top three in Kazakhstan and successfully perform in the Europa League.
Much is being done in the team and the region for these tasks. In Kazakhstan football a lot depends on the support of the state, here almost all clubs receive some financial assistance from the state.
We are lucky that there is such a leader who is a football fan in our region. He supports the team and the players very much. Administration of the region works on the development of sports infrastructure in the region, it affects football life.
The team consists of qualified specialists who want to grow and achieve results with Tobol.
This will soon give the result and Tobol will become a team with a higher level than it is now.
If you could sign any player to play for Tobol who would that be? Why?
Ruslan Rotan, who was the captain of Dnipro, with whom I played for a long time.
He was an example on the field for me. When he is with the ball, he calmly conducts our actions, when the ball is with the opponent; he becomes a real fighter who makes every effort to return the ball to Dnipro.
He was an example for me; I am glad that we played in the same team and shared the same changing room.