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In Soviet Georgia, escape came through football

by host

I hope you like football, or at least you don’t hate it. Whether you want it or not, you’re sure to see some of it on TV. Football fans are luckier nowadays: all you need are the necessary channels, and you can have as much football as you wish on TV, computer and mobile phones. You’re bound to get messages about the happenings at White Hart Lane – someone scored and another player was given a yellow card.

Many might complain there’s too much football and that they’re fed up with it, but those who had craved the game but had been deprived of it will never whine about football being a loyal friend of television, accepting the fact that these two have become inseparable.

However, that wasn’t the case earlier, if you fell in love with the game in the country that, until the ‘great’ Soviet State was about to break up, had never broadcast any match unless one of its teams played – neither the Champions Cup, nor the Cup Winners’ Cup, nor the UEFA finals. In this case the information hunger and regret of missing the spectacle will certainly haunt you from your childhood to your retirement day: you are sorry to have missed those great matches, so you keep looking for them on YouTube, thinking what you might have felt watching them back in those days…

What was the USSR in the 1970-1980s? How did it feel to live there? Officially, it was the country of victorious socialism, ripe for the move into a Communism that should have produced tangible fruits for everyone to enjoy.

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In Soviet Georgia, escape came through football

But what is communism?

It’s free food for all, nothing else. In those days a food shortage was the main problem. It did depend on the region though. When you lived in the south, you could depend on generous nature: if things got tough, you could always have tomatoes, cucumbers and chilli peppers.

Leonid Brezhnev was the head of state in those years. He was said to be kind, but that might have been in comparison with the hysterical, agriculture-crazy Khrushchev and the infamous Stalin before him.

In the Tbilisi Dynamo heyday, Brezhnev’s Soviet Union had already invaded Afghanistan with the aim of establishing socialism. We clearly see today how successful the move was.

In the meanwhile, the Polish Solidarity voiced protest, but the Soviet Union still firmly believed in its own superiority and invincibility.

From the early days of the Soviet Empire, people with alternative opinions and ideas were spread between psychiatric wards and special labour camps. It was an accepted reality. All kinds of restrictions were effectively implemented, controlling every step ordinary people took. While visiting West European countries, they had to stroll in groups of three, because at least one of them would have admitted any wrongdoing in the KGB interrogation room.

On a personal level, people were sympathetic to each other until the relationships jeopardised their private well-being, which was based on the ‘great principles’ promoted by the ‘great country’.

Indeed, it was a horrible country! In my university there were many talented students keen to study. However, the main building housed the Second and the Third Departments: the Second was responsible for military conscription, while the Third invited volunteers to work for the State Security. Proclaimed to be open for volunteers, it operated differently: you could enrol in gymnastics or sports or literary clubs available at the university, but would still be summoned to visit the Third Department. And you didn’t need any particular skill or talent to join it.

Anyway, Brezhnev’s Soviet Union was milder in comparison to its predecessors, but still rigid, craving world domination through revolutions and extermination of any kind of liberal or alternative thinking. It was a miserable country with happy people who felt dejected because they knew deep down they were missing something valuable – freedom.  

Football was a cult game in the Soviet Union, so home competitions always offered interesting matches, culminating in exciting championships. Soviet clubs won the prestigious Cup Winners’ Cup three times – twice it was Kiev Dynamo and once Tbilisi Dynamo. 

But what is communism? It’s free food for all, nothing else

Just like today, football was a global game, but still, the arrangement was that you could only watch international matches if one of the Soviet teams was scheduled to meet a foreign club in the European Cup games. And even then there was virtually nothing.

Very little if anything was written in the Soviet press about international football, even in sports papers. If anything was reprinted from foreign editions, it concerned national teams, but not a word about clubs. 

Later, the weekly Russian newspaper Futbol-Hokey began printing overviews of European Cup matches and you had to be content with that meagre information, provided you were lucky enough to get hold of the paper. Subscription was limited, so it was sold in press kiosks furtively, usually for five times higher than its official price and only if you knew the vendor. 

Also, there was a Russian radio station Mayak that used to announce the scores of European matches. Basically, the games were held on Wednesdays, but you wouldn’t know anything until the next day – on Thursday you had to wait for the radio to tell you the results. 

These are seemingly trivial things compared to what the Soviet Union did throughout its history, but such small things constrained popular interest and instincts to entertain, confining them to prescribed limits.

In Tbilisi, the capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia, there were a couple of press booths that secretly sold sports magazines from East European socialist countries and, needless to say, you had to pay five-fold for them.

That explains the fact that the most fervent fans of those days are still able to read and understand a bit of Polish, Hungarian and Bulgarian. The press of the Socialist Bloc countries was more generous in printing information about international football. There was still not much, but plenty in comparison to the Soviet editions.

In this respect, the Czech magazine Stadium was truly captivating. Its last page contained accounts of international sports events, while the back cover always had a colour photo of this or that club. It was frustrating if the club was less known, but still, you could pin the smiling team photo to your wall. Of course you could come across Manchester United, Valencia, and Brazilian, English and German clubs. In a sense, the photos were a real treasure because they would have the players’ names, which meant you immediately got to know the team members. Also, Georgian TV had a programme called Sports Kaleidoscope that used to show fragments of international matches, often mentioning hitherto unknown clubs and offering to see interesting goals. 

Otherwise there were no means of getting information. It can’t be said that the vacuum was complete, but it was akin to the rations of the Soviet labour camps of Stalin’s times.  occasion a new foreign sports edition reaching us was cause for a real stir. Once someone got hold of a Yugoslavian sports magazine, Tempo, that proved much better than its Czech and Polish counterparts. However, things from Yugoslavia were rarely available in the Soviet Union, most probably due to the disagreement with Tito. But if anyone got hold of Don Balón, Onze Mondial or a similar magazine, they would take extreme care of it, with queues of fans waiting impatiently for their chance to leaf through it.

Things might have continued following the same course if not for one memorable event – Tbilisi Dynamo became the Soviet Union Champion in 1978, for the second time in history. The club beat Liverpool, the main contender, in the first match for the Champions’ Cup, but later lost to Hamburg.

The appearance of leading clubs at Tbilisi stadium added a special thrill to football. It wasn’t about the famous victories or painful defeats, but mainly about the fact that in those years Tbilisi Dynamo regularly participated in European competitions. It was the reason clubs such as Inter Milan, Napoli, West Ham United, Hertha, Feyenoord and other excellent teams visited Tbilisi. Three years later, in 1981, Tbilisi Dynamo won the European Cup Winners’ Cup, a feat achieved by only one other Soviet club up until then. It was a big thing for Georgia – being exposed to high-class football matches boosted the young generation’s interest towards the game, and got fans used to foreign football.

Hundreds of exciting stories were exchanged by young fans of the time, about how it was possible to watch European matches in different cities of the Soviet Union. For instance, it was said that Finnish channels were easily accessible in most hotels in Tallinn, Estonia, and that those channels often transmitted games one could only dream about elsewhere. But who could afford travelling to Estonia just to watch football? 

Someone spread the news that in the town of Leninakan, Armenia [today Gyumri], it was possible to watch international matches if your hotel room faced Turkey and if you directed your little TV set in that direction. Turkey was known for generously transmitting international games as well as national matches.

Soon it became known that the town of Tetritsqaro, an hour’s drive from Tbilisi, gave another possibility. The place housed a Soviet military base with a powerful locating system, so those living around the base were able to receive Turkish channels if their aerials were correctly positioned. It was also a matter for clever engineering: some managed to design special aerials to access faraway football.

These are seemingly trivial things compared to what the Soviet Union did throughout its history, but such small things constrained popular interest and instincts to entertain, confining them to prescribed limits

Meanwhile, it became common knowledge that catching foreign channels was also possible from Batumi, the south-west Georgian coastal city, closely guarded by Soviet border troops. If anyone had a relative or an acquaintance in the city so close to Turkey, and if the host was willing to receive visitors from the capital, the place was a hot destination for football fans.

The Soviet Union failed to broadcast matches of the 1980 European Championship held in Italy. No wonder numerous groups travelled to Batumi to watch all the matches of such a ‘secret’ competition.

I believe it was 1982 when suddenly a new location was discovered: in the hills above Tbilisi, there was a little roadside restaurant and someone found out that it was possible to get Turkish channels, thus watch football matches. The place is called Pantiani, but the discovery meant fans could get there every Wednesday to enjoy the game. True, the picture was black-and-white with no voice, but who cared if watching was possible.

At the time various TV aerials were widely produced in Tbilisi, mainly illegally. But no aerial was effective without the main receiver: a red Soviet TV set with a small screen, Unosts 303, and a sensor switch.

The process was as follows: the set was placed on the car bonnet and when an aerial was attached, the viewers would get into the car and watch the game from the inside. Those without the set could stand by the car and watch the match anyway.

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They say, initially, there were several cars on the field, then several dozen, then hundreds and finally thousands. With such an intense interest towards football, and given that the locations identified for watching matches were so wide-spread, the authorities must have been fully aware of the scale of the phenomenon. By then, it wasn’t only the young people who travelled to those places, but older fans too, enjoying the black-and-white matches watched on tiny screens.

However, no police (then militia) patrol ever raided the places, neither did the KGB bother to interfere, nor did they question anyone for ‘dangerous’ open-air activities. Some agents must have mingled among spectators, enjoying the game together with others, but after analysing the situation the authorities must have concluded that watching football was a lesser evil compared to listening to anti-Soviet radio stations.

It went on like this for quite some time, until Perestroika started. This ushered more football onto our screens and finally such a number of designated football channels that one can watch as much as one desires. Even too much somehow.

The place of magic shows – the Pantiani field is still there, visible from the road.

Hopefully, you enjoy football, or at least can bear it. The problem is that once there was too little of it and there were countries where people, with small TV sets and makeshift aerials, went up and down hills and fields looking for it.   

But still, football was nothing compared to freedom: in a short while no one remembered their open-air hunt for matches because the struggle for independence became a priority, soon followed by the first bloodshed – the Russian troops dispersing a peaceful demo in Tbilisi on the 9th of April 1989. After that it was just war and misery in the name of achieving independence.

Football might have become the main entertainment, at least on television, if not for the courageous, self-sacrificing struggle that engulfed Georgia. The country fought bravely in a seemingly lost cause, and initially reaped nothing except desolation. But forever it was guided by something bigger, something real and eternal.  


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