Georgia’s rugby team stood holding candles before a priest on Saturday to receive words of encouragement all too similar to those issued during the country’s short 2008 war — beat Russia.
The teams met on Saturday in a European Cup qualifier played in Trabzon, Turkey — neutral territory to limit security risks.
Georgia ran out 36-8 winners, but behind the chest-beating before and after the game, the confrontation offered a glimpse into the ties that still bond the ex-Soviet neighbors.
“In a rugby game you can see brother playing against brother. Politics will always highlight those divisions, but you wait and you see that after the game they are still brothers,” the team’s vice captain Ilia Zedginidze, 33, said.
Tensions still simmer some 18 months after Russia crushed an assault by US ally Georgia on the rebel region of South Ossetia in a five-day war.
While Georgia is at odds with itself politically over whether to mend ties with its former Soviet master, its people are suffering under a trade embargo on Georgian products, visa restrictions and closed travel links.
Many say they simply want normality to return after generations of shared history between the nations.
“We respect Russians, they are no different from us,” Merab Khunjgurua, 36, said, who works for a copper exporting company. “Flowers are blooming now and memories of the war will fade. Things are returning to normal. I can’t understand why our relations cannot as well.”
Politically, there is little sign of improvement.
Just over a week ago a pro-government Georgian television channel ran a fake news report that Russian tanks had entered the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, causing panic among its citizens.
On Saturday, buses packed with Georgians flooded the Black Sea town of Trabzon, just across the frontier, after 5,800 tickets allocated to Georgia were sold out in a matter of hours.
The Russian section of the stadium was practically empty. Vladislav Korshunov, Russian rugby team captain, saw no spirit of score settling on either side.
“Today’s game had nothing to do with politics ...We played a more experienced team than we are. That’s all,” he said.
Spectators waved Georgian and NATO flags. Saakashvili’s wife Sandra was among the fans.
If the 2008 war was a mismatch of David and Goliath proportions, the rugby confrontation was more evenly matched.
In Tbilisi cars tore down street honking horns and streaming flags from the windows.
But for some fans the game brought back anger.
“If the Georgians had even started to lose I would have jumped down on the field myself and joined the scrum. After what they did to us, this is an important matter of pride,” David Shvelidze, a Tbilisi banker said.
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