In Georgia, an amateur football league unites Russians and Ukrainians

TBILISI (Reuters) – Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some of the tens of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians who scrambled to safety in the South Caucasus nation of Georgia clubbed together to form an amateur football league.

More than a year on, Footbilisi now includes around 700 amateur footballers, drawing together Georgians, Russians, Ukrainians and foreigners from further afield. Regulars say the league’s sense of solidarity has helped them cope with fleeing their homes.


“At first, football helped, and still helps, us to take our minds off things,” said Ruslan, a tournament organiser originally from St. Petersburg.

“We found ourselves in new environment with unfamiliar language for most. New society with its own ways, its own look on life.”

On the pitches of a football academy in a leafy Tbilisi suburb, players can try to paper over some of the national and cultural divides that have engulfed Georgia since the eruption of full-scale war in Ukraine last year.

Offering visa-free entry to Russians, Ukrainians and other nationalities, Georgia became one of the top refuges for emigres fleeing war, conscription and repression in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

However, many Georgians, deeply scarred by their own wars with Russia over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, remain hostile to the influx of emigres, especially Russians.

Graffiti encouraging Russians to leave Georgia in commonplace in Tbilisi. On Wednesday, the country’s president backed a visa scheme to limit the number of new arrivals from Russia.

Georgian player Jaba Akhobadze said the Ukraine war resonated with him personally because his parents were expelled from Abkhazia by Russian-backed separatists in the region. Even so, he expressed pride in Footbilisi’s cosmopolitan character.

“There’s everybody here. Georgians, Russians, Ukrainians. We are an international team,” he said.

According to players, Footbilisi members are uniformly against the war, even if they prefer to avoid the topic.

“The war is mostly not discussed,” said Rodion Dukhlich, a player from Donetsk, a Ukrainian city controlled by Russian proxies since 2014.

“But the people here are all against the war, and do not support it. People who do support it can find their own groups. If they even exist in here.”

For others, friendships on the pitch are undergirded by black humour around the difficulties of emigration, and an uncertain future.

“We joke about (the war) … in a friendly way. It’s easier to tackle the topic this way,” said Vasily, a player from Moscow.

“Of course everybody understands why they are here. We support each other. And this draws us to this club. It’s more than just football”.

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Alex Richardson)